Frank Mayo stars as John Woolfolk, whose bride dies tragically in a carriage accident in the film's opening scene. To relieve his sorrow, and to avoid all possible contact with women, he embarks on a series of ocean voyages with his helpmate Paul Halvard (Ford Sterling). When they drop anchor in a remote Georgia inlet, John encounters the beautiful Nellie Stope (Virginia Valli). Isolated at the overgrown estate, she has inherited the irrational paranoia of her grandfather, Lichfield Stope (Nigel De Brulier), who is scarred by the memories of the Civil War. Nellie must also contend with the barbaric attentions of a local man-child, Iscah Nicholas (Charles A. Post). In one of the film's most memorable scenes, Nellie refuses to give Iscah a kiss, so he carries her into an alligator-infested swamp and leaves her perched on a tree stump, surrounded by snapping gators.
Against his better judgment, John develops an affection for Nellie, and endeavors to rescue her from the world of torments in which she has become prisoner -- which sparks a fiery and violent battle for possession of the lonely swamp waif.
Director King Vidor realized from the beginning that the atmosphere of the story was as important as the plot. "Hergesheimer's book described such things as Florida's oppressive heat, the moss on the trees, the tropical foliage, things like that....We went all over Florida trying to capture this atmosphere, and that's what made the picture so successful....Reviewers hailed the breakaway from the studio which Wild Oranges represented as a milestone in the art of motion pictures."
Vidor considered it "one of the first films I know of for which a company traveled that far....Strange as it may seem today, when we shoot movies all around the world, nobody thought in those terms then....If you talked atmosphere, if you talked of the importance of a film's ambience, they'd say: 'Why do you want to go all the way across the country?...What's wrong with Griffith Park?'"
Although the film clearly establishes the unqualified manliness of John and Paul, one cannot help but grin at the idyll of homoerotic domesticity they share aboard the yacht. As an interesting footnote (pointed out by Vidor biographers Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon), Wild Oranges was one of many stories that used the small watercraft as a vehicle for male bonding. Literary/cultural critic Leslie Fiedler wrote an essay on the topic in 1948, entitled "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey," using as examples Huck and Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Ishmael and Queequeg from Moby Dick.
Photoplay Magazine called Wild Oranges "One of the most gripping pictures of the year." The New York Times, exercising greater restraint, deemed it a "rather sketchy story from which King Vidor, as the director, has obtained some really excellent effects...if Vidor had had a more fluent and plausible vehicle this picture would have been even better than it is."
Variety agreed that "the major share of the credit must go to Vidor, who has done so well with a script which might so easily have been grossly exaggerated. The photography meets all requirements to round out Wild Oranges as a convincing argument against those who believe there is little or no merit connected with the art of celluloid story telling, and it certainly has been well made."
Several publications commented on the fact that there are only five actors in the cast -- an absolute rarity for a major studio film of its era. However, the head count excludes the actress depicting the ill-fated Mrs. Woolfolk. So little is seen of her that it makes one wonder if it might have been Valli in an uncredited dual role.
There is one other dual role that is not mentioned in the credits. The actor who plays John Woolfolk on the Florida locations is actually James Kirkwood, but Mayo replaced him once the crew returned to California. Vidor explained, "Kirkwood had been scheduled to play the lead in the picture and actually did in Florida, but the day we got back to California he was thrown by his horse and fractured his skull....We were faced with returning to Florida and redoing the picture, but we found an actor, Frank Mayo, who looked and walked like Kirkwood and wore his clothes without the slightest alteration....We simply re-did the close-ups against simulated backgrounds (this was before the day of the photographed process background) and used the longer shots of Kirkwood."
The Spartan nature of the film was just about its only selling point, with some advertisements proclaiming, "Not one massive set! Not a single costume!" But bigger films were on Vidor's horizon. It was while traveling to or from the Florida location that Vidor first read the screenplay of the colossal production of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1959), which he was assigned to direct for MGM. Fortunately for Vidor, he was later removed from the project -- which proved to be one of the most difficult productions of MGM's early years. Instead, he was allowed to pursue more personal films.
While at MGM, Vidor would direct two of the most important American silent films ever made: the WWI epic The Big Parade (1925) and the modern fable of a downcast everyman The Crowd (1928). Vidor would return to a rustic Southern setting for his influential early talkie Hallelujah! (1929).
No longer a household name, novelist Joseph Hergesheimer was, in the early 1920s, considered a promising literary talent. The Literary Digest named him "most significant new writer" in their 1922 survey.
Director: King Vidor
Screenplay: King Vidor, based on the novel by Joseph Hergesheimer
Cinematography: John W. Boyle
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Vivek Maddala (2007)
Cast: Frank Mayo (John Woolfolk), Virginia Valli (Nellie Stope), Ford Sterling (Paul Halvard), Charles A. Post (Iscah Nicholas), Nigel De Brulier (Lichfield Stope).
by Bret Wood