He was a prince of a director. The self-taught King Vidor started out making jerky one-reelers in Texas and ended up rating five Academy award nominations. His 54 feature films included sweet comedies, ambitious westerns, and elaborate historical epics, and he worked with the likes of Lillian Gish, Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Audrey Hepburn, and Gary Cooper. He also made movies with a social conscience, examining racism, class struggles, the effects of urbanization, and the changing role of women in America long before such themes became standard box-office material.
King Wallis Vidor was born on February 8, 1894, in Galveston, the son of a lumber baron for whom the town of Vidor was named. A teenage stint as a projectionist hooked him on filmmaking.
After making homemade movies (one on the 1900 Galveston storm ) and shooting and selling newsreel footage, he formed his own company, Hotex, in Houston in 1915. Later that year he moved to California, where he quickly worked his way up from prop boy to director. He churned out at least twenty silents—some starring his first two wives, Florence Arto and Eleanor Boardman—before The Big Parade (1925), an acclaimed anti-war epic, made him a Hollywood name.
Vidor easily weathered the switch to talkies, starting with Hallelujah (1929), the first major film with an all-black cast. He paid tribute to his home state with The Texas Rangers (1936), which he wrote with his third wife, Elizabeth Hill.
His best-known films include Stella Dallas (1937), with Barbara Stanwyck (left) and Anne Shirley (right), and Duel in the Sun (1946) , starring Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck. His most familiar work, however, was uncredited: He filmed the black-and-white Kansas scenes in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
MGM cut so much of An American Romance (1944), his rags-to-riches epic about an immigrant steelworker, that he left his longtime studio in a huff and went to work for David O. Selznick and later Warner Bros.
During the sixties, Vidor investigated the unsolved 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor. His research—including his theory on the shooter’s identity—was published in 1986 in Sidney D. Kirkpatrick’s A Cast of Killers.
Vidor received a special Oscar in 1979 in recognition of his nonpareil career. He died on November 1, 1982, in Paso Robles, California.