Whatever our role in life we all want to think that we’re a bit special and that there’s something that separates us from the mass of others. It’s this desire to stand apart that makes King Vidor’s film so compelling especially, as with its hero, John Simms, we also always fear that, in reality, we’re failing to differentiate ourselves as much as we could. Stuck between acceptance and denial we watch The Crowd with a feeling of is this me?
But it’s the things we have in common that make us strong - our love, compassion and resolve - here is a film brave enough to show the importance of defeat whilst leaving only hope with no certainty of victory. Our hero takes his life for granted, spends too much time dreaming, loses the people he loves and takes what love is left almost for granted: the glass is more than half-emptied but you will the balance to shift.
|The Big Parade of Peace...|
“I made pictures as a good employee and pictures that came out if my insides. This is one that came out of my guts. There was a lot of hypocrisy in early films and I wanted to get away from it.” King Vidor interviewed by Jordan R Young in 1978.
|Eleanor Boardman and James Murray|
To play this everyman he chose James Murray an aspiring extra apparently encountered at random… Vidor wanted an unknown so the film would present a “documentary flavour” and he also wanted “….a young, good-looking man who looks like he really might be a clerk…” No chance for John Gilbert then.
Murray proved to be inspired casting with any technical limitations simply under-pinning his character’s self-deceptions as he moves forwards gradually after every devastating reversal.
|Johnny Downs climbs the stairs|
Flick on to 1912 as John (an uncredited Johnny Downs) sits with the other kids asking each other what they’re going to do when they grow up. “My Dad says I’m goin’ to be somebody big!” he says but – at the same time - Father dies – and there’s a terrific shot of young John climbing the stairs to realise he has gone… the first major defeat in the march of life reinforced by expressionistic forced perspective.
|“You’ve gotta be good in that town if you want to beat the crowd.”|
John’s arrival is followed by superb camera work from Henry Sharp showing the press in New York City: thousands of people flowing along sidewalks, mingling with the traffic at cross-roads in a double exposure showing the lifeblood of the concrete and commerce. The camera angles on tall buildings, shifting to a model shot as it rises ever higher pulling back to focus on a window through which it fades into a giant room of endless regularity: desks into infinity.
Somewhere near the middle sits our John: one of the many in at desk 137, he scratches his head, seemingly intent on his work but he’s trying to think of an answer to a newspaper quiz: “Name our new motor fuel and win one hundred dollars”… a dreamer passing time and hoping for a long-shot… He clock-watches and preens himself for real life to begin after five o’clock.
|In the city|
Bert and John run from out of the shadowy crowd to greet their wrens: Mary and Joan (Estelle Clark). Joan is bouncy and Mary is a little shy – Boardman so against sophisticated type here: gauche, chewing gun and head bowed – an Oscar performance, in my book, for 1928.
Boardman herself, always such a sharp commentator recognised the value of this work saying later that Mary Sims was simply “a job I had to do, I didn’t like to be so drab and unattractive, the hair hanging down, no makeup on…. I had confidence in Vidor; I knew he knew what he was doing…” and no doubt vice versa.
|John is smitten|
The couples sit at the front of the bus as they drive down the avenue and the thousand calculations and connections of early courtship are made. “Look at that crowd! The poor boobs… all in the same rut!” says John to a shocked Mary and then he sees a men dressed as a clown advertising for shoes… a “poor sap” whose father probably wanted him to be president.
|Joan, Bert, John and Mary|
John proposes on their ride home and we switch to the wedding where Bert gives them “a year or two”… Funny scenes on the honeymoon train as the couple ready themselves for their first night and then some stunning shots from Niagara Falls where James pledges his love will never stop for the most beautiful girl in the world.
|River deep, mountain high|
We begin to lose confidence in John as his career drifts and he falls into a routine of careless marital bickering: he dreams while Mary cleans … and cooks and washes. Their arguing intensifies - she must carry the blame for his failure to progress with every culinary accident counting against her. But as he storms out she calls down from the window: there’s something she hasn’t told him…
Then their luck changes twice in the space of a few minutes: John finally wins a caption competition and a life-changing $500. He returns home laden with presents yet, as they call the kids from across the street, tragedy strikes and their girl is knocked down by a truck.
It’s an horrific moment and one which completely changes the tone of the film –we’ve been lulled into a false sense of insecurity by Vidor and now we pay as John and Mary’s lives unwind…
|The great Eleanor Boardman|
Murray also excels as misery piles on misery and he loses direction almost to the point of self-oblivion. Out of pace with the crowd he’s on his uppers losing job after job and deluding himself that a new “break” is only around the corner…
It feels mighty real and that nothing can possibly turn things around... that’s Vidor’s brilliance.
Then again, the studio have always had form when it comes to The Crowd… they insisted on an alternative happier ending which was filmed but hardly ever shown after audience reaction indicated overwhelming preference for the intended conclusion. Attempts to make John more sympathetic – an actual go-getter – were warded off and completely missed the point: he’s as real a man as Hollywood gets.
As we watch John, Mary and Junior laughing their heads off in a packed theatre – an audience watching an audience watching two clowns – I’m reminded of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels in which the hero learns the value of his own brand of light entertainment as he watches a comedy film among a prison audience: whatever the circumstance, there’s strength in numbers.
King Vidor’s The Crowd, The Making of a Silent Classic by Jordan R Young is a fascinating account of the film featuring interviews with Boardman and Vidor as well as an introduction from Mr Brownlow quoted above. It’s available from Amazon.
King Vidor, American by Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon a solid biography from the early nineties and still to be found on Amazon.