Sunday, February 9, 2014
Wild Oranges (1924)
There are moments in Wild Oranges when you wonder what you’re watching. It’s a silent film alright, and it looks like one—but this story of a love affair in a secluded patch of Georgia coast, at times, seems plucked from another period entirely. In form, it’s the early-20s, but in content, often, it feels like something made much later.
This is a quality you find in several of King Vidor’s silent films. It’s part of what makes them so intriguing today, and it furthers the regret I feel over the director’s work being so little known. Murnau; Lang; Griffith; Chaplin and Keaton—these names every film student knows. But Vidor’s best work is far too easy to miss. And those that miss it, miss out.
Wild Oranges is not The Crowd, or Show People. But it shares with these greatest of Vidor silents that curious mix of traditional silent cinema and forms and content that became prominent after sound. There are hints here of Body Heat; Deliverance; even Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s not that Wild Oranges is a sex drama per se, much less a slasher film. But what would form the bedrock of those later genres is present.
Wild Oranges stars Frank Mayo as John Woolfolk, a man who lost his wife, then turned to the sea as a means of both making a living and avoiding a life. He’s a dour sort, and if he has any friends, we never see them. None except his first mate, Paul, played by Ford Sterling. Sterling, a comic actor, provides every laugh the film can muster.
John is an emotionally damaged man, unable to live comfortably in the wider world. This is a trait shared by several other Vidor males of note, including The Crowd’s Johnny Sims. Vidor shows us, in the opening scene, how John became what he is. We see the man riding in a carriage with his lovely new bride. A piece of newspaper, buffeted by the breeze, crosses their path. The horses are spooked. They bolt, and the young woman is thrown to her death. The scene is sudden, and surprisingly violent. The image of the wadded paper, drifting languorously along in the breeze, establishes a sense of an indifferent world that will inform several of the tragedies to come—as it would the entirety of The Crowd, four years later.
John’s travels bring him to an inlet on the Georgia coast. He needs fresh water and is prepared to trade. His boat moored, he travels inland, through some thick foliage, not far from a swamp, to a large, secluded house. The house appears semi-abandoned. But it has three occupants: the elderly Lichfield Stope, his granddaughter, Millie, and Iscah Nicholas.
Lichfield and Iscah are both Gothic grotesques, played to the extreme by Nigel De Brulier and Charles Post, respectively. De Brulier’s grandfather is white-haired, wide-eyed and sunken—a man petrified of everything, an intertitle tells us, following traumatic service in the U.S. Civil War. Iscah (referred to as ‘Nicholas’ throughout) is a loping giant, filthy and hungry most of time, with an eye for Millie (Virginia Valli) and a volatile temperament. Thought a dimwit, his power and cruelty are enough to keep the girl and her grandfather isolated in their home. It seems only a matter of time before Nicholas rapes Millie, if indeed he has not done so already.
Geography isn’t the only thing that unifies these three characters. There is also mental illness. Lichfield, we’re told, suffers from “fear”, and that fear is hereditary, Millie later explains to John, justifying her own hesitance about leaving the coast. Today we’d find another name for this fear. Nicholas, too, is troubled: breaking down in tears, moving in jerky motions, displaying ticks. Post’s portrayal is hardly sensitive by modern standards, nor is it particularly good. But you do get the sense that Vidor sees Nicholas, as he does the others in that house, as a sufferer of afflictions, not just someone deeply flawed.
That John will discover Millie and fall for her is expected. What drew my attention wasn’t the particulars of their courtship but the execution. After setting foot on the Stopes’ property, John helps himself to one of their oranges, plucking it ripe from the tree and peeling back its skin. “Wild Oranges—at first surprisingly bitter, but after a moment pungent and zestful with a never-to-be-forgotten flavor”—the intertitle practically growls these lines, as Millie secretly assesses the new man. The two of them haven’t so much as touched and already, there’s something dirty here. Vivek Maddala’s score backs this up ably. Recorded in 2006 for Warner, and offered with the Warner Archives release of Wild Oranges, it has the ache of a lusty humid night. Millie could have run an ice cube down her throat and not seemed out of place.
Millie is bottled up. And she’s surrounded by degradation and rot—to which John stands in stark contrast. And how long has he been on that boat now? With only a platonic companion to keep him company? These are people with primal needs, who have enclosed themselves emotionally. People for whom lust itself, and perhaps love too (though not necessarily) provides a crack in the dam. Given all this, the extended action sequence that closes the film, violent and well-done as it is, seems more like a grand metaphor than a driver of plot. It is action, finally, after so many years of holding back.
Where to find Wild Oranges:
Wild Oranges is part of the Warner Archive Collection, available as a made-for-order DVD from WBshop.com.