Saturday 20 January 2024

Wild Oranges (1924)

Director: King Vidor
Writer: King Vidor, based on a story by Joseph Hergesheimer, with titles by Tom Miranda
Stars: Frank Mayo, Virginia Valli, Ford Sterling and Nigel deBrulier

In 1922, a poll of Literary Digest critics had the “most important American writer” be one Joseph Hergesheimer. Hollywood leapt at his work, this following Java Head and The Bright Shawl in 1923. However, he was known for his descriptive writing rather than plotting and that doesn’t make him an easy writer to adapt.

I’m eager to dive into his descriptions for Wild Oranges, set by a dilapidated plantation house somewhere on the Georgia coast where one scared man and his granddaughter live, plagued by a huge man-child. This is a glorious location to set a descriptive novella, but it’s a difficult job to turn into production design.

However, there’s little else here. Outside of a brief prologue, we spend our entire time at this house or in the water around it to watch only five characters play their parts in a story that we could have written ourselves from the five minute mark.

That’s excluding John Woolfolk’s bride in a brief prologue. These newlyweds are driving a horse-drawn carriage into the new world of married bliss when a newspaper blows across the road and panics the horses. The unnamed Mrs. Woolfolk is thrown from the carriage at a corner and dies immediately. So distraught is her husband that he aims to forget the world by sailing it on his yacht with Paul Halvard, a cook and sailor his only companion. The pulpy title cards by Tom Miranda call it “a haven of solitude upon the vast wastes of the sea.”

We find that out as they’re dropping anchor in this inlet on the Georgian coast, but it looks more like the Island of Dr. Moreau because an array of scared people with faces designed for the movies see them and stare in horror.

Explanations as to why are sparing. Old man Litchfield Stope, was stricken with fear in the Civil War but we’re given no details, so have to assume whatever PTSD was called back then. His granddaughter Millie is afraid by heredity, clearly ridiculous, especially as her fear comes and goes with the breeze. Iscah Nicholas, that huge man-child who can only make their lives even more fearful, wants Millie and fears any man who might possibly take her away from him. Enter John Woolfolk.

He rows ashore to seek water but eats wild oranges and so meets Millie. They’re likely the title because their immediate bitterness turns into a never-to-be-forgotten flavour, which is clearly meant to fit Millie Stope too. However, the language of the day has changed, thus explaining why Joseph Hergesheimer isn’t a big name today. The title card suggests that wild oranges are pungent, a rather awkward way to describe a new romance.

I didn’t like John Woolfolk much. Sure, he’s a sturdy heroic type, capably played by Frank Mayo, who was much more agreeable in Souls for Sale the previous year, but he doesn’t want to know about Millie because he only cares to mourn his dead wife. At one point Millie, who fell for him immediately, has the insight to compare him to a cast iron dog that she used to talk to on the lawn but “it just rusted away—cold and indifferent to the last”. It’s also far from easy to sympathise with a man who can afford to sail round the world to hide from it.

He has as little character as Millie and even less growth. OK, they both eventually lose the fear that’s been driving them, but it’s a bigger deal for her. She was born in the house, maybe by immaculate conception because we never see or hear anything about her parents, and has never been anywhere else except on maps in her granddad’s books. Virginia Valli does a fair job, but it’s nothing on her success a year later in Alfred Hitchcock’s debut feature, The Pleasure Garden, where she was excellent.

Talking of granddad, Nigel de Brulier, who I note played Shazam in a 1941 Republic serial, Adventures of Captain Marvel, looks amazing in this film, haunted by everything that he sees, but he has almost nothing to do, as he hides from the plot as much as anything else.

It’s the other two actors who steal this film, because they’re both excellent but in utterly different ways.

Ford Sterling is Paul Halvard, who ought to be nothing more than Woolfolk’s servant, who takes care of whatever business he doesn’t do himself, but he does a lot more. Sterling was a comedian, whom I know well from his work at Keystone Studios, where he was the original leader of the Keystone Kops and the star who Charlie Chaplin was hired to replace in 1914.

It shouldn’t shock that there’s occasionally slapstick in what he does, even though this is a drama rather than a comedy. He’s happy to be a little relief from that and the film is better for it. Drama was a big shift for him but it’s hard not to still see him as a comedian, even in serious moments, because every movement he makes hits its mark, as if punchlines would be added in post.

And, talking of post, Charles A. Post is very good indeed as Iscah Nicholas, who may seem to be a throwaway villain but really has depth when no other character does. He’s a big man, used to getting his way, as we learn when his past is finally revealed, but his confidence is a lot lower than his power. He’s a bully and he’s thrived easily at this house, with the only two people there scared of their own shadows. All he has to say is “Don’t get me started” and the battle is already won, which makes him rather confused when it fails to work on Woolfolk. He actually cries at his own cowardice after that.

It has to be mentioned here that a title card says that he “forced himself” onto the Stopes, which suggests a lot more than we see. We just see him force a peck on the cheek out of Millie by carrying her into the swamp and planting her on a tree stump so the alligators can fight over her while he roars with laughter.

So there’s a lot to Nicholas and he’s half of the best scene in the movie, a shockingly long and brutal fight scene with Woolfolk late in the film. They trade blows like they’re being paid per punch, and grapple, bite and wield illegal foreign objects wherever they can find them, stirring up dust all over the place. They also both look thoroughly beaten by the time the fight ends, though interestingly neither of them technically wins.

And talking of winning, my schedule for this project in 2024 starts out like it’s Germany vs. Hollywood, with four pictures from the former against three from the latter, one directed by a German visitor. Thus far, Germany’s on top by one goal to nil. Let’s see if they improve on that score with Helen of Troy tomorrow.

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