US (1928) Dir. King Vidor
Everyone wants to stand out but whether we like or not, even an everyday convention like getting a job or being married makes us part of the crowd. Not that this should stop us from being different but aspiration and achievement are two separate things.
John Sims was born July 4th 1900 and his doting father (Warner Richmond) immediately declares his son will grow up to be a big success in life. Aged 21, John (James Murray) heads to New York to make his mark, starting with a regular office job. John meets Mary (Eleanor Boardman) and marries her after a whirlwind romance. But John’s waiting for his lucky break puts a strain on his marriage, which has now produced two children.
The plot is ripe for your average domestic melodrama and this being a product of the silent era, you can almost feel the quaintness of the leading lady, the ruggedness of the leading man and predict the litany of disasters that will befall them. But this is where King Vidor rips the rug from under out feet as The Crowd does something very few, if any, Hollywood films were doing in the 1920’s.
Instead of presenting a typically unrealistic take on modern life, Vidor delivers debatably an antecedent of the Neo Realism movement. The Crowd is about ordinary people, doing ordinary things in an ordinary world and experiencing ordinary problems – it may not sound groundbreaking today but in 1928 MGM boss Louis B. Mayer hated it, fearing it would be too bleak to be a hit, and shelved for over a year before releasing it.
L.B’s lack of faith was thrown back in his face when it went on to make more than double its budget and receiving huge critical acclaim. The apparent lack of grandeur MGM films were noted for might seem like a bold departure but this normalcy is its greatest strength, and Vidor does a good job in holding our interest whilst teasing something big is going to happen.
Billy Wilder in The Apartment replicated the famous swooping shot of the numerous faceless workers of the office where John is but one , like colleague Bert (Bert Roach), who encourages John to join him and two girls at Coney Island, one being Mary. Despite her penchant for spitting chewing gum at passing vehicles, John is quickly smitten with Mary and she eventually reciprocates. One swift wedding later and the happy couple live in a bijou flat where housewife Mary waits for John brings home the bread.
As adventurous as the no frills premise of the film was in 1928, the gender roles were less progressive, but in this context it is irrelevant as the point is there is nothing out of the ordinary about Mary and John – he still promises his big breakout moment is due and Mary waits with him, but waiting for something to happen and actually making it happen are the mutually exclusive traits feature in contrast to other film narratives of the day.
Watching The Crowd having already seen many of the films and filmmaking styles it has influenced, the initial realisation is how we don’t realise little is actually going on story wise because Vidor has created such an easily recognisable world. Then, as we begin to look out for certain developments we are trained to expect from cinema only to have the opposite occur, does the true genius of the film reveal itself.
Vidor waits almost an hour before dropping the first major crisis on us but the journey prior to that is never dull or any the less engaging, more so for modern viewers who will find much of the daily features of the period. By avoiding predictable melodrama, this comfortable world becomes tacitly reflective of our own, so when the crisis does come, it is without contrivance or lacking believability.
Similarly, the later scenes where John is at his lowest ebb and tragedy strikes, the lack of empathy and selfishness from others around him is startling harsh and cold, yet even today we find people are no different, more concerned with their own well-being. All that is missing is the mobile phones filming these sorry moments, otherwise this is a mirror being held up in cinema at this point with such rare candour.
Despite paring back the forced drama, Vidor retains his artistic flair in enhancing the nuances of John’s mental suffering the absence of audio prohibits. The afore-alluded tragedy plagues John as a mini movie projected onto his forehead whilst tormented by a parade of numbers is one example, but many will refer to the celebrated use of aerial crane shots to illustrate being one in a crowd of many of being more significant.
Another facet of Neo Realism we can also trace to Vidor was the casting. Playing John was James Murray a hitherto untested extra whose unspoiled talent allowed him to attack the role with a reactive innocence an established star would over do. Mary was played by Vidor’s wife Eleanor Boardman, who was well known, delivering one the most natural and raw performances of the silent era, her subtle and unpretentious reactions being a joy to behold.
Because the script doesn’t rely on constructed peaks and troughs to lead the audience’s emotions, it relies on circumstance and the cruel ironies of life to shock, amuse and break our hearts. It is a rather unsubtle tale and one of Louis B. Mayer’s complaints – aside from showing a toilet cistern for the first time on screen – was the lack of a happy ending, forcing Vidor to shoot nine before opting for the iconic one we see here.
It is always a treat to be surprised by a film, especially from an era of Hollywood where we think the rules of cinema were written in stone, making The Crowd a seminal work of import and magnitude that has somehow been overshadowed by lesser films whilst more deserving to be casting that shadow.