The Crowd (1928, King Vidor)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
During the silent canon project that’s now nearing completion (for the time being) here, we’ve talked repeatedly about how European directors entering the Hollywood system cast a long and permanent shadow over American filmmaking. The artistic innovations of F.W. Murnau at Fox, Victor Sjostrom and Erich von Stroheim at MGM, and Ernst Lubitsch and Josef von Sternberg (an Austrian who’d lived in the U.S. since he was a teenager) at Paramount together, among others, provided the biggest challenge to the studios’ attachment to a formula of star-making and star-building, to the outwardly simple requirements of mass entertainment. These directors self-consciously made art, and this impulse spread quickly to their American peers; Frank Borzage, Raoul Walsh, Tod Browning, John Ford and King Vidor all made movies that would have been unimaginable without the effect both of other national cinemas, the German cinema especially, and of these emigrant directors on their work.
Vidor’s The Crowd, a harrowing, realistic drama about the foibles and tragedy in the life of a dysfunctional young couple, is the sterling example of such creative fusion, its most tantalizing contradiction being that its effortlessly timeless story could not find such clear, unobstructed expression in any other era of cinema. The waning years of silent cinema at MGM were perhaps the most creatively fruitful of all; it isn’t that The Crowd, The Wind, He Who Gets Slapped, The Big Parade, Greed and The Unknown are all creatively impeccable triumphs (though several are) so much as that this was a time and place when such varied storytelling and experimentation were permitted to thrive under the aegis of a large-scale motion picture studio — thanks above all to head of production Irving Thalberg, a populist who knew audiences but also trusted talent, and who was capable of standing up to mogul Louis Mayer and the exhibitors behind him when necessary. It nearly always was.
King Vidor, meanwhile, had earned the right to deliver The Crowd and Hallelujah, two big and accomplished films about “small people,” because of the massive popular success of his WWI epic The Big Parade, and of La Boheme, a romantic picture pairing that film’s star, John Gilbert, with Lillian Gish. Vidor had given MGM considerable financial motivation — with plenty more on the way — to consider his own artistic impulses, and Thalberg gave the director probably the longest leash experienced by anyone during this period of MGM’s history. The model for both the film and the method was Murnau’s Sunrise, seen by William Fox as an investment in art rather than a commercial prospect. In many ways The Crowd, explicitly pitched by Vidor as an experiment, is an even more uncompromising film than that masterpiece: it’s far less optimistic, its characterizations are more intricate and detailed, and while Sunrise boasted Janet Gaynor in the lead, The Crowd intentionally cast two relative unknowns as its central couple. James Murray was a Hollywood extra with a magnetic smile, destined to suffer one of the industry’s most precipitous star declines; Eleanor Boardman a former model and stage actress who was then married to Vidor.
It’s not idle behavior to measure these two landmark films about marriages encountering difficulties against one another. Murnau wanted Sunrise to be a fable, almost precisely the opposite of Vidor’s intentions for The Crowd (which he also cowrote); the opening title card in Murnau’s film emphasizes an out-of-time simplicity in the tale set to follow. Vidor injects The Crowd with specificity, though he doesn’t dwell on anything that badly dates the film; the characters, John and Mary, are meant to feel like real people with believable flaws and behaviors that don’t simply correspond to formula and are not necessarily predictable at the outset of the film. The setting is not some hazy, mysterious, vaguely Germanic village; it is Manhattan at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the cracks of the Depression not yet visible but the stage being set. Where the two films coalesce most clearly is in their expressionistic, surreal photography, which in both cases is not a gimmick to back up the art-film pretense but a deliberately innovative and intense measure to help communicate this story nonverbally.
This becomes apparent very early on. We see our hero, the decidedly ordinary but also wholly unique John Mills, being born on Independence Day 1900 and watch the years quickly roll by an he reaches his twelfth birthday, around which time he is playing and talking with a group of friends when he sees a horse-drawn ambulance pull up outside of his home. Vidor places the following shot at the top of the staircase, starkly glaring down at an angle on the group of people gathered at the foot, the young boy John mounting the steps slowly and fearfully before he’s to be told — in a title card that finally breaks this long take, after which we move closer to him — that his father has died, the father who’d begun his son’s life with such lofty ambitions for him. This sets The Crowd in motion as a distinctly American story, which is another way of saying it is fraught with disappointment.
Soon afterward comes the most iconic and influential moment of The Crowd, though whether it really deserves this status above everything that follows is another question. Now an adult, John has come to New York intending to make a name for himself, looking out at the world and knowing he can conquer it and that none of the mistakes of so many others will doom him; he even laughs at those who’ve fallen hard enough to be juggling in the streets and explains that all he needs is a chance to show this town what he can do. We switch to a long sequence of dissolves, starting with a broad view of the city from above that gradually zeroes in on a single building; Vidor and Henry Sharp’s camera moves improbably and ominously in from below on a single window where we are introduced to the office of the low-tier ad agency where John now draws a paycheck. His is one desk among an army of the very same desk, seemingly the very same man, in what seems almost an infinitely large room with an unforgiving coldness about it. Positioned just far enough from his peers so that his situation appeals unnerving and lonely, he nevertheless plods along and delves into his work, which is supplemented by a commission-based contest to come up with slogans, for which an initial cash sum is provided, then nothing for the further use of intellectual property. (Some things never change: while The Crowd has been forgotten by mainstream audiences, this specific shot has echoed down through American movies ever since it was first projected, most famously in an explicit homage made by Billy Wilder — in CinemaScope — in The Apartment.)
This shot additionally communicates the meaning of the film’s title, though earlier dialogue puts it less poetically. The crowd is that mass of humanity, every single drop of which “has its reasons,” in Jean Renoir’s phrase, in which John now finds himself subsumed. There’s talk of standing out among them, lifting oneself above them, laughing or crying with them and existing despite them, all visually manifested both here and at the end of the film. There are two stories here, and one is about how John sees the world — as himself against the tide — while the other is really Vidor’s voice, communicating the vital truth that everyone in the faceless throng has a story so different from John’s, but somehow also just like it. The use of process shots, visual effects and specially constructed sets to convey this is a strong echo of German Expressionism but manifested quite differently, with Vidor’s camera consistently positioned and moving in order for it to best allow the film’s atmosphere and visual language to live up to both the ordinariness of its setting and story and the emotional urgency in nearly every one of its scenes.
During a vibrant series of scenes set at Luna Park, John is set up with and hits it off with Mary, who’s to become his wife. Whereas John is an eager-to-please cutup with a streak of narcissism, Mary as embodied by Boardman is coy but sensitive. That her emotions are so easy to read throughout the film is not a comment on some theatricality in Boardman’s acting (for one thing, said emotions are more tortuously complex and verbally inexpressible than anything in even Gaynor’s work in Sunrse and 7th Heaven) but on the confidence of the character herself and the respect she both commands and expects, from her husband as well as from others. It’s one of the greatest performances in Hollywood silent cinema. The childlike joy these two are indulging in when we first see them together gives way, in the montage of days turning to months, to the rude awakening of a rushed courtship transformed to cohabitation.
Not played for laughs (though they’re mildly funny), the petty squabbling that ensues as these two learn to live together, and as Mary learns that John is still kind of a big kid, is monstrously familiar to anyone who got themselves into a fix like this at too young an age. Dumb things go wrong and elevating tension comes out of events as minute as malfunctioning toilets, full milk bottles and simple, mild miscommunications. At a Christmas Eve gathering, John tries to make nice with the in-laws who think little of him, fumbling it hilariously (title cards can ruin a scene that relies on comic timing, which is why most of the best silent comedies have little to do with dialogue, but Vidor uses them expertly throughout the film and especially here; The Crowd may in fact have more dialogue than any other great silent feature), then fucks up by going out and getting drunk spontaneously. Mary’s acceptance of this behavior is both troubling and touching, insofar as she appreciates her husband’s discomfort and is still — at this stage, at least — understanding of his transgressions. There’s also a moment in which Vidor fixes the camera on Boardman after the pair fights and John leaves in a huff; we stay on her as she cycles through a series of frustrations and emotions wordlessly, eventually feeling heartbroken about their interaction and reaching out to him, and all of this is achieved without a single title, surely one of the most moving and undiluted examples of outstanding acting on film.
But all is clearly not well, and the situation isn’t made better by the entrance into the newlyweds’ lives of a pair of children, born in rapid succession. We go with John to the maternity ward the first time through, and on this momentous occasion Vidor briefly lets time stop again, his camera starting to follow him into the room then hesitating, as he does, before camera and hero both move in farther to reveal yet another “crowd”: a massive room full of hospital beds, each with a new life preparing — with any luck — to set its own path. When John finds Mary and the baby, she spots his anxiety and stress and expresses pity for him; he doesn’t respond, even though she has just given birth, another signal that things could be better. A subsequent beach picnic, supposedly a vacation for Mary from catering to the every need of two small kids and a husband, only mirrors the apartment sequence earlier, especially as John wanders idly around failing to provide any meaningful help.
Throughout the first act of The Crowd we hear John repeatedly mention how much better things will be “when [his] ship comes in.” At around the halfway point of the film, it does, sort of: one of his slogans gets utilized and the family is $500 richer. There’s a shot of Mary, rocking back and forth, budgeting out how the money will be used, before John bounds home with an armload of gifts. Their kids are across the street with friends, but Mary and John both emerge from the upper window waving the children’s fabulous prizes and encouraging them to run back home. And it’s here that The Crowd turns the corner into full-on tragedy.
The Mills’ little girl, excited over the toys, begins to run across the street, too late for an oncoming truck to swerve and miss her. Her death, presented without sentimental compromise but free of exploitative bloodlust, reverberates for the rest of the film. First, John is understandably unable to concentrate at work afterward — her final moments, harrowingly and all too believably, shown repeating in his head over and over — and quits his job, leading to another moment of saintly patience on Mary’s part (she isn’t told about his decision until after she’s shown up at the company picnic with food, but accepts the change) and then a series of unsatisfying odd jobs, culminating — after a brazen, short-lived thought of suicide — in the very one John mocked near the beginning of the film: juggling on the street to call attention to a local restaurant. By this point, his many irate departures from one job after another have sent Mary to the end of her rope and she prepares to leave with their son.
John arrives home with money, confronted by in-laws, and does his best to persuade his wife that he will try to change. But Mary’s heard this and heard it and heard it again, and for all the obvious compassion and love for him that Boardman so elegantly communicates in her disappointed countenance, it’s to Vidor and the film’s credit that his begging leads nowhere. They spin a favorite record and dance one last time, and it’s wrenching. Nevertheless, he is able to convince her to bring the boy out for a friendly theater night and for a moment they are almost carefree watching the comedy on the stage; he doesn’t even register bitterness when he sees his old company is still using the slogan he dreamed up. And for the third time, Vidor moves the camera — this time outward — and shows us an entire world of people in the same audience, each with their own pain, reminding us that while John and Mary’s story is unique, it’s but one among billions, which is both heartening and terribly dispiriting.
This was the ending Vidor wanted and fought for, with Thalberg joining him in the crusade despite the objections of Louis B. Mayer; unlike Victor Sjostrom, Lillian Gish and Thalberg during the year The Wind spent in limbo, Vidor successfully got his film made and released according to his original vision. Perhaps he managed this because of his own name recognition and cachet, or perhaps it was that the finale of The Crowd can be loosely interpreted as a happy ending; there’s the suggestion that the Millses may rekindle, but mostly the third act is unforgivingly bleak and despairing, with an almost certainly broken marriage and perhaps even a permanently empty life forming its core, with only fleeting pleasures like the last one destined to come. Vidor presents this without condescension for those struggling; it’s a compassionate film that takes its people seriously and never forsakes the humanity in its characters or uses them as props, and in fact permits them humor and joy. But it does not hold its punches in regard to the uphill battle at the core of the supposed American dream.
Regardless of the film’s dim perspective on the capitalistic concept of upward mobility and what that implies about its creators’ political leanings, despite the way it scathingly presents an ambitious man to us then knocks him down block by block, and despite the righteousness in its refusal to sugarcoat the plight of its young central figures, what you remember about The Crowd is how knowable, warm and full-bodied John and Mary become to us. It’s not about being immersed in “the little guy” a la Frank Capra, brilliant as his films are; and it’s not about manipulating a human story to craft a socialist screed, which isn’t necessary. Rather, what makes a mark here is that Vidor loves, admires and is deeply interested in these characters and their lives, and this is passed effortlessly on to us.
So many of the best American films thereafter have called back to John and Mary Mills, consciously or not: think of the future MGM smash Min and Bill, or of Frank Borzage’s scrappier but no less affecting story of young marrieds, Bad Girl or of William Wyler’s landmarks Dodsworth (finding equal depth and complexity in a rich man’s life) and The Best Years of Our Lives, or — maybe most of all — of Jonathan Demme’s incisively small-scale paean to American ordinariness and the eternal pluck of a perpetual screwup, Melvin and Howard. Or to take this all the way to just these final months of 2016, no two American films have so effectively communicated the horror and pain of parental grief as this one and Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. The Crowd echoes down through all of these stories, and what they have in common is that, like Vidor, they take pains to resist the impetus to laugh at the regular, extraordinary people inhabiting them. If anything, they laugh with them, but more importantly they demonstrate, again and again and again, respect for them — and, by vital extension, respect for all of us watching.