from King Vidor
The Jack-Knife Man
DOWD: The next film you made was called The Jack Knife Man. Wasn't that taken from a book?
VIDOR: Yes, a book with the same name. It was written by Ellis Parker Butler who had written a short story called "Pigs is Pigs." I think my father had read that book and told me about it, or someone I knew called my attention to it. I read it and I said, "This is the kind of film I want to make. "
At the end of the first year with the Brentwood Film Company I had gone to New York and had written offers from every film company, but I selected First National Exhibitors, which financed theatre chains, I felt that I would have more freedom -- even at that time I was thinking about freedom -- and I made a contract with them for four or six pictures with an option that they could take up after two. I came back to Los Angeles, having no studio to work in -- I didn't even own a home -- and I had seventy-five thousand dollars to make a film. I suppose I had already discovered Jack Knife Man, and we bought that book, adapted it, and made the film. The next film was called Family Honor, in which I used Florence Vidor.
I made one of the films for only sixty-two thousand, and I sent the rest of the money back to First National Exhibitors. They didn't like the fact that I hadn't spent all of the money, or gone over budget. I didn't understand then. They wanted bigger pictures, and they wanted me to spend all of the seventy-five thousand dollars. I didn't know at that time that their main interest was getting the pictures as glamorous and as big as they could be. They wanted me to get stars and big drama so they could fill their theatres.
In Jack Knife Man it's just a couple of old fellows and a little boy, everybody unknown. There was no glamor whatsoever. It was just kind of a down-to-earth story without much of the usual motion picture pattern. They told me they would not pick up my option because I had sent the money back, rather than spending it. Well, I wouldn't have known how to spend any more money on Jack Knife Man. I forget whether we could have spent any more on Family Honor. I don't think so.
I remember that we didn't shoot any scenes for Jack Knife Man in Los Angeles. We went on location and started the picture in Stockton, near the Sacramento River. We had gone up there before and found that they had shanties and houseboats on the river that we could rent and use in the background. This was right outside of the town. Stockton isn't too far from the Mother Lode-Bret Harte-Mark Twain country. We photographed scenes in the snow in a very small town called Angels Camp. We got in there one afternoon and photographed the scenes without snow, and that night it snowed. The next morning we photographed the snow scenes.
DOWD: Is this the scene where the man and the boy spend the night in the barn?
VIDOR: Yes. Most people were saying what bad luck we had with the weather. Mark Twain always said, "Most everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." It occurred to me that it was time for me to do something about it. So, I went to work mentally on the idea that we needed no snow for this first afternoon of shooting, but that it would be nice if we had snow the next day. That's what I was thinking as we first arrived in Angels Camp. And that's what happened. If you don't put a block in the way, very often things will happen that way.
DOWD: How did you direct the little boy in the film? It must have been difficult.
VIDOR: We cast the little boy and when we got up to Stockton on the first day of shooting, it was terrible. He refused to do anything. He was just such a spoiled brat that everything had to be tricked or dragged out of him just to get the scene. After one day of this, I thought, My God, I'll have to recast the part of the boy. We had the company on location, so we really didn't have the time to start interviewing all over again. We thought about local boys, but that was taking too much of a chance, so we just went ahead.
The kid acted with this sort of disinterest and refusal, but it seems to be an asset after looking at the film. When he kicks his feet up and down, yelling "no, no!" it looks very natural. That's the beauty of seeing these films many years later. You forget what a terrible struggle it was just to get the scene on film.
We used every trick in the world to get him to work. We offered him food, candy, anything to get him to do the acting. When you'd win him over, he'd do it. Well, it gave me a terribly strong lesson to try to make tests to find out whether a kid would do anything. Anyway, we pushed ahead. I think until the last scene of the picture he was still objecting, refusing, kicking, and going into tantrums. His mother could do nothing at all. But as you see, those things fade away.
DOWD: What about the delirium scene where the woman looks at the old man and his face is out of focus? How did you do that?
VIDOR: It could be that it never had been done before. I think we put a piece of plate glass in front of the camera and we breathed on it, you know, like you do with eyeglasses. When the camera was going, we fogged it up, and then it would clear through gradually. I don't remember ever seeing that done before.
DOWD: You said when we saw it the other day that you wanted to talk about collapsing time.
VIDOR: Oh yes. The old man cuts a toy out of wood and you can't have him sit there and just keep the camera going while he whittles. No matter how fast he can do it, it will always be too slow. How do you speed up the time? Today we know that we could just jump from the thing being started to halfway or three-quarters of the way through it. You'd just jump through the process, jump cut and get right to the end in a hurry. We didn't know that you could do this way back then. We thought the audience wanted a literal time, so we did it by cutting away. We discovered by cutting to the other close-ups of the boy looking, or the old man working, that you could actually progress through the actual time it took to cut the toy out of the wood.
That's why you see many scenes in those pictures of someone arriving in a carriage, getting out, walking through the gate to the front door, knocking, and when the door is opened, going into the house. Well, eventually we forgot the carriage and the automobile, and we even forgot about going up the path. You just go inside and they are there. That was a series of developments that took audience acceptance. That's why titles all appear superfluous now. At that time they seemed necessary to explain the action.
DOWD: At the time it didn't appear superfluous?
VIDOR: No, not at all. It seemed that you had to lead the audience and explain for them. These people would read titles out loud, and they just weren't conditioned to figure it out immediately. It was just like the cliche in the theatre, where the curtain used to go up and the butler was always at the telephone explaining whose home it was, what time it was, when the lady was about, and all that. This was a development that came along and it is being developed each year. The audience becomes more wise and more apt to accept the techniques and you can keep leaving out things.
DOWD: Jack Knife Man is one of the first films where we see your concern for the underdog. Did you have a deliberate concern for that person?
VIDOR: No, I didn't, and I wasn't aware that I was starting a series of films about the underdog. The only thing I was aware of was that I had a natural affection for all sorts of people and I never felt any isolation from any type of people or group, including the blacks. Even though I was born and raised in Texas, I just felt close to them. My concern was not conscious. It was just a way I felt then, and still feel today. I know that I didn't accept the glamorous, well-smoothed-over attitude about the rich or anything like that. It's not in my character at all to be impressed by a Rolls-Royce.