The Crowd (1928) Director: King Vidor
One of King Vidor’s great masterpieces of the late ’20s, The Crowd is a bit of a departure from King Vidor’s early silent World War I epic The Big Parade (1925) which effectively put MGM on the map. Despite being a uniquely stylized, experimental film for the era, The Crowd was cleared for production by the trusted partnership between director King Vidor and producer Irving Thalberg (even against the protests of studio head Louis B. Mayer). The critical success of The Crowd garnered nominations for Best Director as well as Best Unique and Artistic Picture (a one-time award category of which F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise is the sole winner). The Crowd presents the story of a single man named John “Johnny” Sims (played by newcomer James Murray) who moves to New York City after the death of his father in search of a career (all the while hoping for a Horatio Alger rise to success). His dream is to stand out from the crowd. Once in the city, he secures a job which is quickly found to be drab and mundane. Whereas he once viewed himself as unique, he quickly learns that he is merely part of the mob (Vidor’s initial title for the film). He lives in a packed upstairs tenement flat, trapped in the crowd, he has become just another completely ordinary face struggling to survive in the modern world. In a forced perspective shot which takes us through huge sweeping scenes of the cityscape we gradually move inward to dense, claustrophobic buildings which showcase the powerful frame the geometry of a typical American sky-rise office. There are some truly spectacular shots here. These scenes –some of the most memorable in the whole film– were apparently shot using models of skyscrapers laid out on the ground while cameras swept upward, and as the scene moves inward, hundreds of extras were employed to sit at desks in long narrow rows while the cameras moved overhead.
John marries a young woman named Mary (played King Vidor’s wife Eleanor Boardman). They are wedded on a whim, and the film is notably candid about the trials faced by the young couple. It does not glamorize their romance. He then struggles to keep his steady job, even applying for a job as a juggling clown (a profession he once mocked) but tragedy strikes his family when his daughter is hit and killed by oncoming traffic –the crowd is sad with him for a day and then moves on. The crowd always laughs with you, but only cries for a day. He has spent much of his life believing he is somehow different from the herd, however the film ends on a strangely twisted note. Just before his wife plans to leave him, he gets a day job working as a juggling clown. He decides to take his family to a vaudeville show, where the family take solace as part of the crowd, laughing at a stage performance. In a strange twist of fate, I couldn’t help but wonder if this final scene was a dark mirror held up to the audience as we watch ourselves entertained at our own lives –ready to laugh with the crowd. The Crowd presents a perspective on the pitiful existence of the common, urban man – a face in the crowd. Perhaps there is a strange sense of comfort among the anonymous sea of people.
The character of John in The Crowd is tragically similar to the life of the actor who played him, James Murray. King Vidor initially Murray on the street before offering him the lead part in the film. After The Crowd, Murray continued to appear in other films though none quite as reputable as The Crowd. He eventually turned to alcoholism and panhandling. Interestingly enough, six years after the release of The Crowd, King Vidor self-produced a film that was a sequel of sorts, about a depression-era man who lives far away from the crowd in the country, Our Daily Bread (1934). He tracked down Murray on the streets to offer him the lead part, but Murray coldly turned it down. In 1936, Murray died by drowning after he jumped off the North Pier in New York City. He was only 35 years old. King Vidor remained haunted by the memory of Murray for years to come, even going so far as to write a play based on his life but it was never published.
The Crowd contains echoes of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang as well as literary connections to Jean-Paul Sartre or even Albert Camus, and it inspired the work of Italian neo-realist director Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). Scenes featured the latter film continue to stand out for me. King Vidor sought to make movies which convey the life of ordinary American citizens –he once described The Crowd as “just a succession of the dynamics of life.” To this day, The Crowd remains his magnum opus, and it has left a celebrated national legacy. The Crowd was among the first films to be entered into the National Film Registry in 1989.