Friday, September 18, 2020

The Crowd (1928)

USA, 98 minutes
Director: King Vidor
Writers: King Vidor, John V.A. Weaver, Joseph Farnham, Harry Behn
Photography: Henry Sharp
Editor: Hugh Wynn
Cast: James Murray, Eleanor Boardman, Bert Roach, Daniel G. Tomlinson, Dell Hnderson, Lucy Beaumont, Estelle Clark

I've always been confused by the title of this silent feature from director and cowriter King Vidor. On one level it's obvious enough, set in the teeming New York City of the 1920s, with thousands of incidental extras thronging the streets in you-are-there shots documentary style. The picture also throws in homilies along the way about peer pressure and keeping up with the crowd and the problems of getting out of step with the crowd, etc. But if "three's a crowd" then The Crowd is more accurately about "company," as it spends most of its time following the domestic trials of a young couple meeting (antiquated) cute, marrying, and starting out. It's obviously inspired in many ways by Sunrise, which came out the year before, and if The Crowd can't match the inspired heights of F.W. Murnau's stone classic (which not many can) it still has a few nifty tricks up its sleeve.

The most famous might be a complicated model shot that sends us sailing through the window of a skyscraper on a high floor and into an industrialized office-worker space with desks set out in columns and rows like regiments in Triumph of the Will. It's famous because it's so well done, like a magic trick, and thus shows up in any number of nostalgic documentary exercises about silent films and/or the 1920s and/or social realism. Billy Wilder shoplifted elements for some of the most memorable scenes in The Apartment. But The Crowd looks forward much more to The Best Years of Our Lives than Billy Wilder or Leni Riefenstahl, each perhaps equally cynical but in polar opposite ways. The Crowd, by contrast, would not know cynicism if it walked up to it and bit it on the nose.

In 2020 I am dutybound to report that The Crowd, though it is mostly set explicitly in 1921 to maybe 1927, has nothing at all to say about any deadly flu epidemic. It does remind us in passing of the strange experiment of Prohibition, which until recently has been most emblematic of 1920s hysteria, as it probably still should be. Can you imagine? If people object to wearing masks now, what would they make of the systematic removal of drinking alcohol from legal life? FREE DUMB! But I digress, as Prohibition also is not a significant part of the story in The Crowd, which stays focused on John Sims (James Murray) and his wife Mary (Eleanor Boardman), along with Mary's churlish mother and two brothers (as "the in-laws").

John is an early type of useless urban nitwit, witty and charming but with little practical skill, some sort of bookkeeper drudge in his day job. To paraphrase David Lee Roth on Elvis Costello and rock critics, moviemakers love guys like this (usually guys, of course) because so many movies are made by guys like this (Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen, and Quentin Tarantino, to name three off the top of my head). John likes to have fun, sit around joking and playing the ukulele, and he can't keep a job. Mary's family, especially the brothers (who are sinister and not entirely respectable themselves, with nice suits but source of income unspecified), think he is a loser and sucker of some kind. They're ready to help Mary whenever she is ready to split.

The Crowd follows John and Mary closely. They meet on a blind date, John getting together with his friend Bert (Bert Roach) as second for a double date after a day's work in the city. They ride a double-decker bus, enjoying the street scenes in the open air, chewing gum with relish and abandon, on their way to a night at Coney Island (whose scenes would later show up in Truffaut's The 400 Blows). That very date turns into a marriage proposal—and marriage. Then it's off to a honeymoon adventure on a train ride to Niagara Falls. Thinking about it more, John and Mary would probably have been the better title. Get me rewrite!

The Crowd spins forward in time faster after the honeymoon, going through their first Christmas, first fights, having children, the bumpy road for most young couples. Then there's a tragedy that severely challenges everything. It is sad and even shocking, sprung like a trap—we don't really see it coming in this celebration of middlebrow office worker Sisyphean tedium. Vidor asserts the joy of John and Mary repeatedly, but it feels hollow, their lives defined more by the rank and file march to nowhere of the faceless masses. Here is where the social realism starts to bite, as the hopelessness of their lives (we know now) is about to deepen with the Great Depression.

Did I say The Crowd is not cynical? It's a little cynical, but that's all in the strange and a little cold yet somehow heartening finish, one of nine (9) reportedly filmed by Vidor and wrangled over by studio heads. John and Mary have had a fight that takes them closer than they've ever been to a final finish. Her suitcases are packed and her hulking brothers are there to get them. Then the tide somehow turns, as it will in these things. In the immortal words of David Bowie, "And if the homework brings you down / Then we'll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown." In the end everything is better when you can go out to a show and laugh your cares away with the crowd. Or maybe, striking the ironical tone, that should be "the crowd"? Classic last shot.

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