Jan. 24, 1886—Henry King, a director who, across four decades, proved highly adept at multiple genres among more than 100 films, was born in Christiansburg, Virginia.
King did not leave his thumbprint on a particular genre, as did Alfred Hitchcock in the thriller or Billy Wilder in satire. Nor was his work characterized by an instantly recognizable visual style, as was the case with Vincente Minnelli, or by preoccupation with certain themes, as Howard Hawks was with males in extreme circumstances.
In fact, his tendency to submerge his themes or concerns for the sake of a particular story made him an ideal foil in a seminal essay, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” by critic Andrew Sarris, who perfectly summed up the attitudes of many auteur critics at midcentury: “On a given evening, a film by John Ford must take its chances as if it were a film by Henry King. Am I implying that the weakest Ford is superior to the strongest King? Yes!”
The King film that Sarris uses for his exercise in absurdity is Twelve O’Clock High, one of five films for which King received an Oscar nomination without ever being awarded the statuette. That 1949 movie, along with another he made the following year with Gregory Peck, The Gunfighter, illustrates how King could bring texture and psychological insights to even hoary genres such as the war movie and the western.
It was King’s achievement and predicament to work efficiently and with little fuss within the Hollywood studio system, an environment in which a head of production or executive producer had the whip hand, with “creative control” the exception rather than the rule for directors. In King’s case, he was the go-to director for Darryl F. Zanuck, the co-founder, head of production and chair of Twentieth Century Fox, as well as one of Tinseltown’s most colorful, strong-willed moguls. Zanuck was a hands-on force in terms of casting, story ideas and scripts.King could influence, but had in the end to bow to, his edicts.
None of this is to say that King did not have special affinity for particular subjects. One of these was rural life—not surprising. One of his first notable films in the silent era, Tol’able David (1921), was filmed not far from the farm where he grew up as a child. A decade later, he returned to the rural milieu with State Fair (1933)
An eye for promising unknowns was also a hallmark of King. He raised to prominence some of Hollywood’s brightest stars, including Ronald Colman in The White Sister (1924); Gary Cooper, a Montana cowboy plucked from obscurity to play the male lead in The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926); Don Ameche, in Ramona (1936); Jennifer Jones, who won an Oscar for playing the French peasant girl with visions of the Virgin Mary in The Song of Bernadette (1943); and Alexander Knox, a Canadian actor who played America’s 28th President in the 1944 biopic Wilson.
One young actor with whom he developed a longstanding professional relationship was Tyrone Power. King insisted on a screen test for the 21-year-old—who, up till then, had been attempting unsuccessfully to follow his late father into the movies—for the lead in Lloyd's of London, then persuaded Zanuck that the young man would be better in that role than the mogul’s initial preference, Ameche.
In time, Power became the chief box-office star at Twentieth-Century Fox, and King went on to direct him in 10 more films, including historical films (In Old Chicago), westerns (Jesse James), war films (A Yank in the RAF), and a whole series of swashbucklers (The Black Swan, Captain From Castile, Prince of Foxes, and King of the Khyber Rifles). The director--a licensed pilot who, during World War II served in the Civilian Air Patrol--initiated his star into the joys of flying when he took him in his plane to the set of one of their films. (Years later, King flew over the funeral service of the star, who had died on location at age 43, noting sadly, “Knowing his love for flying and feeling that I had started it, I flew over his funeral procession and memorial park during his burial, and felt that he was with me.")
The last collaboration of Power and King was The Sun Also Rises (1957). My decidedly mixed reaction to this adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway novel is here. It was just one of several literary adaptations made by King in the last decade of his career that, as often as not, turned out to be misfires. His brief role directing another Hemingway project, The Old Man and the Sea (1958), ended up uncredited—probably a good thing, considering what a production mess that Spencer Tracy vehicle became.
But other adaptations by King of Hemingway and his Lost Generation frenemy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, which did earn the director credits, turned out problematic in their own was:
*The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952): Hemingway told his friend Ava Gardner that the only things he liked about this treatment of his short story were her and the hyena.
*Beloved Infidel (1959): As with The Sun Also Rises, the period of the source material—in this case, from 1936 to 1940, during Fitzgerald’s affair with Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, chronicled in her bestselling memoir—is blurred and even evoked inaccurately. Neither of the stars, Gregory Peck and Deborah Kerr, was satisfied with the early script or footage—and, judging by critical reaction, they had reason to be concerned.
*Tender Is the Night (1962): As with The Sun Also Rises and Beloved Infidel, King’s cinema swan song was marred by miscasting—in this case, Jennifer Jones (at 42, well past the age when she could be credible as two-decades-younger psychiatric patient Nicole Diver). In the case of all three films, King and Zanuck relied on actors with whom they had worked well with several times before without adequately considering whether they were age appropriate for this property.
As an aficionado of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, I was disappointed in these treatments of this material. In certain ways, they showed King in all his limitations: as a professional less concerned with an artistic vision than with getting a movie made for a mainstream audience.
On the other hand, they also contain scenes of considerable skill and even beauty—aspects of his work that appear more consistently in, for instance, Twelve O’Clock High and The Gunfighter. And his love of film--and even his affection for the sometimes problematic actors who feature in them, such as hellraiser Errol Flynn--made him a favorite of those he worked with. Four years before his death in 1982, this affable movie professional enjoyed renewed attention from a seven-week retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art. Its length testifies to his durability in an often-unforgiving industry.