Director: King Vidor
Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Corp.; black and white, 35mm, silent with music score; running time: about 93 minutes; length: 9 reels, 8538–8548 feet. Released 3 March 1928.
Producer: King Vidor; scenario: King Vidor, John V.A. Weaver and Harry Behn; titles: Joseph Farnham; photography: Henry Sharp; editor: Hugh Wynn; production designers: Cedric Gibbons and Arnold Gillespie.
Cast: Eleanor Boardman (Mary); James Murray (John); Bert Roach (Bert); Estelle Clark (Jane); Daniel G. Tomlinson (Jim); Dell Henderson (Dick); Lucy Beaumont (Mother); Freddie Burke Frederick (Junior); Alice Mildred Puter (Daughter).
Vidor, King, A Tree Is a Tree, New York, 1953; revised edition, 1977.
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* * *
King Vidor's career wavered between the lure of romantic, erotic melodrama and the stricter morality of his Christian Science background. After three John Gilbert vehicles, including the popular The Big Parade, Vidor was able to sell MGM on a bleak, expressionist urban tragedy of the sort made fashionable by the novels of Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, and John Dos Passos. Other studios, notably Fox, already enjoyed considerable success in this area due to their importation of German and Austrian directors like Murnau and Dupont. MGM, committed to a policy of mainly Scandinavian recruitment, lacked such experts in relentless art of the "city film." Vidor persuaded Irving Thalberg to permit this single excursion into the field by offering to produce "The Big Parade of peace"—clearly a strategem, since The Crowd is as cynical and relentless as his World War I romantic drama was soft-centered and sentimental.
The Crowd is a remarkable aberration to come from the optimistic, cheerful MGM machine, mocking as it does American fictions of self-advancement and ambition. John Sims's birth on July 4th, 1900, is greeted with elation by his father. "He's a little man the world's going to hear from," he crows. But social circumstances, Vidor points out, guide our life from childhood. John's schoolboy friends already have their careers mapped out for them, especially the black boy who boasts in comic minstrel patter of the time "I detend to be a preacher man. Hallelujah!"
No less a social stereotype, John is forced by his father's early death to join the crowd who fill the streets of New York. "You've got to be good in that town if you want to beat the crowd," remarks a gaunt stranger as John watches the skyline from a ferry. As a huge office building swallows up the young Sims, we realize he has become another victim of the city, subject to its whims, threatened by its pressures.
John's early enthusiasm for city life, fuelled by visits to Coney Island, an early marriage and the unexpected windfall of a $500 slogan-writing contest prize, is crushed by the random death of his child, then unemployment and a slide to the humiliation of selling vacuum cleaners door to door, until he becomes a juggling sandwich-board man—a character seen before and mocked by Sims, but who returns like the clown in The Blue Angel as a memento mori. Interfering relatives nearly destroy Sims's marriage, but the love of his son saves him from a suicide attempt and he's finally reunited with his wife. "The crowd laughs with you always," warns a title, "but it will cry with you for only a day."
Vidor tried seven endings before shooting one incorporating this bleak moral. Sims and his family visit a vaudeville show, and are last seen howling at the antics of two clowns, swallowed in a mindless laughing crowd.
Always attracted by expressionism and stylisation, Vidor exercised his penchant for both in The Crowd. Characters seem swallowed by their environment; the office building where John works (actually a model) is one of thousands in the city, and the camera zooms in through a window, apparently at random, to choose him, just another wage slave in an office of identical desks reaching in forced perspective to infinity. Earlier in the film, when John hears of his father's death, Vidor creates a vision of his threatened status by placing the boy on a staircase constructed against a distorted impression of a corridor actually painted on the back wall of the set. John, sustained by a relative, seems to hover between the inquisitive crowd huddled around the doorway and a threatening, unknown future.
James Murray, a minor featured performer (and not, as Vidor claimed, an extra) superbly conveys the feckless, ukelele-plucking John Sims mindlessly letting the world carry him along. (He was never to be offered work of this standard again, and drowned in the Hudson River in 1936; used to his gagging, watchers thought he was joking and failed to attempt a rescue.) Eleanor Boardman, later Vidor's wife, is an effective support.
But, as in all "city films," the individuals are dwarfed by an unfeeling capitalist society. Vidor emphasises this isolation in the film's most striking images; trying to quiet the crowd to soothe his dying child, Sims sets himself against the hurrying mob, hands thrust out, eyes blind; clocks dictate the coming and going of the city people with a relentless Langian power; even the couple's honeymoon is dwarfed by the torrent of Niagara plunging past the ledge on which they sit. A mis-step and it will carry them away.
Thalberg was alarmed at the bleak vision Vidor presented to him. The film was delayed for a year, and released to respectful reviews but little profit. Vidor went straight on to two Marion Davies comedies for William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Pictures, then based on the MGM lot. It was not until An American Romance that he had a chance to deal with the larger quasi-political issues he addressed in The Crowd, and by then the moment had passed.