King Vidor. Photo by G. Scott Campbell. Courtesy of Chris Cooke.

No editor won an Academy Award for cutting a King Vidor film, yet bravura editing distinguishes all of his best films, from The Crowd (1928) to Our Daily Bread (1934), from Hallelujah! (1929) to Duel in the Sun (1946).

With its justly famous finale of Depression-era cooperative members digging a ditch to supply water to dying crops, this is especially true of Our Daily Bread, edited by Lloyd Nosler. Perhaps Nosler’s best-known film is the silent Ben-Hur (Fred Niblo, 1927), starring Ramon Novarro, but Our Daily Bread, above all in its closing montage, represents his most enduring achievement. In their book, King Vidor, American, Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmons wrote that, with this sequence, “Vidor… reveals himself as a formalist in the class of Eisenstein or Pabst,” though surely Nosler deserves an equal share of the credit.

Vidor later recounted that “the movements of the ditch diggers was choreographed as if it were an earthbound ballet… a metronome established the pace and each scene was speeded up over the previous one. The ditch was dug in 4/4 time, picks coming down on 1 and 3 with shovels on counts 2 and 4. When the water reaches the thirsty crops the exultation is expressed musically.”

Similar montages, both “balletic” and documentary-esque, are strewn throughout another major Vidor film, 1944’s An American Romance (1944), edited by Conrad A. Nervig. Brian Donlevy starred as Stefan Dangosbiblichek, a Czechoslovakian who immigrates to the United States in the late nineteenth century to work in a Minnesota iron mine. Warner Archive released the film, long unavailable on home video, on DVD in 2010.

An American Romance is an epic. But its status as such is most obvious in these montage sequences, which critic Dave Kehr considered so fine that they elevated “the documentary sections of the film to the level of [Vidor’s] best work.” The first comes as Stefan travels by foot from New York to Minnesota. In early versions of the film, Vidor “had signs of towns in practically every state that he went through, or was supposed to go through during the story,” as he told interviewer Nancy Dowd. The images depicting his journey are masterfully cut together by Nervig; it’s all but impossible to single one out over another. There’s the overhead shot of Stefan walking past railroad workers. Moments later, the camera pans across monumental steel mills as Stefan makes his way through Pennsylvania. He trudges through the rain as he stops in Wapakoneta, Ohio. A tracking shot gracefully glides with him as he walks across a bucolic farm landscape.

The shots build toward Stefan’s arrival in Minnesota, where, backlit by a setting sun, a young boy points the way to town. It may be modest, and Stefan may only have four koruna to his name, but he is overjoyed to have at last reached his destination. “I think one of the greatest stories in America concerns the immigrants,” Vidor explained to Dowd, “what happened to them, and how they built this country.” The film’s earnest expression of an immigrant’s love of his adopted country calls to mind the opening lines of Ray Bradbury’s 2006 poem, “America”: “We are the dream that other people dream / The land where other people land.”

By the end of An American Romance, Stefan Dangosbiblichek (now called Steve Dangos) has gone from labouring in iron mines and steel mills to become a wealthy automobile executive, married with children. On the eve of America’s entry into World War II, he finds himself discontentedly retired in California—until he hears the radio bulletin reporting the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “I bet they could make planes just like they make cars. All they need is an assembly line and they drop the—aw, none of my business,” he says to himself. But it is his business.

What follows is the film’s most stirring montage, depicting marching soldiers in uniform, vast ships being built, men in hardhats going to work and nurses being trained—a whole country mobilizing in a common cause. Steve’s grown son is in charge of supplying the government with over four thousand planes. Steve comes out of retirement to offer his assistance. In the film’s memorably pungent last line of dialogue, he says, “We’ll turn out planes here faster than bullets coming out of a machine gun!”

An American Romance concludes with a remarkable four-minute sequence depicting the manufacture of dozens upon dozens of B-17s in assembly line-fashion, just as Steve promised. In a torrent of action, bolts are fastened, wings attached and tires wheeled on. The shimmering, metallic colours of the planes and their parts are set sharply against the dark corridors of the hangar. “It was a beautiful factory, and we didn’t have to change it at all,” Vidor said to Dowd of the Douglas Aircraft factory, where this material was shot. “The assembly line process was really refined then. They had parts rolling off the line every five minutes and it looked great on film.” As Our Daily Bread ends with water rushing through the ditch, An American Romance reaches its conclusion with the planes rolling out of the hangar and taking off, Steve and his son looking up with satisfaction as they soar above them in formation.

King Vidor. Photo by G. Scott Campbell. Courtesy of Chris Cooke.These sequences depend less on composition or camera movement than they do on editing. “I used to reject the idea of a movie camera photographing a series of static objects… with the hope that movement would be supplied to the finished product on the cutting table,” Vidor reflected in his book, King Vidor on Film Making, “but recently I have revised some of my feeling about this technique. Scenes static in themselves but cut synchronously to a music track take on the rhythm of the music.”

In an unpublished interview with Rudi Fehr, film scholar Tag Gallagher asked him about Vidor’s role in the editing of Beyond the Forest (1949). Fehr insisted that the director “never” sat with him as he was working. He said, “I never in my entire career had a director in my cutting room, never. And they had no intention of coming. It wasn’t done in those days. In those days, we made sixty movies a year, and as soon as a director fin­ished a picture he was handed another script for his next assignment. So they didn’t really have time to come. And they had faith in the editors.” Even so, it is hard to imagine that Vidor didn’t have something to do with the editorial concepts at work in the sequences described above from Our Daily Bread and An American Romance.

Vidor was born in 1894 and died in 1982, but in 2011 there are still people living who knew and worked with him, and many of them happen to be editors. Perhaps this is fitting. “The editor’s craft is a large part of the elusive magic of the medium,” Vidor acknowledged in his book.

“To Whom It May Concern,” the director began a 1975 letter. “Rex McGee has worked for me as chief editor on a documentary film on Andrew Wyeth… I thoroughly recommend him for any capacity in the editing room for his capability and dedication.”

The documentary Vidor was referring to is Metaphor: King Vidor Meets with Andrew Wyeth, edited by McGee and Chris Cooke, A.C.E. Made thirty years after An American Romance, it was to be Vidor’s final film. Rarely screened following its premiere at the American Film Institute in 1980, Metaphor presents a series of conversations between Vidor and the great American painter (and his wife, Betsy) at their home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. The meeting took place after Vidor received a letter from Wyeth expressing his admiration for his silent classic, The Big Parade, which Wyeth insists he has seen 180 times.

“I was a USC film student at the time and King was coming down to talk to film historian Arthur Knight’s class. I was asked to go pick him up at his house in Beverly Hills.” McGee recalls. “We found that we were both Texans and both had been movie projectionists in our youth. We just kind of hit it off. He had me call him. He said, ‘I’ve got some work around the office and I need some help and would you be interested?'”

Initially, McGee found himself working more or less as a secretary for Vidor. “There was lots of paperwork. He was always trying to get things organized,” he says. “There was a lot of filing and typing and he had a lot of correspondence. I was just happy to be around him and to hear his stories and to go out to lunch with him.

“One day, we went out to this French restaurant for lunch. He and I kind of made it a game to flirt with the waitresses. And he was always doing better than I was! He had a charm and a twinkle in his eye. It was just irresistible.”

McGee had edited his own student films at USC, prompting Vidor to invite his acolyte to work on Metaphor. “He had to rent a Moviola and he put that Moviola in his office there,” McGee says. “He sat at his desk, that same one that’s in The Men Who Made the Movies, and I was just right across the room from him making cuts. Once in a while he’d come over and look at it. I think he found the 16 mm Moviola difficult because it had such a small screen and really only one person could see it.”

Despite McGee’s inexperience, Vidor welcomed his participation in the editing process. “He certainly wanted to hear what I thought,” McGee remembers. “It wasn’t him laying down orders at all. We’d run it, and he’d say, ‘What do you think?’ I’d say, ‘Maybe we should move it back to there or start it later.’ And he’d say, ‘Let’s try it.’”

McGee worked on the film for about three months. Since most of what Vidor shot found its way, in one form or another, into the final cut, the editor’s task consisted mostly of giving shape to the work as a whole rather than removing entire sequences. “That’s an experienced director for you,” he notes, “shooting just what he needs. I don’t remember any missing scenes… As I watched it, especially the beginning, it felt like I was watching a silent movie. The set-up, the drive to the mailbox, the shot of him reading Wyeth’s letter, the shot of the letter itself. It just felt like, Okay, this guy knows how to tell a story without sound.”

McGee is right: Vidor’s canny instinct for visual storytelling enlivens what could have been merely a filmed record of three people talking. Relevant clips of The Big Parade and insert shots of particular Wyeth paintings are cut to as they come up in the course of conversation. McGee worked extensively on integrating clips of The Big Parade into Metaphor. “I know we worked at matching them to the Wyeth paintings,” he says.

When McGee left the project, his sense was that it wasn’t in a completed state. But then another film student, Chris Cooke, who was then attending UCLA, entered Vidor’s life. “My roommate had a family connection who was a neighbor of King Vidor’s in central California,” he remembers. “He considered making a documentary about him but eventually abandoned it. I was interested in Vidor, so I asked him if I could take it up. My introduction to Vidor is basically I walked up to his house in Beverly Hills and he was standing in his driveway picking up his newspaper in his bathrobe. I walked up and said hi. He was very nice and we talked about this project. He was very interested in doing it. My problem was always financing. I could never get the financing lined up for it.”

At one point, Vidor invited Cooke to his ranch in Paso Robles, California, to work on Metaphor. “I went up there and did some editing on the film with him over three or four weekends,” Cooke recalls.

Chris Cooke and King Vidor. Photo by G. Scott Campbell. Courtesy of Chris Cooke.“Back in those days, you were working with film,” Cooke says. “He did something that I had heard about but never seen actually happen. He took a piece of 16 mm film off a hook and held it up in the light and said, ‘This looks like a good close-up.’ Then he held one end of it to his nose and stretched it out to the end of his reach and said, ‘Here, cut that in.’ That is so silent filmmaking because the length of a close-up was like three feet.”

According to Cooke, “the film was pretty much built” by the time he came on board. “It was really pretty minor what I did.” Durgnat and Simmons maintain that Metaphor was “never finished to [Vidor’s] satisfaction.” But Cooke says, “I don’t recall that moment where he goes, ‘Ah! We’re done!’ but from what I remember, we were pretty much there by the time I finished working with it.”

Meanwhile, Cooke persevered in his efforts to get his own documentary made. Thanks to funding provided by the Directors Guild of America, Cooke eventually filmed several interviews with Vidor at his ranch and on the MGM backlot. In the latter interview, the director reminisced about making films there in the silent era.

“The ability to go on the MGM backlot, which was about to be bulldozed for condos, and see all of those standing sets…” Cooke remembers. “MGM went full out with everything they did. It was just spectacular, even though it was in a level of decay because it had been a decade or so since anything had been shot on it. But to be there with somebody who had worked there during the glory days, it was very exciting.” Regrettably, Cooke was never able to finish his project.

Cooke was among those who saw Metaphor when it was shown at the American Film Institute. “I thought it was a great document of this synergy between two people,” he says. “The fact that these inspirations came to Wyeth from the films of King Vidor hammered home this whole idea of what creativity is and what a limited definition we have of it in this country. I found it really inspiring.”

“I remember now always coming away from him feeling very refreshed,” McGee says. “Just being with him was a kind of tonic.”

This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, in CinemaEditor magazine, Vol. 60, Issue 4, Fourth Quarter 2010. Reprinted with kind permission of the author.