Monday Editor’s Pick: The Crowd (1928)

by on November 8, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon Nov 14 at 8:15 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
*Live piano accompaniment by Steve Sterner


Something to definitely look forward to: “The Silent Roar,” every Monday night through February 6. Film Forum will showcase a masterful late MGM silent with live piano accompaniment by NYC treasure Steve Sterner. Stroheim, Sjostrom, Browning, and Vidor are all on the slate, with the latter’s The Crowd majestically kicking things off. Incontestably influential on much that came after, this may be one of the cinema’s greatest works of art.


Just when you thought silent films a relic of the distance past, a familiar experience for any New York commuter:


Tom Milne for Time Out (London):

Certainly one of Vidor’s best films, a silent masterpiece which turns a realistically caustic eye on the illusionism of the American dream. A young man (‘born on America’s 124th birthday’) arrives in the big city convinced that he is going to set the world on fire, only to find that life isn’t quite like that. A humble but steady job leads to love, marriage, kids and a happiness arbitrarily cut short by an accident (one of the children is run over and killed) which leads to the loss of his job, despairing unemployment, and impossible tensions starting to erode the marriage. The performances are absolutely flawless, and astonishing location work in the busy New York streets (including a giddy tour of Coney Island on a blind date) lends a gritty ring of truth to his intensely human odyssey, bounded by his eager arrival among the skyscrapers (the camera slowly panning up the side of a vast office block to discover him at work, lost in a sea of identical desks), and the last shot that has him merging as just another face in the crowd. Simple but superb.



Bruce Bennett for the NY Sun:

“Directors with vision like F.W. Murnau, E. A. Dupont, Fritz Lang, and Ernst Lubitsch had freed the camera from its immobility,” the Texas-born director King Vidor once said about the brainstorming behind his remarkable New York drama “The Crowd,” which was set in 1928. Vidor’s decidedly non-slapstick story of a broke couple’s ebbing fortunes in the big, lonely city features an intentionally downbeat vision of Coney Island — in contrast to Lloyd’s playful tableau in “Speedy.” “The Crowd” literally covers more NYC ground than almost any other silent film. In order to capture the city unawares, Vidor and his crew hid a camera and an operator inside a mocked-up pallet of boxes on a pushcart and took sidewalk-level footage of New York playing itself, from the Bowery to Times Square.

Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

King Vidor’s 1928 classic, with James Murray as the “average man” picked out of the crowd by Vidor’s gliding camera. In his autobiography, Vidor claims he sold the project to Irving Thalberg as a sequel to his hit war film, The Big Parade: “Life is like a battle, isn’t it?” Accordingly, the misfortunes that befall Murray are hardly average, but the melodramatic elements are integral to Vidor’s vision of individual struggle. The camera style owes something to Murnau, but the sense of space—the vast environments that define and attack his protagonists—is Vidor’s own.

Thomas Scalzo for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

Suddenly we are in the midst of a film without a hero. Instead of a catalyst to Johnny’s creativity, the crowd has served as an alembic, distilling and revealing the selfish and petty nature of an unremarkable man. We realize that Johnny will never successfully stand out from the faceless masses, that his only chance of a peaceful life lies in giving up his childish dreams of becoming an important man, admitting his irrelevance, and settling in to a predictable and ordinary existence. That King Vidor’s film continues to affect us over eighty years after it’s initial release lies in this extraordinary decision to tell the story of a man who does not, and arguably cannot, live up to his dreams; a man incapable of being anything more than an anonymous member of society. In other words, The Crowd dares to tell the true story of the everyman. And therein lies the enduring relevance and power of The Crowd — a film that eschews naive, frivolous escapism and offers up timeless, sobering truth.


The great Kevin Brownlow for Bristol Silents:

When a film of enormous social significance succeeds in being immensely entertaining, then as far as I’m concerned the director has achieved near perfection. The Crowd is one of the most eloquent of all silent pictures. It came out just before the depression and yet it might have been made in the thick of it, so poignant is its picture of unemployment. It is surprising that it reached the public at all, for it broke all the rules of Hollywood. You weren’t supposed to show the casual use of liquor during Prohibition. You weren’t supposed to suggest that work, the great dignifier could be boring. You weren’t supposed to show a young man’s nerves on his wedding night, or a wife telling her husband she is pregnant. And you weren’t supposed to show that failure and poverty could exist in the Land of Opportunity.


‘The Crowd’ is practically plotless. And yet every incident is so brilliantly directed and acted that the film blazes to life. One’s heart leaps with recognition at the behaviour of the characters. John, and his wife, Mary are getting up one morning in their poky little flat. The lavatory system goes wrong. ‘Why didn’t you tell me this was busted’ asks John. The bathroom door has always been defective, but he adds this to his catalogue of her crimes. ‘You’ve got this on the blink too’.


The shots are simple yet full of emotional power; Vidor treats his characters so lovingly and with such understanding, that one cannot help but share his feelings. In a way, it’s odd that this portrait of failure should have such uncanny intensity, for it was created by a man for whom the American dream came true. Vidor had made MGM’s biggest moneymaker, ‘The Big Parade’ (1925), and it was thanks to this success that he was able to make ‘The Crowd’ with the large budget it needed. Impressed by the German experiments Vidor was able to weave into the picture moments of technical bravura – the camera travelling up the side of a skyscraper and moving into a vast office, where acres of desks attest to the deadly routine of John’s working life. I doubt if there is another film in cinema history combining the stunning artifice of the German film with documentary scenes snatched in the streets […] The extraordinary thing about this tragic film is how funny it is – it’s as. funny as it is sad.



Studs Terkel interviews Vidor for the New York Times Book Review:

The Italian director Vittorio De Sica always gave my The Crowd credit for starting his career. He always said it inspired him more than anything. The result was his The Bicycle Thief, Shoeshine, The Roof, and Umberto D. De Sica always told me it inspired him. He said it up until he died.


The Bicycle Thief is one of my favorite films of all time. The fact that De Sica said your film, The Crowd, played a role in his becoming a director does not surprise me at all. You made The Crowd in 1928, just before the Crash. The actor you used was James Murray, an unknown. Do you know how that happened?

You’re familiar with The Big Parade. Afterwards, Irving Thalberg, who was running MGM, said to me, “This is such a success, what are you going to do next?” And I said, “There must be other things that a fellow can walk through and observe.” And he said, “What, for example?” And I said, “Life.” And he said, “That sounds like a good idea. Why didn’t you mention that before?” I said, “I never thought of it before.” And he says, “You got a title for it?” And I said, “One of The Mob.” He says, “That’s good.” He says, “Might sound like a gangster mob.” So we changed it to The Crowd.


It was the guy walking through life and observing life. You know, he was born, his father died, and he had to go to work and he’s just one of the mob. And then he meets a girl and he gets married and he has a baby. The baby gets into an accident and dies. So he’s just observing life … the ordinary man observing life. He’s not causing situations; he’s not bringing them about. It’s the carrying out of the idea of The Big Parade. Our Daily Bread is still carrying out that theme, a subjective theme of a man observing his world.


Peter Bogdanovich in Movie of the Week:

Back in 1962, upon first seeing King Vidor’s extraordinary 1928 masterwork of complex simplicity, The Crowd, when the movie was already thirty-four years old, I noted how modern it seemed. I recently saw the picture again, now it’s more than seventy years old, and it seems more modern then ever. The quality of the direction, photography, and acting is so high that, seeing the film on the big screen again after 36 years, I remembered image after image as though I had just seen it a month before.


Watching The Crowd this time – with those two breathtakingly real performances by Boardman and Murray – I also felt a kind of shock of recognition: Yes, this is how moving pictures used to be made, hardly a line of dialogue really necessary, with a remarkable economy of means and gesture, and a universality within the very particular specifics that has the ease and depth of a Mozart symphony. In the final, and perhaps greatest, year of the silent screen, The Crowd stands at the summit with such others of that year’s many enduring glories as Eric von Stroheim’s The Wedding March or Josef von Sternberg’s Docks of New York. But The Crowd is the most profoundly moving. Although it is, unquestionably, Vidor’s most lasting silent achievement, it must also be counted high among the artistically most important and influential US films. The work predates in approach, and points the way for, such more-often-cited examples of “realistic street cinema” as Renoir’s Toni of the entire Italian neorealist movement. Several of Vidor’s riveting images and evocative shots made their way through the years into numerous imitations or homages, such as Billy Wilder’s blatant tip-of-the-hat in The Apartment, to the great sea-of-desks shot.


The Crowd is an astonishingly powerful emotional experience, and although its ending is extremely ambiguous, the picture is not depressing for a moment. It is one of the very few uncompromising works of humanist art in world cinema.


Alt Screen’s Dan Callahan for Senses of Cinema:

The Big Parade was a huge and deserved success, and Thalberg gave Vidor full leeway to make The Crowd (1928), probably the cinema’s most pitiless study of a born loser, and an anomaly in this director’s work – it was his favourite film, and it stands as his darkest insight into life. The Crowd opens with a baby being born and records heady predictions for his future. We then see the boy confronted with his father’s death, visualised by an Expressionistic shot of the child in the middle of some stairs that suggests a nightmarish birth canal (Vidor used a memory of his own father’s death to create this image).


John courts Mary all over Manhattan and Coney Island (the film was shot mainly on location), marries her, and takes her to Niagara Falls, where he professes his love to her very romantically, as if he were repeating things he’s seen at the movies. We next see the couple in their shabby apartment. They have a baby, then another, and petty irritations build up between them quite believably. They try to relax at the beach, and Vidor keeps cutting to sand getting kicked onto a cake Mary baked, a repeated shot that expresses the whole realistic tone of the film. (In another movie, the cake would have been quickly and prettily squashed.) John still thinks he’s going to do big things, because that’s the way you’re supposed to feel in America, even if you’re meant to just get by. In his futile attempts to make something of himself, John reaches the tragic depths that plague later Vidor heroines of the ’40s and ’50s.


When John finally wins one of his contests and returns home with lots of nice consumer goods, he and Mary yell out the window to their children to come share their good fortune, and one of them is hit and killed by a car (the nasty irony of this sequence is unreservedly operatic). Lost in grief, John quits his job and spirals downward: he’s the anti-Roark, a do-nothing dreamer, and Murray, a transient extra who Vidor chose for the film, wears all the marks of a real-life loser on his decaying chipmunk face. Diverted from suicide by his remaining child, John eventually gives in and literally becomes a clown on the street to earn a living. This feels like mature acceptance, not defeat, because Vidor doesn’t believe in total despair, but The Crowd gives us plenty of opportunity to consider the cruel side of America’s survival of the fittest ethos when reflected by someone promised the world at birth and denied basic human dignity as an adult.



Raymond Durgnat in a fascinating Vidor analysis from Film Comment (Jul/Aug 1973):

The Crowd belongs to an international wave of populist films, if we use populism” not in the usual political sense, but in the film one, as being about the petits gens, the lower middle classes and lower. The cycle flourished from just before the beginning of sound until the mid-Thirties, when a mixture of economic stagnation and preparation for war shifted the emphasis different ways in different countries. A particular motif of this screen Populism-the theme of the crowd- pervades the cinema between the wars, for a variety of reasons (ranging from the European recognition that the poor are not a mob, to the internal immigration within America from depressed rural areas to the cities). The sense of the crowd as a dauntingly impersonal mechanism, swelling and subsiding at machine-speed rhythms and routines, inspires Ruttmann’s Berlin; and its Hollywood equivalents are, amazingly enough, such Busby Berkeley numbers as “42nd Street” in 42nd Street and “I Only Have Eyes for You” and the chorus-girls’ aubade in Dames. What Ruttmann and Berkeley have in common is a kind of semi-abstract cinema; indeed, Berkeley qualifies as a Broadway constructivist.


Some parallels between Berkeley and Vidor are intriguing too. What we think of as Berkeley’s “visual choreography” is what Vidor has called “silent music.” And in both directors one finds an inspired, unself-conscious eroticism born of a generalized exuberance. Berkeley ventures into social comment too, in the “Remember My Forgotten Man” number in Gold Diggers of 1933. In The Crowd, Vidor’s camera moves up the office block and then in through one particular window among thousands- a device shared with Berkeley, as well as with René Clair. The subway sequence in Manhandled offers a useful example of everyday exasperations translated into gags which, without altogether occluding the real tensions of urban existence, encapsulate them by a crisp humor that may be shaded towards either sarcasm (as in Wilder’s tragicomic The Apartment) or complacency (as in Cukor’s The Marrying Kind, which, sensitive as it is, cheerfully renounces the challenge and depth which its scenario renders a theoretical possibility). This common enough entertainment device prevents realism from becoming too drab or depressing. And though it may slightly vitiate some early passages in The Crowd, it’s given a different quality by Vidor’s characteristic energy, and impregnated by all the latent possibilities established in the prologue. When the shift in tone comes, it is all the more devastating. But, on the whole, the gagsmanship formula serves to underline the temptations into which Vidor’s film doesn’t fall. MGM’s nervousness about it is illustrated by the fact that eight different endings were shot, and that it was offered to exhibitors with the choice of an ending happier than the standard one. Vidor is justifiably proud that only one exhibitor requested it. Perhaps Vidor’s secret is that his sense of human energy gives the most anguishing sequences a scandalous vitality which, as in his postwar excursions into film noir, gives even the unhappy endings their exhilaration.


It’s a tribute also to Vidor’s daemon that, at a glance, he should have recognized his lead actor in James Murray, an inexperienced extra whose life story exemplifies a systematic negation of Vidor’s philosophy-with his defensiveness, his apathy, his self-destructive drift to a bum’s condition. It is as if something in his soul never recovered from the lowest point of John’s depression. It would be highly paradoxical to cite the negation of a film’s philosophy by its leading actor as an enhancement of its authenticity. Perhaps their common factor is nothing more definite than a certain recklessness, to which alternative courses were open. Perhaps, too, it was this which Vidor, most physical of directors, recognized at a glance, just as he insists. This critic agrees that love at first sight is not just a possibility but a natural recognition of everything that body and gesture can reveal about a mind. The Crowd achieves a delirious integrity of pain which isn’t merely a spiritual negativity; and, in so doing, the film is rare in an already too rare genre.


Fernando F. Croce for Slant:

Vittorio de Sica admitted to taking the climax of The Crowd for his Umberto D., while Roberto Rossellini often declared admiration for the film’s surplus of human veracity. With German Expressionism behind it and Italian Neorealism ahead of it, Vidor’s film remains a veritable compendium of European influences, even as its interests and approach mark it as unmistakably American. As Walter Chaw perceptively noted, the toilet in the apartment for which Vidor had to fight to keep in is integral to the uncovering of the “mendacity behind the spit-shined promise” of the Jazz Age, of the grasp for the material that leads to a disconnect from the self. “Face the front,” John’s buddy tells him at the elevator, and one of the film’s most lasting images has the protagonist trying in vain to hush the noises of the city as his ailing daughter lies in bed, facing the onslaught of people as if holding back a livid deluge.


Dwight MacDonald praised the film’s thematic seriousness while chiding Vidor for burying it underneath a mass of human interest, but to Vidor it is this same human interest that gives the theme its weight, the concept of a rich, architectural visual style rattled by the life inhabiting it. How powerfully the characters strike against the world, and how overwhelmed they are when the world strikes back. Racked by tragedy, John sinks in self-pity until he’s a broken man contemplating jumping in front of a rushing train, rescued by another instance of invaluable emotionalism, his little son’s simple affirmation of love. It is in passages such as these that Vidor’s energy rivals Murnau’s in Sunrise, thanks incalculably to the extraordinarily eloquent simplicity the filmmaker located in John Murray’s everyman face. Like Boardman, who can look domestically exhausted and glowingly ethereal within the same scene, Murray provides an archetypal tabula rasa transformed by feelings vividly communicated and shared with the audience.


The Crowd moves toward an affirmation of wholeness that is both personal and cosmic; John’s humbling realization that the lofty goals imposed on him from day one are not nearly as urgent as keeping his family together. The brilliant concluding movement is one of acceptance and unification which enriches rather than negates the individualistic thrust of the rest of the film, a view of catharsis that both posits wholeness and perpetuates the struggle; it’s no accident that the ending, featuring an ascending crane shot that integrates John, Mary and their son into the laughing masses of a vaudeville show, can be simultaneously a joyous one and a desperate one. For Vidor, living with the crowd is less a matter of keeping your head than of saving your soul.


– Compiled by Brynn White

Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →