Monday, June 24, 2024

NFR Project: 'The Crowd' (1928)

The Crowd

Dir: King Vidor

Scr: King Vidor, John V.A. Weaver, Harry Behn, Joseph Farnham

Pho: Henry Sharp

Ed: Hugh Wynn

Premiere: February 28, 1928

98 min.

Ordinary people. A radical idea.

Movies were vehicles of escape and fantasy, in the 1920s just as much as today. The concept of documenting the everyday existence of nobody special was a non-starter in Hollywood. Fortunately, for director King Vidor, he had directed enough successful films (most notably The Big Parade [1925]) for the studio (MGM) to allow him to be given the benefit of the doubt. The result was a successful film that has endured as a critical favorite.

The movie is a oblisque indictment of capitalism in the guise of a domestic drama. The focus is on John, born on the Fourth of July in 1900. As a child, he dreams of making it big. As a young adult, his innocent belief that his “ship will come in,” giving him wealth and status, persists. He starts work as a lowly functionary in a large insurance company.

The athletic camera travels up the outside of a skyscraper, zooms in on a window and enters, revealing acres of desks occupied with men working at figures, with John one of the crowd. He goes on a double date and falls for fellow worker Mary (Eleanor Boardman, Vidor's wife). They wed and travel to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon, settling afterwards into a cramped two-room apartment next to the subway lines.

John keeps plugging away at his job, dreaming of catching his big break. Meanwhile, they have two children, and barely keep ahead of the bills. A family tragedy derails John’s sensibilities, leading him to quit his job. Months of unsuccessful applications for work follow. Mary considers leaving him. In the end, he finds a job, the two are reconciled, and the last we see of them they are laughing at a vaudeville show with their son, as the camera pulls back, leaving them subsumed into the crowd.

Although John is the protagonist, he is a weak and conflicted character. He is uncharitable to his wife until he finds out she is pregnant. Again and again, he claims he is on the brink of success, only to find his opportunities dried up and those around him unsympathetic. Mary is the strong one – sustaining her husband and putting up with his persistent delusions. It’s she whose common sense brings him back down to earth.

The rejection of the cliché that a good attitude and hard work will lead to wealth and fame underpins the film. John will not acknowledge his limitations, and does not reduce his expectations until he has been humiliated and humbled by financial realities. In the end, it is enough that Mary believes in him, and that this family will make the most of the simple pleasures to be had in this world.

Although production head Irving Thalberg OK’d the picture, studio boss Louis B. Mayer hated its bleak outlook and lack of a “happy ending.” The release of the picture was delayed a year. Seven different endings were filmed, all scaled to different degrees of happiness. In the end, the film was released with two different endings – Vidor’s original and a Christmas-themed joyful one. Exhibitors were given a choice as to what to show.

The film has unfortunate parallels with real life. James Murray, the actor who was plucked out of obscurity to play John, never had a productive career, slipping into alcoholism and poverty. Vidor ran into him on the street and offered him a role in his film, Our Daily Bread (1934). Murray rejected him angrily; his body was found in the Hudson River two years later.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: The Docks of New York.

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