The Crowd (1928) was both a groundbreaking and courageous film for a major director to initiate at MGM in the pre-Depression era – a big budget production without major stars, almost plotless, lacking in dramatic conflict, and about an ordinary couple struggling for a life in the big city after a brief courtship and a honeymoon at Niagara Falls. Lead character John Sims’ ambition, at once foolish but necessary, sustains him through his dreary routine as one of the mob on the office “assembly line”. The strain placed on the marriage, played out with uncommon honesty for a Hollywood production, brings out the best in his wife, Mary. But the couple’s moment of optimism is suddenly overcome by tragedy, heightened by the unfeeling crowd. The film is moving without being unequivocally happy or tragic, the theme summed up by one of the film’s intertitles: “the crowd laughs with you always… but will cry with you for only a day”.
Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon in their book length study of King Vidor’s career locate The Crowd in an international wave of populist films in the ’20s and ’30s including the German populism of Berlin Alexanderplatz (Phil Jutzi, 1931) and Asphalt (Joe May, 1929), Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven (1927), Vidor’s Street Scene (1931), Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), Jean Renoir’s Toni (1935) and Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936), and Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se lève (1939), as well as “the same cinematic current obscured by another label, ‘neorealism’, after 1945”. The theme of “the crowd” is a motif of screen populism that was pervasive in the cinema between the wars (1).
Sims arrives in New York full of the ambition instilled in him by his father who, at his birth the 4th of July 1900, predicts the arrival of “a little man the world’s going to hear from all right”, a confidence not easily deflated by a stranger’s prognosis as they contemplate the Manhattan skyline: “You’ve got to be good in that town if you want to beat the crowd”.
The core theme is the loneliness in being one of the crowd, subject to its fleetingly concerned curiosity in moments of untimely tragedy and its active indifference to the individual’s plight. It is not a positive cruelty but is played against the “excess” of John’s desperation and grief in response to which the crowd seems to close ranks. Its representatives (one of the employment queue; a policeman) take him to task, in one instance for his imploring cry for preference in a queue for work, in the other for Sims’ extended expression of anguish, his poignantly futile gestures to the passing traffic for quiet as his daughter’s life ebbs away.
In his autobiography Vidor recounted his response to MGM studio head Irving Thalberg’s prompting on how he might top the huge success of The Big Parade. The director spontaneously came up with the idea of the average fellow’s walk through life “as a battle…. One of the Mob [the suggested title]” (2). This notion of the ordinary man as hero, central to both The Big Parade and The Crowd, runs through Vidor’s films even to the casting of the naturalistic Gary Cooper as the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired figure of Howard Roark in the symbolically expressionist The Fountainhead (1949) and “prairie philosopher” Henry Fonda as Pierre in War and Peace (1956), a character Vidor claimed he had been trying to put on the screen in many of his films (3).
James Murray was a minor player discovered at a glance by Vidor after a lengthy search to find someone to play “one of the crowd”. Murray never capitalised on his success in the role of John Sims and drifted into alcoholism, unemployment and untimely death in the Hudson River in 1936, after rejecting Vidor’s offer of a comeback lead in the “sequel”, Our Daily Bread (1934) (4). To critic Raymond Durgnat “it’s as if something in his soul never recovered from the low point of John’s depressions” (5). Another relatively minor lead, Eleanor Boardman (then Vidor’s wife), gave the performance of her life as Sims’ wife, Mary.
Vidor made the most of the rare opportunity to make a film about ordinary lives with MGM’s extraordinary resources. He seamlessly combined naturalistic filming, on occasions using hidden cameras on the streets of New York, with expressionistic use of studio sets, lighting and camera placement to heighten moments of personal crisis (see, for example, the use of perspective as John climbs the stairs to learn of his father’s death) and the teeming loneliness of the city which at times threatens to envelop the characters: the open-plan office set reprised 30 years later in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960); models of skyscrapers over which suspended cameras could track; an overhead shot of the crowd clustered around the accident victim.
The Crowd sat on the shelves for a year after its completion, a reflection of the studio’s uncertainty in handling it. Seven different endings were previewed and exhibitors were finally given the option of two. To Vidor’s relief they selected his preferred “semi-cynical” ending with its ambivalent suggestion, on one hand, of lessons learned or, on the other, of fleeting respite.
Despite being slated by the Variety critic as “a drab actionless story of ungodly length”, The Crowd was generally well-received critically and its reputation has continued to grow. The oft-repeated claim that it was a failure with the public seems inaccurate. While it was not a smash hit, The Crowd grossed more than double its considerable production costs and returned a small profit to the studio (6). It now stands as one of the great silent films and, as such, has served as an inspiration, most notably to Vittorio De Sica, for another path breaking film about ordinary lives made some 20 years later, Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) (7).
- Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon, King Vidor, American, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988, p. 78.
- King Vidor, A Tree is a Tree, Harcourt, Brace, New York, 1953, p. 99.
- Director’s Guild of America Oral History, quoted in Durgnat and Simmon, p. 302.
- Murray was not an extra as Vidor claimed. He was a minor featured player who had appeared in several films prior to his discovery by Vidor. In 1928 he played the male lead opposite Joan Crawford in the first of three film versions of Rose Marie, now regarded as lost. Altogether he appeared in more than 30 films, many in small parts.
- Durgnat and Simmon, p. 86.
- Kevin Brownlow, Behind the Mask of Innocence, Jonathan Cape, London, 1990, p. 299.
- Brownlow, p. 298.
The Crowd (1928 USA 98 mins)
Prod Co: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Prod, Dir: King Vidor Scr: King Vidor, John V. A. Weaver, Harry Behn, from a story by Vidor Phot: Henry Sharp Prod Des: Cedric Gibbons, Arnold Gillespie Ed: Hugh Wynn
Cast: James Murray, Eleanor Boardman, Bert Roach, Estelle Clark, Daniel G. Tomlinson, Dell Henderson