The Crowd

(USA - 1928)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: James Murray, Eleanor Boardman, Bert Roach, Estelle Clark, Daniel G. Tomlinson, Dell Henderson, Lucy Beaumont
Genre: Drama
Director: King Vidor
Screenplay: King Vidor & John V.A. Weaver
Cinematography: Henry Sharp
Composer: -
Runtime: 94 minutes

"Everything's goin' to be roses…when my ship comes in," - John Sims

Most films elevate their protagonist and try to make us believe they are something special. What King Vidor did with The Crowd is make one of the earliest and most influential films of realistic human struggle; a film about a man who was as ordinary as can be. Vidor didn't believe in having heroes and villains. Instead, he felt we are basically anonymous and our destiny is largely out of our control.

Vidor sold the idea for The Crowd to Irving Thalberg as a sequel to his hit epic 1925 WWI film The Big Parade, which was the first success for newly formed MGM. Both are about battles fought by masses of ordinary people, but The Crowd focuses on just one individual whose struggles are representative of the collective whole.

The classic scene shows just how anonymous this individual is by having the camera find him among the millions. It looks up to the top of a several story building, climbs it, enters through the window, rolls across the ceiling past several interchangeable workers with the same work station before finally descending at the desk of #137 John Sims (James Murray). The amazing sequence was achieved by dissolving from the windows of the Equitable Life Insurance Building to a scale model in the studio that lay flat so the camera could roll over it horizontally. When the camera approached the painted window (that signified the floor John was on), they again dissolved to a stage filled with desks. As the crane shot had yet to be invented, the camera had to be attached to a wire trolley and rolled across the ceiling then lowered down to where John was.

Like The Big Parade, Vidor splits the film into two halves. Again, the first is light hearted, romantic, and comedic, while the second is a grim statement of human futility. Thalberg though people wouldn't pay to see this one though, and shelved The Crowd for a year. The film did fair poorly at the box office despite strong reviews, but has since been recognized as one of the seminal silent films.

Vidor's story was too truthful and unsentimental for the escapist crowd. It combined what the people of the time valued - their goals, ambitions, and way of life - with what they were actually able to achieve. It's not the American dream gone awry; it's that the American dream is only truly attainable for the minutest percentage of the population. So the sadness of the film largely stems from the dream entailing fame and fortune, which means the vast majority are doomed to fail.

Right off the bat we see that John believes he's destined for greatness because his dad says so, as everyone believes in possibility and ignores probability. We see John laughing at a street clown ("The poor sap! And I bet his father thought he would be president!") because he's above him, and going to be far above him. It's not that it's bad to have hopes and dreams, but that people don't realize they are being set up to fall far short of them, and that makes the fall extremely hard to deal with. If John wasn't certain his ship was going to come in he wouldn't just up and quit his average job that he believes is keeping him down assuming that will somehow prompt his great success.

The subject matter creates a certain distance between John and the viewer. We don't want to believe we'll be ground down; we want to believe about ourselves the same things John believes about himself - that we aren't one of the crowd, are destined for greatness, and the world revolves around us. Hopefully it will be true; probably it won't be. But that the film permeates this real feeling of rejection in us means it's hitting home, it's working.

Another reason it works is that it doesn't make being part of the crowd all bad. John has shared experiences that are positive, for instance the great scene at the amusement park. These experiences even lead to individual achievements valued in that society like getting married and having children. Of course, to Vidor's credit that doesn't mean they get their white picket fence and live happily ever after.

One of Vidor's themes, also particularly present in his underrated Street Scenes, is the conflict between the framework of the society and the needs of the individual. He's sees people criticizing one another based on what they are supposed to do, how they are supposed to act, and what they are supposed to achieve. Lost in all this is the individual, who the person really is. In this regard, The Crowd is actually hopeful while Street Scenes is tragic. In The Crowd, John's wife Mary (note the ordinary names) does understand him rather than cut on him, which is why she always winds up sticking by him despite his inability to earn, several near breakups, and his often demeaning manner toward people like her who are "beneath him".

The key people who don't understand John are his in-laws. The individual, which Mary (Vidor's wife Eleanor Boardman) sees, is an amusing joker always trying to make his smile contagious and entertain those around him through gags, singing, and playing the zither. On the other hand, her brothers see a happy go lucky goofball that will never produce the all important result of earning big. Like John, the brothers look down upon those less successful, which produces some of the best comedy in the in the film. As their mother can't hear well, the brothers are always taking turns talking into her ear. One points out to her that John has soap on his ear from shaving, and the other says, "probably from yesterday."

The silent films that rely heavily on the intertitles are deadly because they are always taking you out of the film to explain the film. To make things worse, the titles are always pretty basic because you can't see anything while they are up, including what they are referring to. This film has a lot to say a lot about life and human nature, so a few times The Crowd pauses for an observation, "the crowd laughs with you always…but it will cry with you for only one day." For the most part though, the titles are dialogue and Vidor isn't afraid to let us guess what they are saying. There is some good banter between the couple including a classic scene where John, whose sales pitch is "You wouldn't like to buy one of these, would you?" tells Mary, "I'm sick of selling vacuums," and she responds, "Oh, did you sell some?" To me, the funniest scene is when John rushes from work to the hospital because he gets the call that Mary has given birth. He immediately grabs the doctor, hysterically declaring, "I'm Sims! John Sims! The Husband!" despite there being a waiting room full of new fathers. The doctor tells him, "Don't worry! We've never lost a husband yet!"

The film is primarily visual though, and in this regard it's extremely lively as well as very thoughtfully developed. Vidor does a great job at showing the vast claustrophobia of NY City. He shot on location as much as possible, and in order to get realistic reactions from the people walking the streets he concealed the cameras by having the cameramen hiding in packing boxes in the back of a pushcart. Through clever camera angles, the streets and buildings seem to go on forever yet the humans using them are stifled, nearly smothered. They are crammed together, indistinguishable because they have the same space and surroundings and move to the same rhythm. One of Vidor's tricks, utilized during the scenes of soldiers marching in The Big Parade and workers digging in Our Daily Bread, is he'd have someone beat a big bass drum to get everyone on the same page moving in unison.

Our Daily Bread was the title F.W. Murnau wanted to use for his last Hollywood film, the studio butchered City Girl, which like Vidor's independent release was his wheat film. Vidor was certainly influenced by Murnau and the expressionists. In particular, the shot where 12-year-old John is ascending the stairs, facing a huge uphill battle now that his father has passed away. In general, the camera is tilted down on the humans and up on the structures to show how small we are in the grand scheme of things.

It's not so much how Vidor showed things as what he chose to show. Instead of empty style, he came up with scenes that added to his whole then figured out how he could interestingly film them. The best example of this is what we see of John & Mary's wedding. We don't see a couple of people at the alter, we see them amidst a swarm of rice throwing friends and family members, trying to separate themselves so they can catch the train to Niagara Falls.

An odd thing about The Crowd is its star wound up being as minor as the man he portrayed. Vidor knew James Murray was the ordinary man he was looking for the first time he saw him. Murphy was a bit player for MGM that had only secured a few minor roles after working his way to Hollywood shoveling coal and washing dishes. Not realizing his ship had come in, he no showed his interview because he thought Vidor was pulling his leg. Vidor hunted him down and Thalberg allowed the casting, agreeing they'd lucked into a great natural actor. Whether he was really that good or he just fit the part so well, his bright and wonderfully understated (for a silent) performance unfortunately wound up being a one-time wonder. Like John Sims, his career went downhill right after he'd finally accomplished something. In Murray's case, it was largely due to alcoholism. Vidor tried to save him after encountering him panhandling, but Murray refused to try to drop the liquor and get in shape, and he wound up dying at the age of 35 by drowning after falling or jumping off a bridge into the Hudson River. Most of his final roles were as anonymous as can be, uncredited.




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