Sunday, 7 August 2016

First amongst equals... The Crowd (1928)

“The Crowd is the finest American silent film I have ever seen… When a film of enormous social significance succeeds in being immensely entertaining, then as far as I’m concerned the director has achieved near-perfection.” Kevin Brownlow

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...
Such is the The March of Life, a title John Gilbert suggested when discussing Vidor’s desire to follow up The Big Parade with a Big Parade of Peace. The project would undergo many changes in title but it was always going to be a very personal one for King Vidor as he had the chance to make the film he wanted in the wake of TBP’s massive success... Irving Thalberg happy to let him experiment so long as it helped him forget that 20% stake he’d had in the former film.

“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
Or as Eleanor Boardman – who played John’s wife Mary - put it: “The Crowd was to be the first picture without glamour…” Vidor simply wanted to tell the tale of an ordinary man: one of the crowd, as he faces the challenges of daily life without super-heroics or an excess of good fortune… or so he thinks for much of the film.

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
As if to reinforce the everyman theme the film begins on 4th July in 1900 with the birth of “…a little man the world is going to hear from all right…” Father has high hopes and everything is indeed possible.

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.”
"When John was twenty-one he became one of the seven million that believe New York depends on them.

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
He plans to study but Pal Bert (Bert Roach) has an offer he can’t refuse “I’ve got a pair of wrens dated up for Coney Island. Want to make it a four-some?” All the while there are people filling the streets and corridors… the Metropolis is teeming.

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
Bert and John both catch admiring glances at the girls’ legs as they climb the steps on a double-decker but whilst the former is pantomime leery, the latter has a deeper feeling: this girl is offering more than just a glimpse of stocking.

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
Onto Coney Island where the light-hearted tone is maintained – this is how life can be as we play and romance – survival put to one side. The Crowd plays with both concepts equally well and the mood is so superbly balanced by Vidor in spite of his laissez faire approach to the performers he controls their context and he casts for character: Murray was a natural whereas Boardman could truly act.

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
Back to life and “home sweet home” where good humour enables them to rise above the compromises of location and affordability… But the cracks are there: Mary’s family Mother (Lucy Beaumont) and brothers Jim (Daniel G Tomlinson) and Dick (Dell Henderson) are less than impressed with her husband’s ability to provide. John doesn’t even have any hooch left for Christmas and heads off to Bert’s for a bottle only to be caught up in a party as his weak will crumbles at the mixture of girls and gin…

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…

Family life moves them onward but five years later they’re still in their assigned roles on the beach. As with Junior (Freddie Burke Frederick) and their daughter (Alice Mildred Puter) run in the sand, John plays a ukulele as Mary cooks….

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
“Except for The Crowd, I really am not proud of anything I did.” said Eleanor Boardman to film historian William Drew and you can see why as she pulls Mary through every emotional gear in the closing segments in a magnificent display of technique and conviction.

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.

James Murray
For such a major film it is absolutely criminal that it is not available on DVD (there is a basic Spanish disc with English inter-titles and unknown provenance…) although the 1981 restored version from Brownlow and Gill, featuring Carl Davis’ lovely orchestral score is regularly shown on TCM (as my screen shots indicate). We have Wings, Sunrise and The Big Parade on Blu-ray; come on MGM!

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.

Reading list:

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment