Since the article on the photographic and filmmaking career of Gordon Parks Sr. appeared in The Huntsville Item several weeks ago, we continue to receive positive comments and inquiries about issues pertaining to the plight of African-Americans in the movie industry. One 81-year old reader from Walker County expressed an interest in the filmmaking of King Vidor and whether he had any connections to the southeast Texas town of Vidor. Another reader wanted to know Vidor’s racial/ethnic origin — whether he was of African-American ancestry. This week’s article is designed to highlight King Vidor and to respond to some of these inquiries.

Photographic/film historians reveal some fascinating and often overlooked parallels of the relationship between early filmmakers and the role of African-American pioneers in the industry. As far back as the silent films era, African- Americans have been featured in motion pictures in roles depicting some aspects of acting and being purveyors of the black image as perceived by white society. Messages and themes used in the movies reflected a mixture of images based upon what was thought to please the viewers. Unfortunately many of those films showed black characters in negative stereotypical roles. The movie, “Birth of a Nation,” published in 1915, is a good example. This movie was extremely controversial among African-Americans, but pleased white audiences. Upon release, it played for an estimated 44 weeks.



The Vidor connection

Vidor is a city located in southeast Texas at the intersection of Interstate 10 and state Highway 105, 6 miles east of Beaumont in western Orange County. The area had heavy lumbering activities with the construction of the Texarkana and Fort Smith Railway in 1898. The railway later became a part of a line that ran from Kansas City, Mo., to Port Arthur. The city’s racist history dates back to its founding. The city was named after lumberman Charles Shelton Vidor, owner of the Miller-Vidor Lumber Company and the grandfather of King Wallis Vidor. King Wallis Vidor was born Feb. 8, 1894, four years prior to the escalation of railway construction and lumbering activities. Born in Galveston to Charles Shelton and Katie Lee (Wallis) Vidor, he survived the Great Galveston Storm of 1900. His father acquired the Beaumont Sawmill Company and later established the Miller-Vidor Lumber Company. The community had a post office by 1909 and all of its residents worked for the company. When the company moved in 1924 to Lakeview, the small settlement remained. The population of Vidor was estimated at only 50 all-white residents. It remains in its almost “racially-pure” state until this day. As of the census of 2000, the racial make-up of the city was 97.3 percent white, less than 1 percent African-American and less than 1 percent others, including Native- American, Asian, with only a little over 3 percent being Hispanic or Latino.

Now, as in the past, the town is mostly a bedroom community for the nearby refining complexes in Beaumont and Port Arthur. Voters have consistently defeated attempts to incorporate the community. A suburban movement that began in 1970 contributed to population growth in Vidor. Like other suburban communities, Vidor continues to attract large numbers of white residents. In 2000, the population had increased to an estimated 11,440 residents.

During the 1990s, Vidor’s claim to fame was its “greater degree of separation of the races.” Frommer’s Texas, second edition described it this way: “Vidor is infamous as a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan. It has been labeled by the Texas Monthly magazine as the most hate-filled town in Texas ... Integration still hasn’t made it to Vidor, but it has to the rest of east Texas ... Vestiges of segregation remain, especially in housing ...” This description of Vidor tends to run counter to the family from which its named was derived. King Wallis Vidor’s grandfather was a refugee of the Hungarian revolution of 1848-49 who settled in Galveston in the early 1850s. Young King Vidor attended Peacock Military Academy in San Antonio in 1908-09. After a year, he left and started a business with a schoolmate. Vidor began his career in the cinema as a teenage movie projectionist at a local Galveston theater. He made an amateur movie based on the Galveston hurricane of 1900 and opened his first movie company, Hotex in Houston in 1915. His father served as vice president of the company. Having fallen on hard times in the lumber business, his father joined him in making several amateur films. King Wallis Vidor left Texas for Hollywood in 1915 determined to learn more about the art and technique of filmmaking. Among the many films to his credit are: “The Big Parade” (1925), “Hallelujah!” (1929), “Billy the Kid” (1930), “Texas Rangers” (1936) and “Northwest Passage” (1940).



‘Hallelujah!’

Given the history of the town that bears his family name, it was unusual and risky for King Vidor to consider making an all-black film in 1929. Although he is best remembered for his collaboration with David O. Selznick, with whom he made “Duel in the Sun” (1946) which resulted in one of the top-grossing films in cinema history, he made film history with the first all-black musical, “Hallelujah!” in 1929. By now, it is clear King Vidor was not an African-American filmmaker. The prevalence of racism in Vidor, the town named in honor of his grandfather, did not obscure his views about the necessity of “humanity to free itself from the shackles of fear ...” He considered himself a southerner and made films that championed the poor and exposed the racism and the horrors of war. Vidor, whose personal papers are housed in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, had a self-proclaimed sense of mission about his filmmaking, which was influenced by his Christian Science background. Writing about King Vidor, John Baxter (1976) indicated that Vidor “published a ‘creed’ in ‘Variety Magazine,’ in which he publicly announced his commitment to the picture that will help humanity to free itself from the shackles of fear and suffering that have so long bound it with iron chains.” Such was the youthful idealism, says Baxter that gave birth to films such as “The Big Parade” and “Hallelujah!”



The Texas connection: Victoria Spivey

In the book, “Pathfinders: A Documentary History of African- Americans in Walker County” (Lede, 2005), Victoria Spivey’s biography indicates that King Vidor was given permission to produce the film, “Hallelujah!” only after pledging his salary to offset production costs. It was the first all-black film produced by a major studio. The first black movie star, Nina Mae McKinney, was assigned the role of Chick. Spivey, with deep roots in Huntsville and one of the greatest blues singers and songwriters of her time, was cast as Missy Rose. Victoria Regina Spivey (known as Queen, Vicky, and Jane Lucas), was born in Houston on Oct. 15, 1906. She was the daughter of Grant Spivey of Huntsville and Addie (Smith) Spivey of Willis. Her mother was a nurse, and her father had a string band. She learned piano as a child and during her teens played at local parties in the Huntsville-Houston area. By virtue of her contributions to music and the film industry, she would be an ideal positive role model to display on a Huntsville building. Lead Belly’s picture should be removed.

“Hallelujah!” fulfilled Vidor’s long-standing desire to do a project dealing with the lives of African- Americans. It was strongly influenced by his childhood experiences in Galveston. He was nominated five times for an Academy Award for best director. He never won. In 1978, the Motion Picture Academy awarded him an honorary Oscar in recognition for his contributions to filmmaking. He died on Nov. 1, 1982, at the age of 88, leaving behind a wealth of films noted for their realism, says Baxter, powerful social comment, and their psychological complexities. His greatest contribution was the minimization of negative imagery. He joined an array of emerging African- American film directors and producers who were dedicated to presenting a more balanced portrayal of the black experience.

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