The Crowd (1928)

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Directed by King Vidor, written by Vidor, John V.A. Weaver and Harry Behn, produced by Irving Thalberg

Identifying King Vidor’s greatest directorial achievement is almost as impossible as identifying the greatest artistic achievement of all of silent film. However, if those questions were answerable, perhaps the answer to both would be the same. The Crowd was one of the first films to be selected for preservation in the Library of Congress Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 1989 – such a summation of its value, however, does not do justice to the vast significance of the film and its characters. The Crowd is about all of us; it is about pain, loss, desperation, love and humanity in a cold world that keeps on turning no matter what.

John Sims, played with gut-wrenching sincerity by a virtually unknown James Murray, moves to New York City at 21 (after losing his father at a young age), believing he will become somebody special. He meets a girl, played with waif-like fragility by Eleanor Boardman (Mrs. King Vidor at the time), and they start their life together in their tiny apartment among the emotional clutter of urban chaos. The happiness they felt at the start was never to last, and as tragedy strikes, they struggle to survive. The audience witnesses moments so private, so revealing between the two, it is hard to believe this was a Hollywood film made during the height of escapist entertainment. It is so painfully, excruciatingly real.

“You’ve gotta be good in that town if you want to beat the crowd.”

One of the most iconic sequences in The Crowd is the beautiful cinematography introducing the viewer to New York City. The camera sweeps across crowded streets – actual, real contemporary crowded city streets, in fact those in the frame did not even know they were being filmed  – the daily scramble of cars, trains, ships, and people who appear like a mass of ants from the smoggy rooftops of towering skyscrapers. As Carl Davis’ affecting score, which somehow manages to capture both the microscopic intimacy and vast enormity of the piece, comes to a dramatic crescendo, an extreme high angle shot travels up the side of an impossibly dwarfing structure. The uniformity of its repetitive shape is humbling, even frightening. The camera zooms into one of the windows, inside a huge room filled with perfectly set-up desks. The grid-like patterns of man’s creations, and the urgent scurry of the crowd is bleak; this was certainly an ambitious vision, but the result is dizzying, intoxicating.

“Look at that crowd! The poor boobs… all in the same rut!”

As James Sanders explained in his book “Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies,” Vidor’s goal was to spontaneously capture the exuberance of the city, the stampede of individuals as they are smothered, isolated and comforted by the crowd in their quest for “success at all costs,” and in turn the “gradual reduction of Sims’s dreams as he confronts the inevitable urban reality of a million other dreams, all vying for greatness.” In the crowd, it’s keep moving, or be crushed.

Early on in the film, the two lovers court at Coney Island. As with any silent film portrayal of  the fun park, the sequence is full of charming whimsy – It truly wasn’t a silent film set in New York City without a montage of it (that same year, Harold Lloyd’s last silent Speedy had a similarly childlike depiction of young love at the amusement park, filled with slapstick pitfalls, real and staged). The Crowd’s sequence of wholesome, youthful optimism through rose-tinted glasses was one of the last times these characters were truly happy.

“We do not know how big the crowd is and what opposition it is, until we get out of step with it.”

Among the more poignant, tender sequences is their wedding night. The two are stuck in an awkward, unspoken nervousness, paralysed by uncertainty and inexperience. Their shy glances at each other, then away, as they sit on the train hurtling towards Niagara Falls, is so sweet and intimate, it almost seems voyeuristic. Mary puts off the wedding night’s activities, pretending to be asleep when John comes to bed. As they reach the falls, the majesty of nature overwhelms them both. Johnny takes photos of Mary, as she slowly lets down her guard, posing naturally, almost vivaciously in the grass. Johnny looks at her with so much love, and so much desire, words would be completely pointless. The gushing falls serve as a not-so-subtle symbol of the passion that no doubt ensues. Current audiences may  be surprised by how risque 1920s cinema could be.

Before long, the tension between them erupts; the typical fights between the couple are depicted with rawness, a naturalistic reality seldom seen in Hollywood films then, even down to the detail of Boardman’s appearance- she is seen with little to no makeup throughout the film (something Boardman was reluctant about when she was first offered the role). Their love always tethers them back together, but they are engulfed with darkness when they are touched by an unimaginable tragedy that the audience may not expect; a bleak horror presented with a stillness that is striking in its pointed reality. John wanders through the crowd, gently pleading to it directly for some compassion. There is none to be found.

“Get inside! The world can’t stop because your baby’s sick.”

The family’s downward spiral weighs heavily on Johnny, and his depression induces the violent throes of breakdown. He quits his job and later attempts suicide, only to be talked down from the edge by his son’s innocent love for him. “I like you… When I grow up I wanna be just like you.” It’s another iconic moment of Vidor sentimentality that would be repeated in the similarly iconic final scene from The Champ (1931). However, where the champ sacrifices himself to make his son proud of him, Johnny decides to keep going once he sees the hope in his son’s view of him – the hopeful view of possibilities that he once had of his own life.

“You still love me? You still believe in me, boy?”
“We can do it, boy! We’ll show them!”

A piece of foreshadowing occurs when the couple drive through the crowd early on in the film. They spot a clown performing in the street, advertising a local business on a sign on his chest as he juggles. “The poor sap! And I bet his father thought he would be President!” Johnny exclaims as he points and laughs, mirroring his own father’s hopes for his life. Johnny thinks he is special, and all the poor sods who’ve found themselves at the mercy of the crowd aren’t even pitied by him. Of course, by the end of the film, Johnny finds himself completely at the mercy of the crowd, and his only hope for survival is that very job he once mocked. He practically begs for it, a defeated man whose individuality has been crushed by the weight of the world. Dignity is nonexistent once you are a part of the crowd; his desperate need to survive for his son has surpassed all else.

As johnny and his family are reunited in a vaudeville theatre, laughing at the slapstick clowns on stage, the camera performs its final trick. Their seats are reduced to mere specks as the camera moves steadily out, revealing a sea of Johnnys and Marys in the impossibly large sea of audience members, a never-ending crowd swallowing them up. The camera is reflecting those viewing the film itself, directly stating that this is you. This is us all.

Within years of delivering possibly on of the greatest performances in Hollywood history, James Murray had reached the depths of alcoholism, had thrown away his promising career, and was living on the streets. In fact, he had been offered the lead role in one of Vidor’s great comedic masterpieces Show People; he never showed up to filming and was replaced by Billy Haines (Haines subsequently delivered a career-defining performance in the film). In the strangest twist of fate, the kind reserved for silent Hollywood legend, Vidor stumbled across an overweight Murray panhandling on the streets. Vidor offered him the lead in his sequel to The Crowd, Our Daily Bread (released in 1934), if he’d clean up his act. Murray bluntly turned down the offer.

Murray died by drowning in 1936, after falling from the North River Pier. It was never officially determined if it was suicide. Some accounts state that he was performing for tips – balancing on the edge of the pier – and fell in.

“But it was always the same old story.”

After decades of being tortured by Murray’s death, Vidor wrote a screenplay in the 1970s based on Murray’s life, entitled The Actor, exposing the tragic intersection between Murray’s life and his work. Vidor was especially fond of the final scene. When the actor falls, “the crowd thought it was part of his performance,” the director wrote, “and they laughed.” Like the untouched research Vidor compiled for an unrealised film adaptation of the William Desmond Taylor murder, The Actor was never produced.

“The crowd laughs with you always… but it will cry with you for only a day.”

The Crowd exposes the futility of human ambition, ripping apart the American Dream as inevitably as the world goes on turning. All promises we are told as children fail in the face of the crowd. The Crowd, its natural performances, its themes and its style, were all ahead of their time. I think every single person out there in the crowd should see this film. They will see themselves in it.

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