Thursday, February 2, 2012
Review – The Crowd
February 2, 2011
The Crowd – U.S., 1928
There’s a moment in King Vidor’s masterful 1928 silent film The Crowd in which a young man who has newly become a husband looks at his young bride sitting in front of Niagara Falls and decides to take a picture of her. The idea seems simple enough, and yet one can plainly see just how significant the request is to her. She protests for a bit as if she is not worthy of having her picture taken and then makes several unsuccessful attempts to find the best pose. She finally settles on one in which she is lying on the ground looking up towards the sky, and the picture is taken. The scene is simple enough, and yet it speaks volumes about the characters and the times in which they live. Watch the way the man’s expression changes as his wife tries to find a position she deems worthy of being preserved. It is clear that his admiration of and attraction to his wife is increasing with each new pose. And witness just how big the smile is on her face. This picture undoubtedly conveys a message to her about the health and stability of their relationship. It reinforces all of their feelings, and their embrace after the picture is taken is surprisingly powerful, much more so than many of today’s love scenes, which leave much less to the imagination.
The Crowd has other moments that speak of a different, sometimes more innocent time. The group of young idealistic young boys who sit in a row fishing and talking about what they will be when they grow up. The row of nervous men who line the walls of the maternity ward, not a single one in the delivery room with his wife. The long columns of small desks that large groups of men crunch numbers at for eight hours a day. The way men stand outside a building waiting for their wives or girlfriends to come out and then walk up one by one, take their loved ones by the arm, and walk down the street with them merrily. The way companies looking for employees use chalkboards to announce how many jobs there are looking to fill or simply stand on a tiny platform and announce the kind of worker they are looking for. That men run to these announcements in droves also tells us something about the economic plight of these characters. However, while The Crowd takes place during a certain period in American history, its characters are timeless, and their story could be set in every decade before the film was released and in every decade since.
The film’s central character is Johnny Sims (James Murray). Born of the Fourth of July at the turn of the century, he grows up being told that he is meant to do great things. At the age of twelve, while his friends speak of becoming cowboys and preachers, he looks into the sky and proudly proclaims, “My dad says I’m going to be someone big.” This impression stays with him as the years go by, and even though he later finds himself sitting at desk #137 writing numbers in columns all day, his belief in himself has not diminished one iota. As the film’s intertitles explain, he is just one of the millions in New York who thinks that the city depends on him for its future success. He is, of course, mistaken. One day after work, his friend Bert (Bert Roach) convinces him to go on a double date with him instead of going home to study. Johnny agrees, and that night he meets Mary (Eleanor Boardman), the woman who will change his life forever. They eventually marry and have children. They experience high and lows, joy and sorrow, triumphs and defeats. Through it all, Johnny holds tightly to the belief that his father instilled in him, that he is destined to be a man in the mold of Lincoln and Washington. The evidence is to the contrary, though. Johnny just doesn’t know that there’s nothing wrong with this.
The heart of the film is the relationship between Johnny and Mary, and Vidor could not have found two more perfect actors that Murray and Boardman. The two of them have amazing chemistry, and a few of their scenes are about as passionate as a scene could be in the late 1920’s. Murray displays terrific timing in his more comedic scenes, and he shows amazing range during much more dramatic ones. There’s one moment in particular that is utterly heartbreaking. In it, Johnny moves around a noisy crowd pleading with people to lower their voices because his daughter is sick and needs quiet. From a less capable actor, it might have come across as unrealistic. However, Murray makes us see it as an act of desperation – it’s all he can do.
Boardman matches Murray’s performance and then takes it up a notch, and to watch her is to watch a real artist at work. In one amazing scene, Mary and Johnny have a major argument, and in the heat of the argument, Mary announces that she is leaving, takes out a suitcase, and begins to pack her things. Johnny does nothing to stop her and storms out of the apartment. It is then that we see an incredible display of acting skills, for Boardman goes from being upset to calming herself down, to waiting for a few moments for Johnny to walk back in the door, to then slowly falling into a complete panic as she realizes that he may in fact not be coming back, that he may actually be abandoning their marriage. Vidor keeps the camera focused on her, and he gives her the time she needs to register each emotion and to convey to the audience the pain and panic she is experiencing. It’s an incredible moment, and The Crowd provides Boardman many more moments like this - some happy, some not to. It’s truly an Oscar-caliber performance.
Vidor was a skilled director, and a few scenes in The Crowd truly bare this out. Early in the film, he positions his camera at the top of a staircase and then films a much younger Johnny ascending the stairs tentatively after seeing an ambulance arrive at his house. The scene is incredibly dramatic, and I interpreted each cautious step he took to be one more towards an acceptance that his life would never be the same again. Vidor repeats the technique when Johnny enters the maternity ward to see Mary and his newborn child. The ward is enormous, and to get to Mary, he has to walk quite a distance. Each step is an acceptance of the change that has occurred in his life. And then there’s the film’s final image, of Johnny sitting in a theater laughing. Vidor pulls the camera back to reveal just how big the crowd is surrounding him, and soon it’s impossible to even know which face is his.
The Crowd remains a powerful and moving film. In Johnny and Mary, we see people we know, perhaps even ourselves, people who are struggling to make do, people who would be content with what they have if only life and circumstance had not forced them to strive for something more. And the film reminds us that greatness is not always about being famous or rich; sometimes it comes in smaller forms – being able to provide for one’s family, raising children who are extraordinary, and being the hero they aspire to be like. In short, The Crowd moved me in a way that few films have. It deserves to be talked about as one of the great ones of all time. (on DVD)