Berge and Vidor Courtesy of Catherine BergeThe journey Catherine Berge makes in Journey to Galveston, her beautiful essay film about King Vidor, is a metaphorical one. She did not travel to Vidor’s hometown in Texas, but rather to his adopted home of Paso Robles, California. She first traveled there in late 1978 as a friend and admirer, and returned in 1980 to film Journey to Galveston. That same year, Vidor’s own essay film, the appropriately and ironically-titled Metaphor: King Vidor Meets with Andrew Wyeth, premiered at the American Film Institute.

It so happened that I first saw Journey to Galveston and Metaphor together, one after the other. This was a happy coincidence indeed, as the films are ideally suited to one another. They are each thirty-odd minute portraits of Vidor in the autumn of his life—one made about him and the other by him. They each prominently feature the extraordinary landscape of his ranch in Paso Robles, located in rural San Luis Obispo county. They each include his eloquent thoughts on the qualities of silent film. In Journey to Galveston, he says, “A silent film is more difficult to perform and more difficult to direct than a film with dialogue. It’s the inside of consciousness. It’s one’s whole being.” In each, we even see Vidor at the wheel of his jeep; in Berge’s film, he is seen driving to the airport after she has flown in from Paris, where he charmingly scolds her. In the future, he tells her, she should let him know when she is supposed to get in so he can be there waiting for her.

The films share so much, yet Berge’s film is singular. Only Vivian Kubrick’s Making The Shining, which documents her father at work, is as fine a portrait of a film director. Walking through his house and on his property, Vidor holds court on many topics. He reflects on the cosmopolitan character of his boyhood Galveston. He reminisces with Colleen Moore, the great silent film star, of times the two shared in Japan many moons ago. He offers an interpretation of the significance of apples in his paintings: “It symbolizes the two pulls in different directions of man: the Garden of Eden and then the progress of man.” At the film’s conclusion, he directs a scene on his ranch, staged especially for Berge. It was probably the last time he yelled either “Action” or “Cut.”

When the film scholar and Vidor expert Tag Gallagher put me in touch with Catherine Berge, I knew I had to speak with her about Journey to Galveston, and what led her to make it. I learned that it began with a connection Berge had with Vidor’s films when she was a young student. Meeting the director, and eventually making a film about him, only confirmed Berge’s admiration for him.

But just as Berge did not actually journey to Galveston, I did not actually travel to Paris, where she lives, to speak with her. Instead, we talked by phone, for well over an hour, and it was a journey I will not soon forget. What follows are excerpts from our hour-long interview, at the end of which I felt I knew not only Berge but Vidor better—his humanity, his quirks, and why his films have touched so many different viewers over the decades, a point stressed to me by Berge near the end of our chat. “In the nineties, I went many times to Calcutta, India,” she said. “The Crowd [1928] inspired the Neo-Realists. It was the favorite film of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and many others. And Satyajit Ray was extremely influenced by the Neo-Realists. So, from King to Calcutta! In a way, it makes sense.”

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When did your interest in King Vidor begin?

[Laughs] Well, I don’t know how old you are! I suppose in life—it depends on people, of course—but one looks for mentors, people who are going to teach you something. Of course, I was looking for human guidance, I suppose.

On French TV there was a young man, who is not young anymore, talking with passion about King Vidor’s films, and especially the silent films. This was many, many years ago. They showed The Big Parade [1925] and The Crowd and maybe An American Romance [1944], as I recall. But I was extremely struck by his silent films. I suppose, in a way, I fell in love with silent films through King Vidor’s films. Most other people have seen Charles Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but in my case, when I saw The Big Parade and The Crowd, I was really deeply touched by the ideas he was conveying.

I had written my masters thesis about Howard Hawks’ leading ladies. Then I wrote another thesis about Eric Rohmer, who just recently passed away, and The Marquise of O., the novella and the film he made. And then for the Ph.D, I chose King Vidor. I was deeply moved!

You were affected by his films.

Yes, absolutely! Mainly the silent films, but even films that in France are highly acclaimed, if not in the U.S., like The Fountainhead [1949], with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. Actually, when I made my film on King Vidor, I had a boyfriend in Sausalito, who was the godson of Patricia Neal. I actually spoke to her at that time. In any event, yes, I was touched also by An American Romance, which was a flop at the time, but I liked it. It’s very naïve in a way. Still, it has King Vidor’s touch, there’s something a little epic, a little naïve, and he didn’t fear his emotions. He would go ahead, you know?

Berge standing behind Vidor Courtesy of Catherine BergeSo I said to my professors in France that I would like to write something about King Vidor. They said, “Sure, why not?” At that time I had a French friend who was flying with her husband to California. I asked her if she could try to find King Vidor’s address. I supposed he was alive, but I was not really sure. There was no Internet! [Laughs] She gave me the Directors Guild address. So I wrote a letter to the Directors Guild in L.A. I said that I was writing a thesis about his work. Ten days later, I received an answer from Vidor, who invited me to visit him in California.

And he asked me, “Are you sure you want to come? It’s very far away.” Then I received a second letter that said he was invited to the Deauville Film Festival [in France], in September of 1978. In fact, it was there that I first met him.

I thought, “Okay,” so I went to London and I screened most of Vidor’s films from the British Film Institute. And in London in a wonderful shop, I bought A Tree Is a Tree, which is a most wonderful book about movies. I read the book. I stayed in London and saw films like H.M. Pulham, Esq. [1941] and The Citadel [1938]though they are not the most famous ones.

Then in September I went to the Deauville Film Festival. My friend, Marquita, came with King. I said, “Mr. Vidor, Mr. Vidor, I am Catherine Berge.” I had a bunch of flowers. We chatted in Deauville, and he said he was staying at the Saint Regis Hotel in Paris. He said, “You are most welcome to come.”

As you may know, he was a womanizer, which I didn’t know. I was very young at the time. He was eighty-something. I never thought that an eighty-five or eighty-seven year old man would be a danger! But it was a big mistake! [Laughs] He still loved women. It was too much.

In November or December, I wrote him a letter saying I was ready to come to California. There was an answer saying, “Please come.” I had never been to the U.S. A love affair in France was ending, so I needed to travel. I left for London. This was at the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the dollar was very low. [Laughs] So I flew from London to L.A. for seventy dollars, I think. Not round-trip, but it was still pretty cheap because the dollar was very low. Some friends of my sister came to pick me up at the L.A. airport, and then I flew the following day to San Luis Obispo.

I arrived on the 20th of December of 1978. I spent the New Year and stayed for one month with King at his ranch in Paso Robles. He showed me his old films. He presented me to his friend Colleen Moore. I met Mari Aldon Garnett, who was Tay Garnett’s widow. I drove by myself to San Simeon. Imagine for a very young French student what it was like!

And, as you said, this was your very first visit to the U.S.

Absolutely. King was an extremely wonderful and very humorous elderly gentleman. Of course, I was the perfect audience. Because I was so… he was not a guru. He was far more than that. He was a superior human being. I was a young student. Going so far away, and not knowing California, so of course it was extremely spectacular. I mean, I met this wonderful, elderly gentleman who was ready to share and to give something that one longs for. To know, to learn.

Again, I was young and looking for someone to teach me something. And I find this gentleman, very seductive, who made these gigantic films… even if I disapprove of Northwest Passage [1940] because of the Indian massacre. But actually, when I arrived in Paso Robles, like two days later or something, a Native American crew came to film King to ask him about that film. Will Sampson, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [Milos Forman, 1975], asked him questions. It was incredible.

So I was trying to learn and absorb everything. Even in winter, this gigantic landscape in California, in ranch country, was very, very inspiring.

At what point did you decide to make your film about him?

When I came back to France, I thought I needed to write something. So I just wrote a text. It had inter-titles, like a silent film. I didn’t know anyone, but I gave the script to someone at the National Center for Cinematography in France and I got a grant in December of 1979. I didn’t know anything about the movie world! I very innocently went to the producers in Paris. Of course, I had money, and producers are producers! Even if it was only a little money, it was a good grant to make a first film.

Then, in April of 1980, Alfred Hitchcock passed away, and then Henry Miller. I sort of freaked out. Then I signed with a producer. In July of 1980 it was extremely hot in the United States. I flew to New York with a cameraman, and then to Athens, Georgia, which was even hotter! As I flew from Atlanta to L.A., the sky was red, just like Duel in the Sun [1946]!

When we met at the restaurant, King asked me, “What is the film about?” I said, “King, it is about the ladies in your life.” He answered, “Oh, there are some I would like to forget!” [Laughs] A few months earlier, there was a woman who lived close to my little house in France, and she was at Gaumont at the time. But I had never met her. I didn’t know who she was. He sent her the script because she was working with Gaumont and had worked with Sue Vidor [his daughter]. He said, “There is this young woman in France who wants to make a film about me. I think you live close by.” And we were in the same building! Very strange!

I think the film was really meant to be—the stars were aligned!

Well, I wouldn’t be that excessive! [Laughs] But I met so many people through King who are still friends, and also I was able to travel because of the film…

The ranch where Vidor lived, which you mentioned earlier, really seemed to fit him.

I suppose it did. Of course, when he talks about riding horses with Tay Garnett. Actually, I have another surrogate father who passed away a long time ago: Louis Marcorelles. He was the French film critic for Le Monde and, on his first trip to the U.S., he had called King. And then, one day in Beverly Hills, he saw King and Tay Garnett walking toward him. He was totally shocked!

I suppose if I had I met King Vidor first in L.A., it would have been different. But, in a way, nature helped me or something… the huge landscape. Of course, as you know, he was full of passion, but he was quiet and very wise.

He was like a friend of my generation. I was respectful of him. I called him “Mr. Vidor,” and then “King,” because he allowed me to call him “King.” But he was so funny that I absolutely forgot the age difference. So he was able to be totally contemporary and of the current trend. At that time, when I arrived in L.A., his favorite film was Hair [1979] by Milos Forman.

Colleen Moore is featured very memorably in Journey to Galveston.

She was the great love of his life, I should think. King had three wives. I think two had died. Colleen Moore had three husbands and all had died. He didn’t marry her, which was a big loss to him because he really absolutely loved Colleen Moore. I suppose, from what I heard, Colleen was extremely wonderful, a very, very funny lady. He was not brave enough to marry her. Or maybe he didn’t believe in real happiness! But who knows. It was extremely touching—I absolutely remember it—Colleen Moore’s birthday party—in Paso Robles. King arrived with a bunch of violets. You could see that he still loved her.

I do not compare King Vidor to my grandfather, Francois Berge, but I was very used to being with people of a certain age. In a way, my grandfather also wore, like King, colonial hats. He was very intellectual, my grandfather, and it’s not that I was transferring from Francois Berge to King. It was good for me to go away and find someone wiser, someone who would teach me things about life.

Berge and others with Vidor Courtesy of Catherine BergeI had two mentors or gurus: King and Ismail Merchant. Ismail Merchant was James Ivory’s producer and was Indian, from Bombay, and I was able through him to go to India and make films in India, which was quite spectacular. For a French woman or a European woman or as a woman in general, it was incredible to make a film in Calcutta. He passed away in 2005, and I saw him nine days before he died. I knew he was dying because I recognized it in his eyes. When you’ve seen death, you know that it is coming. No one believed me, but he actually died nine days later. Hopefully, I will meet King Vidor and Ismail Merchant in the other world, with my father, of course.

Sometimes I am very happy, sometimes I am very down, like anyone else, and to think of King because of you tonight makes me smile so much. We were so many years apart, but who cares? No one cares!

I met him in September of 1978. He died on the first of November in 1982. So I knew him for four years, and we were able to share a lot of things. I called him all the time. Just to hear his voice. He would always answer me, in a very nice way. Very responsive and helpful.

About The Author

Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. His work has appeared in Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, and many other publications.