Film Review: The Crowd (1928)

The Crowd (1928)
directed by King Vidor
Frames in this review are taken from the VHS tape, produced by Thames Silents and released by MGM/UA in 1988.

Hollywood has the convention that a director with a smash hit gets to write his own ticket for at least one more film.  King Vidor had just come off a massive success with his 1925 anti-war film The Big Parade [link to my review], which would've made him a millionaire had he not sold his share of the profits to MGM.  But as a rewards, he got to make The Crowd with the understanding that he could make it an art film rather than a crowd pleaser. This is exactly what he does, for the film questions the attainability of the American dream at a time when the stock market boom of the Roaring Twenties was still going strong.

The Story

Johnny Sims (James Murray) is born on the Fourth of July, and everyone tells him that he’ll turn out to be somebody someday.  But the innocence of childhood is rapidly shattered by his father's death.  He then grows up to become an anonymous worker ant in the financial capital of New York City, while continuing to dream of making it big.  Going on a double-date set up by his friend Bert (Bert Roach), he finds himself having tons of fun with his date Mary (Eleanor Boardman, then Vidor's wife).  Spurred by an advertisement he sees on the subway, he proposes to her that same evening.

Over the years, their love waxes and wanes, with the regular squabbles of marriage mixing with joyful events like the birth of a baby.  Yet tragedy again strikes, causing Johnny to fall into a depression and become unemployed.  He tries his hand at several different jobs, finding success in none of them.  Finally, he contemplates ending his own life.  As declared in the intertitles, it is difficult to walk against the flow of the crowd.  In an implausibly happy ending, Johnny ultimately regains his anonymity and returns happily into the crowd.

As with The Big Parade, this is a simple story at heart, but one that’s told with great deftness.  Johnny is taken through a roller coaster of emotions, going up and down with the tide of events.  He wins a contest to write an ad jingle, but doesn't have long to bask in enjoyment.  He quits his job in frustration, but Mary remains supportive of him.  After failing to find a job, he becomes so depressed that he thinks about jumping into the path of an onrushing train, but his heart melts when his son looks up at him and says, "When I grow up I wanta be just like you."

Silent film at its prime

Playing with the viewer's emotions so much is tricky work, and it is a testament to the film's craftsmanship that it succeeds.  The style is very similar to The Big Parade, right down to the exclamatory intertitles and the diegetic music that conveys mood.  Camera movement is infrequent, but is dramatic and sweeping when it is used.  The editing mirrors the pace of events, with faster cutting when Johnny and Mary fly through their dizzying romance in the big city.  The acting is superb, precisely because it is restrained and natural.  As director King Vidor later said to Kevin Brownlow for the landmark documentary series about silent-era Hollywood:

"At that time we were feeling that we had developed this new technique – pantomime, but believable pantomime, not exaggerated [or] melodramatic – a silent film acting language.  Just about 1927, we were very aware that this was happening: the feeling that you could think anything, and it would come through on the face."

This is silent filmmaking at its prime, using techniques that have been carefully honed over two decades of silent filmmaking.  The "believable pantomime" has to be very subtle to achieve its effect.  There are sequences in The Crowd that lead off with an intertitle displaying a single line of dialog, and then continue for several lines without showing any intertitles.  Yet it doesn’t matter, because the body language is enough to understand what’s happening.  Based on that first line of dialog, you can practically predict the rest of the dialog without having to lip-read.

The visual language extends to the makeup.  For example, hair is neatly groomed when the character is happy, but becomes frazzled when feeling angry or depressed.  Sometimes the hair even changes over the course of a single scene, so that it mirrors the emotions of the plot!  Without having the scene dominated by spoken dialog, the silent film relies on subtler cues to convey information to the viewer.  The lighting and sets are reminiscent of German expressionism, with long shadows when Johnny returns home to his sullen wife after a wild evening, and a stylized office corridor at five o’clock as the workforce heads for the elevators.

The film makes use of a great deal of foreshadowing and parallelism to make a point through contrasts.  During their first date, for example, Johnny and Mary make fun of a street clown ("The poor sap! And I bet his father thought he would be President!").  In his bleak unemployed period, Johnny has to resort to the same type of odd job.

The film is justly famous for a stunning tracking shot that begins by moving up the facade of a Manhattan skyscraper, then pushes into a giant room with row upon row of worker bees adding up figures, and finally ends on a closeup of John Sims at his desk watching the clock approach five o’clock.  This lengthy tracking shot is the real introduction to the film, with the childhood sequence serving as a prologue.  This film is neatly bookended by a pullback from a movie theater, in which Johnny and Mary have disappeared back into the crowd.


There's a great deal of social commentary in The Crowd.  In that giant office, hundreds of clerks are adding up numbers by hand, operating a white-collar assembly line.  When Johnny gets into the elevator, the attendant barks at him to face the door like everyone else.  There’s even one shot showing a stretch of identical houses, a shot that could easily have of Levittown or some other post-World War II suburban subdivision.  Indeed, this level of conformity would seem to be a dress rehearsal for the 1950s, another era of economic prosperity in America.  The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit worked in advertising, for the consumer culture promoted by Madison Avenue would come to symbolize the easy affluence of the 1950s.  Similarly, The Crowd has Johnny thinking up advertising jingles for contests.   

If the anonymous white middle class forms the Crowd of the movie’s title, then there is also an underclass in America that does not get to star in movies.  When Mary is in labor with their first child, Johnny finds two rows of expectant fathers sitting on a bench outside the hospital ward.  One of the benches is filled with well-to-do Caucasian men, all impeccably-attired in three-piece suits, sporting trim mustaches and slicked-back hair.  The other consists of the underclass, some dressed in working clothes, some in their Sunday best.  This bench is unusually diverse for a Hollywood film of that period, for the men are Chinese and black and Hispanic and Caucasian, from the working class.

But The Crowd is not the cause of Johnny’s troubles.  Oh, sure, the conformity is played up to ridiculous levels.  As Johnny is preparing for his date in the (gigantic) washroom, his coworkers walk by and ask him one after another, "Scrubbing it up, Sims?" or some variant thereof.  There is no meaning in the crowd, just bland conformity.  But actually, Johnny Sims gets into trouble when he falls out of the crowd.  While he was still anonymous in the crowd, he was doing fine.  The story, then, is about false promises: of individuality, of prosperity.

The Crowd also serves as a neat time capsule of life in 1920s America: the advertising jingles, the jazz, the fast women, the bottle of liquor hidden under the bathtub during Prohibition.  Johnny and Mary share a bed for the first time on a Pullman sleeper during their honeymoon trip to Niagara Falls.  When Johnny heads to the restroom to prepare for bed, two fellow passengers notice a manual for newlyweds poking out of his back pocket.  Johnny's son is named Junior, a very American conceit.  And as Russell Baker observed in Growing Up, it was a time when parents earnestly asked their children if they were going to grow up to be President.

The Crowd can be regarded as MGM's answer to Fox’s Sunrise, a film that distilling a simple story into a flask of concentrated emotion.  The Crowd is that rare studio film that was shot for artistry and prestige, yet made a ton of money at the box office.  With pictures and intertitles, it delves deeply into the universal hopes and aspirations of human existence.

Music and Technical

Carl Davis specializes in writing music for silent films.  but he he is very attuned to the need for music to convey mood to a silent picture.  The bustling scenes of New York are especially frenetic, and the score follows the film into darker areas as Johnny’s life spirals downwards.

The source print for the VHS transfer is more uneven than it is for several of the other films in the Thames Silents series.  Sometimes contrast is fine, but other times outdoor scenes are so blown out that you actually wish for some contrast pulsing to show up so that you can at least get a glimpse of the scene.  For the most part, the image is decent.

Like other classic silents produced by Kevin Brownlow for Thames Television, this one has not been released on DVD.  (Last checked: January 2011.)