Movies

The Film Sufi: “The Crowd”


The Crowd (1928) is not only one of the greatest silent movies, it quite simply stands, in my view, as one of the greatest of all films ever made, period.  Conceived and directed by famous filmmaker King Vidor, the film covers the joys and woes of an ordinary young couple trying to make a go of it in a teaming metropolis full of similar people all seeking to stand out from “the crowd”.  This may sound like a fairly simplistic narrative scheme for a film, and in fact some people, like the early reviewer in Variety found the film boring [1].  And even today, The Crowd does not usually come first to the minds of most people thinking of great silent films.  But Vidor and his production team took this basic idea and fashioned a truly noteworthy work.  And over the years, reviewers who have had a chance to see The Crowd have consistently heaped praise on this masterpiece [2,3,4,5,6,7,8].

Vidor had recently made his famous antiwar hit, The Big Parade (1925), which was concerned with the more spectacular theme of the devastating impact of The Great War (World War 1), the horrors of which still reverberated in the world’s consciousness; and so his producers at MGM Studios were hoping for another blockbuster like that from Vidor.  The outline for The Crowd seemed very tame by comparison, and they were not so enthusiastic about the new project.  But given Vidor’s track record at the box office, they went ahead with it anyway and provided relatively big-budget funding.  And when we watch the film, we can see that the screenplay by King Vidor and John V. A. Weaver, the cinematography (which features some remarkable moving-camera shots) by Henry Sharp, the film editing by Hugh Wynn, along with Vidor’s direction, are all first-rate.

One measure of the breadth and polish of The Crowd’s production team is the fact the film is considered to feature both Expressionist and Neorealist elements to it (it is even said that Italian Neorealist master Vittorio de Sica was inspired in his own work by The Crowd)  [2,7,8] – these are two contrasting aesthetic approaches that seem almost at odds with each other.  Neorealism suggests the raw,  objective reality of the street [9,10], while Expressionism “seeks to represent the external world as a reflection of the inner feelings of the author” [11].  Somehow Vidor managed his production to effectively invoke both of these evocative perspectives to great effect at various points along the way.

Mention should also be made of the key acting performances of the dramatis personae in the film.  While most of the secondary performers display the exaggerated countenances and theatrics common to the silent era, the two main actors gave remarkably nuanced performances.   James Murray, a relatively unknown actor, played the role of John Sims, the film’s principal protagonist, and Murray’s sensitive, natural portrayal of that character is a key ingredient to the film’s success.  Murray’s expressive and moving performance in this film should have shot him to stardom, but unfortunately that is not how it played out for him.  Murray’s persistent alcoholism ruined his career and led him downhill to vagrancy.  In 1936 his body was found in the Hudson River, a possible suicide.  

Eleanor Boardman played the part of the female protagonist, Mary Sims, and her performance was also outstanding.  Boardman, who was King Vidor’s wife at the time, was a well-known actress used to playing glamorous roles.  But here in The Crowd she plays an ordinary, plain housewife, and in the process gives the greatest screen performance of her career.  I particularly liked her meaningful looks of anticipation, which subtly conveyed more about her mental state than any dialogue subtitles could do.  

The story of The Crowd, as I mentioned, concerns what happens to an ordinary American couple in pursuit of success.  In fact the male protagonist, who was born on the 4th of July, is an exemplar of one who chases after the “American Dream”.  In this regard, most young American children are told that, however ordinary their circumstances may be, any of them could grow up someday to be U.S. President – like Abraham Lincoln.  So the film resonates particularly with American audiences.  As we follow John Sims’s pursuit of his dream, the film passes through approximately three stages.

1.  Formative Years
When John Sims is born on the 4th of July, 1900 (making him a “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and a symbolic representative of the “American Century”), his father expresses the conviction that his newborn son will amount to something.  And John carries that hope with him throughout his boyhood.  At the age of 21, John goes to seek his fortune in New York City and gets a routine desk job working for an insurance company.  The moving camera shots showing the huge, faceless skyscraper, on one of the floors of which is the insurance company’s vast open-plan office is justly famous for its expressionistic feeling.  It is here that we first see the grownup John Sims (played by James Murray) as one of a countless number of white-collar robots, which evokes, for me, imaginative images of Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby, the Scrivener”.

Bert (Bert Roach), a colleague of John’s in the huge open-plan office, sets up a blind double-date for the two of them to take two young women to the Coney Island amusement park.  On the bus on the way to the park, John spots a juggling sandwichman on the street and, turning to his date Mary (Eleanor Boardman), derisively dismisses the man as a poor sap.  

Very soon John and Mary fall in love and get married.  On their honeymoon to Niagara Falls, they take a sleeper-car train  and have their first conjugal bed experience, a scene that is deftly and amusingly handled by Vidor and his crew.  

2.  Scenes from a Marriage
In the second phase of the film, the niggling frustrations of the young married couple are brought to the fore.  John is ambitious, but he is just another nameless cog in a vast office machine.  On Christmas Eve he comes home late and drunk, standing up Mary’s family, who had come over for a visit.  Mary is always forgiving, but her husband’s constant complaining at home begins to take its toll.  She contemplates leaving him, but just then she becomes aware that she is pregnant, and that brings them back to matrimonial bliss.       

A son is born to Mary, and a few years later they are blessed with a daughter.  However, John’s low job status and failure to gain a promotion continue to be a source of frustration.  When John wins a $500 prize for an ad slogan competition, it seems that things might be finally looking up, but that only leads to an unfortunate accident that kills their young daughter.  

John is now so frustrated and depressed that he loses interest in his boring office work, and finally, in a fit of temper, he angrily resigns from his job.  

3.  Getting Desperate
Our suddenly unemployed protagonist is now constantly looking for work. But the low-paying jobs that John does find are either too boring or ones from which he quickly gets sacked.  So his jobless status goes on and on.  And he is still constantly complaining.  Mary, who takes on some home sewing work to help make ends meet, is losing her patience, and she chides her husband with the query:

“Are you sure it’s always somebody else . . . . and not you?”

Although John is essentially an innocent and well-meaning guy, he becomes more and more depressed about who he really is.  It’s not surprising then to see that when Mary’s two pompous brothers come around to grudgingly offer John a job, he angrily rejects such an offer of “charity”.  Finally fed up with her husband’s deadbeat stagnation, Mary throws him out of the house.

Now outside and at his wit’s end, John contemplates suicide.  But when he is just about to throw himself off a bridge, he encounters his cheerful five-year-old son, who loyally assures  him that he wants to grow up to be just like his dad.  This loving gesture raises John’s spirits, and he vows to keep on going towards his goal.

John gets a street job as a juggling advertising sandwich man – the very same job he had mockingly ridiculed when he had seen it from the bus on his early trip to Coney Island.  Only now, John embraces the job with enthusiasm.  He heads back home to tell Mary about his new job  in the hopes that she will forgive him.

But when John arrives home, he sees that Mary is packing up to go live with her family (her mother and two brothers).  Mary is adamant about leaving, but John manages to convince her to at least accept his invitation to take their young son and go with him to a vaudeville show for which he has purchased three tickets.  

The final shots of the film show John and Mary sitting in the vaudeville show audience and joining them all in uproarious laughter as they watch the slapstick antics being performed onstage.

This somewhat enigmatic ending is a key to The Crowd’s greatness.  We don’t know what the future will bring to John and Mary, but we do know that John is a member of “the crowd” of humanity and he seems to have finally embraced that fact.  The film implicitly urges the viewer to embrace that fact, too.  Indeed, underlying the American Dream is the idea that we are all members of “the crowd”.  The studio was worried about the ambiguity of this ending and ordered seven alternative happy-ending finales to be filmed and tested on preview audiences.  But none of them could have matched Vidor’s original ending, the one that was finally released and what we see today.                               

 

Overall, The Crowd is not to be seen only as a historical relic.  It continues to this day to be a great cinematic narrative and a moving viewing experience.  

★★★★
 

Notes:

  1. “The Crowd”, Variety, (22 February 1928).   
  2. Mordaunt Hall, “THE SCREEN; Don Juans of the Deep”, The New York Times, (20 February 1928). 
  3. Margarita Landazuri, “The Crowd”, San Francisco Silent Film Festival, (2003).   
  4. Fernando F. Croce. “Film Review: The Crowd”, Slant, (25 February 2007).   
  5. Dennis Schwartz, “CROWD, THE”, Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews, (23 May 2007).   
  6. Mick LaSalle, “FILM REVIEW — Vidor’s Silent `Crowd’ Still an Urban Masterpiece”, SFGATE, (8 November 1995, updated: 4 February 2012).   
  7. Tim Dirks, “The Crowd (1928)”, filmsite, (n.d.).   
  8. Bruce Hodsdon, “The Crowd”, Senses of Cinema, (August 2013).   
  9. The Film Sufi, “Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: ‘Open City” and “Paisan’”, The Film Sufi, (18 November 2008).
  10. The Film Sufi, “Subjective Realism in the Italian Film”, The Film Sufi, (13 January 2009).
  11. The Film Sufi, “Expressionism in Film”, The Film Sufi, (28 June 2008).   



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