The Crowd (1928) Review

The Crowd (1928) Director: King Vidor

★★★★★

One of King Vidor’s great masterpieces of the era, 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 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.

The Big Parade (1925) Review

The Big Parade (1925) Director: King Vidor

★★★★☆

Unlike its offspring All Quiet on the Western Frontthe Big Parade was not an explicitly anti-war film. It tells the story of three young men in America in 1917 on the eve of the American entrance into World War I. They are: Slim, a blue-collar steelworker; Bull O’Hara, a bartender; and Jim Apperson (played by John Gilbert), the son of a wealthy merchant. The latter is the main character. The setting of Section I is as follows: Jim is a spoiled son, preferring not to work, however when the war is announced in the newspapers, his home-town love interest expresses how much more she will love him in his army suit. Thus, amid a grand parade for the soldiers, Jim joins the army and is united with Bull and Slim as they march into France. They are put on patrol in a small French village, and Jim falls in love with a young peasant woman there, Melisande. Their budding romance is cut short when the American soldiers are called to the front line.

In Section II: the plot is less rosy. The men march to the frontline through an elaborately staged set – through the woods, they march in formation amidst sniper fire and cannon fire at the front. Somehow the three men survive together in a bombed-out foxhole, but when Slim gets injured outside the foxhole, Jim tries to rescue him but it is too late. Both Jim and Bull get injured – and both Bull and Slim wind up dead. Jim’s leg is injured, and though he tries, he is unable to bring himself to kill an enemy German in his foxhole who is also dying, so he gives the young man a cigarette. Jim is rescued by the red cross and is taken to a disgusting hospital in a church, but when he finds out the small French town where Melisande lives is being bombed, he attempts to flee the church on a crutch, but he cannot find her. He is taken home, and his father greets him, reminding him of his love back home, but Jim’s mother witnesses Jim’s brother his old girlfriend kissing. She has now fallen in love with his brother. Jim returns home on crutches with his leg amputated. After being home for a period, he departs for France in the hopes of finding Melisande.

The film was made only seven years after the Great War’s Armistice – fresh in the minds of many of its viewers. It was the first war film to tell the story from the perspective of a soldier. It was the first smash-hit box office success for the newly formed MGM studios, and it may well have been the most commercially successful silent film of all-time (though perhaps this title best rests with Birth of a Nation). The Big Parade was MGM’s biggest hit until Gone With The Wind. It established Director, King Vidor as one of the top directors in Hollywood for the rest of his life. The screenplay for the film was adopted by a semi-autobiographical novel by Laurence Stallings called Plumes.

King Vidor – some of his best loved films include The Big Parade (1925), and The Crowd (1928). He famously directed the Kansas sequences of The Wizard of Oz. Who was King Vidor? He was raised in Texas and started a career as a freelance projectionist. He was a lifelong Republican, and a staunch anti-communist. He had one of the longest spanning careers as a director in Hollywood. He married three different times, and died at age 88 of a heart attack at his ranch in Paso Robles, CA, in 1982 where the current olive oil business PasoLivo currently resides. He was a devoted Christian Scientist.

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The Big Parade is a powerful film – emotional, violent, romantic, and even funny. It is an epic that forever changed the landscape of cinema and is a joy to watch. The playful scene of gum chewing in Section I counteracts the majestic battle sequences in Section II which are still as potent as when the film was released. The film is a classic.