The Crowd had every excuse to escape my notice.
We happened to cross paths a few years ago, as I was surrounded by a cloud of dust and annoyed. I had made up my mind to do some thorough cleaning on that day: dusting, vacuuming, laundering. The motivation for such an undertaking is, at least for me, rare and fleeting, and must be acted upon immediately. So I grabbed a dust rag and a bottle of Pledge, flipped on TCM as I often do, and settled in for the long haul.
Since most of my attention would be on the task at hand, I hoped merely for something to cut into the silence of such mundane work. Some witty dialogue–perhaps Cary Grant sparring with Katherine Hepburn, or Rosalind Russell or anyone, really–would’ve served me well in assuaging the monotony of dusting shelves and desktops. No doubt I was mildly crestfallen to be met instead by a silent film. A lot of good that would do me. I paid it little mind and pressed on, glancing up only occasionally. I’m almost certain I tuned in too late to catch the very beginning, and I couldn’t have told you anything that happens until about an hour in. At that point I looked up from my work to a scene of a family having a picnic at the shore. The children ran around in the sand making tight circles around the blanket, the little boy coming perilously closer to kicking the cake with each pass. Amid the chaos, Mom tried to put a meal together–over an open flame, no less. No basket full of sandwiches here. Dad’s contribution of ukulele-playing was immensely helpful. It’s a pleasant enough scene and it did nothing to upset my very shallow notions of silent film at the time: heartfelt but mostly lighthearted, a little slapstick-y, a literal day at the beach.
What followed surprised me. I’ll never forget it because I made an offhand comment to myself about the real world implications of the actions in the scene, but I never expected to see it play out the way it did onscreen. It got real. It got real, fast. And somehow I was sitting in the rocking chair in front of the TV, all pretense of cleaning abandoned. It pulled me in entirely and by the time the movie ended I knew I couldn’t let it just slip out of my life never to be heard from again. I had to discover its name and learn more about it.
The Crowd had every excuse to never make it to the screen.
It broke every rule for Hollywood success; it features no movie stars, no glamour, no escapism, almost no plot. It challenged social mores of the time. Characters drink casually during Prohibition. A wife tells her husband she’s pregnant, even if you have to read her lips to get the message. The film had the nerve to depict the reality that life in the land of opportunity can absolutely be a struggle. It even had the gall to show a toilet, earning the distinction as the first film to stoop to such base and commonness. To top it all, The Crowd ended up going more than $200,000 over budget. If not for another silent great that came before, it may never have seen the light of day.
Director King Vidor was fresh off The Big Parade (1925), a WWI epic that became MGM’s most profitable film, a title it held until a little flick called Gone with the Wind came along. It was a profit that largely passed the director by. MGM downplayed potential returns and talked Vidor into forfeiting his 20% interest in the film in favor of a large payment. Vidor recounted, “I thus spared myself from becoming a millionaire instead of a struggling young director trying to do something interesting and better with a camera.” Try he would.
Rather than making him a rich man, The Big Parade’s success allowed Vidor the opportunity for a passion project. As Vidor told Jordan Young, author of King Vidor’s The Crowd: The Making of a Silent Classic, in a 1978 interview, “I made pictures as a good employee and pictures that came out of my own insides. This is one that came out of my guts. There was a lot of hypocrisy in early films and I wanted to get away from it.” Whether as a reward for proven ability and return or perhaps as a way of atoning for screwing him out of his percentage, MGM and producer Irving Thalberg gave Vidor their full support.
The director responded with a story of the average man, here named John Sims. From unceremonious beginning–
–to adulthood, we follow John as he tries to forge an identity in the wide world. Along the way we see many of the major events of his life: a move to the city, marriage, fatherhood, triumph, loss. But The Crowd is as much about the minutiae that make up living as it is the major events. Faced with the task of following an incredibly successful war picture, Vidor set out to show “there must be other interesting environments which are dramatic for the average man. The average fellow walks through life and sees quite a lot of drama taking place around him. Objectively, life is like a battle, isn’t it?”
Johnny Sims does battle in New York City, to which he arrives with the nonspecific dream of being “somebody big” and naivete in his eyes. All he wants is an opportunity. He frequently says things like, “When I get my big job…” or “When my ship comes in…”
In the meantime he works as a clerk and waits for the clock to strike five each day. Vidor does some wonderful visual work in his introduction to New York City and John’s place in it, using a combination of work with miniatures and candid location filming to great effect.
From TCM host Ben Mankiewicz’s intro to the film, “The movie was shot on location in New York City and the city basically was unaware a movie was being made all around. Director King Vidor and his cinematographer (Henry Sharp) hid cameras in the back of delivery trucks and behind packing crates so the crowds would be captured candidly on film.”
The introduction ends with a God shot of a towering skyscraper.
Inside one of its windows, at one of its many desks, sits John Sims–Employee No. 137. Vidor’s camera scales the building’s great side, passing row by row of windows until it eventually ducks inside one, taking us to John’s floor before panning directly to his desk.
The resulting scene firmly and beautifully establishes the enormity of the great city, as well as the implication of how easily it could swallow up a little clerk. The film would be worth viewing for that 1:33 of its run time (which is available to view on YouTube through the link above) alone.
Despite the sheer number of others working, striving and competing around him, John is undaunted. On his first date with his future wife they take a ride on what looks like an early double-decker bus. John quite literally looks down on the crowd below.
He’s still green and above it all, but time has a way of humbling us. Before long John settles in to life as a married man with little money. He argues with his wife, is scrutinized by his in-laws, complains about the broken appliances in his apartment and laments his lack of progress at work. He is every bit the average man he so believed he’d be bigger than.
But this is no more cautionary tale about the perils of wanting more than it is propaganda for the American Dream. It is very simply, and just as complexly, Vidor’s artful yet honest depiction of life as he saw it, life as it is: The unexpected joys and the unrelenting sorrows. The achievements you hope to figure out how to duplicate and the failures you only hope will be followed by the resolve to carry on and try again. As John’s story continues to unfold, he and his wife, Mary, experience it all. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie that better captures what it is to be human. Or, for that matter, that comes closer to portraying reality–even with its intertitle cards, pantomiming and all.
Even with the support of Thalberg and MGM it wasn’t all smooth sailing for The Crowd. The film was held up for a year before being released; the studio didn’t know what to do with it and all parties concerned found it difficult to agree on an ending. According to Young’s book, at least seven different endings were written, and an undetermined number of those filmed. Vidor recollects MGM making him send out two different endings to give the exhibitor the choice of a more typical Hollywood finale, though it seems that ending was almost never shown and not well-received on the rare occasion when it did play.
On release, audiences didn’t quite know what to make of a movie that was perhaps a little too close to home. However, The Crowd did amass a worldwide take of $996,000. Not bad at about 90 cents a pop. The film was widely critically acclaimed. In the trade paper from February 26, 1928, the reviewer called The Crowd “an almost great film,” saying, “It’s so true to life… it clutches the heart, dims the eye and plays on every emotion.” Gilbert Seldes of The New Republic called it “the most interesting development in the American movie in years.” It was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Director and Most Unique and Artistic Picture (the only year that category existed—FW Murnau’s Sunrise won).
The cast is led by James Murray as John and Eleanor Boardman, Vidor’s then-wife, as Mary. Vidor picked virtual unknowns to ground his film, and they give worthy performances.
Boardman, formerly the “Kodak Girl” in a popular Eastman Kodak advertisement she modeled for as a teen, had planned on doing costume design and somehow became and actress instead. She worked frequently throughout the silent period and made several talkies, leaving the business some time after her divorce from Vidor to focus on her children. I look forward to tracking down Souls for Sale (1923), an early precursor to films like What Price, Hollywood? (1932), in which Boardman stars as… essentially herself: a girl who lands in Hollywood and makes it in pictures.
Murray had spent time in all manner of occupations, boxing, bill collecting and dish washing before he found acting. His performance as Sims is particularly moving and natural. Sadly, he battled alcoholism and was found dead in the Hudson River just eight years after the release of this, his greatest triumph. Apparently Vidor attempted to make a movie about Murray called The Actor, but it never came to fruition. I can’t imagine anyone could have handled Murray’s story with as much care and I dearly wish Vidor had made that film, or better still, that Murray had not gotten lost in the crowd.
Where to watch? Unfortunately, The Crowd is not currently available to own on DVD or Blu-ray in the US, which is a crying shame. From what I understand, it has been available to stream on Warner Archive Instant, but it is not part of their streaming library at this time. That pretty much leaves your pal and mine, TCM. And you’re in luck! TCM will be airing The Crowd on November 1 at 11 pm central time. Watch it, record it, guard it with your life. It deserves to be seen, shared and savored, and it doesn’t play especially often. Last time it aired on TCM I took the precaution of recording it on two different VHS tapes–as if VHS isn’t a technology with nine-and-a-half toes in the grave. Good thing, too, because as I was re-watching the movie in preparation to write about it, my VCR chewed the tape. It was a great adventure.
Though I have no inside information on the subject it seems unlikely this great silent will get a proper DVD or Blu release. It is now 87-years-old, unconventional and uncommercial as ever. But I wouldn’t bet against this movie’s chances of beating the odds. For all that it’s overcome, finding its way onto a disc doesn’t seem too tough. After all, on an afternoon more than eight decades after its release, when I was supposed to be cleaning–and with an assist from TCM–I saw it.
**This post is part of the TCM Discoveries Blogathon, hosted by Nitrate Diva. You can click the poster below to check out entries from other participants. Also, as cited in a quote above, some of the information in this post comes from Jordan R. Young’s book King Vidor’s The Crowd: The Making of a Silent Classic. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about this film.**