Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Film Review: The Crowd

"The Crowd"  **** (out of ****)

Filmmaker King Vidor tells us, sometimes it is difficult to stand out in life and so we all must join "The Crowd" (1928).

"The Crowd" is generally considered to be one of the best films made during the silent era. I would like to take that compliment one step further. "The Crowd" is one of the greatest films of all-time. Unfortunately I can sing the movie's praises from now until my face turns blue but you aren't going to be able to see this masterpiece. Shamefully the movie has not been put on DVD as of the time of this review. I personally have been unable to find a VHS copy of the movie in recent years. This leads me to ask, when will this highly influential film be put on DVD? What is taking so long?

Vidor's "The Crowd", despite being made in 1928, is a movie all people can relate to. Trust me, people's hopes and dreams and ambitions have not changed since then. The movie follows a young man, born on the fourth of July in 1900. The boy believes one day he will grow up and do great things. His father makes sure his son knows what a bright future lies ahead of him.

Who among us has not thought such things at one time? How many of us thought we could change the world? We would become rich and famous? And what happened? Well, the same thing happens to the young man in this movie. That thing is called life. Boy is it difficult! The rules aren't fair. It is too difficult to get ahead. Hard work and playing by the rules doesn't get you anywhere. Better to have a rich uncle that leaves you their inheritance. The get rich scheme of so many working class people, the lottery, isn't even a possibility in Illinois anymore (where I live). The state is giving IOUs out to winners. That's not a joke. Look it up.

The young man is John Sims (James Murray). Like so many others he sets out to New York, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. John ends up being one of many, many employees at an insurance company. The camera shows us mile high skyscrapers, taking the viewer up to the top of the building floor by floor, showing us countless windows. The image of the windows dissolves and we see workers at their desks, plugging in numbers. For as many windows as there were on the building, there are just as many workers. This visual aesthetic helps to reinforce the idea we are all part of a crowd. One of many people unable to stand out. John has not given up hope yet. He still believes in the pipe dream that hard work will get him ahead. He will not be part of the crowd, struggling to get ahead. One day, he repeatedly says, his ship will come in. It is that carrot stick placed in front of all of us which keeps us going, right? One day we'll win the lottery. One day we'll get a raise. One day things will get better.

As we all wait for our ship to come in we need to distract ourselves. John meets Mary (Eleanor Boardman) when he is asked by a fellow employee if he would like to go on a double date with him at Coney Island. John and Mary immediately hit it off. The date sequence is wonderful to watch if for no other reason than we simply get to see Coney Island in the 1920s. Watching the movie again I thought of another movie which shows us Coney Island in the 1920s. In fact the movie came out the same year as "The Crowd". It is the Harold Lloyd comedy "Speedy" (1928). I wonder if Lloyd was paying homage to "The Crowd". In both movies the sequence is awfully similar.

John and Mary are eventually married. Young and in love but no money. Love motives John. He will succeed and one day, after his ship comes in, the two of them will move out of the small, crowded apartment they live in, which is directly across from an el train. When you are in love though you are willing to put up with most things, like a small apartment. Mary encourages John and shares in his dream. Her husband will make good. She believes in him. Now it is no longer one man against the world but two against the world. Better odds, right?

Soon John and Mary's family grows and they are blessed with two children; a son and a daughter. While children may be considered a blessing, they are also two more mouths to feed. What will John do? His ship still hasn't come in yet. What John and Mary learn is whenever there is sunshine the night must fall as well. That means, all good things come to an end. Sadness follows happiness.

What is "The Crowd" ultimately trying to tell its audience? Is it a story of conformity? We all need to learn our place in the world? Understand you won't be successful in material things so settle for the other "riches" life offers; love, marriage, children. We all need to understand our limitations in life. Everyone can't be rich.

King Vidor made two other movies in 1928. Both of them were comedies starring Marion Davies. One of them is called "Show People" (1928). It too is a story of people wanting to achieve great things. People dreaming of a better life. One deals with Hollywood, the other with everyday living. It is in the Hollywood story where the person succeeds in materialist terms. What does that tell us? One theory could be Hollywood wants to keep the idea alive that it is a "dream factory" and anyone can make it in Hollywood whereas "life" is a bit more difficult and may not always have a "Hollywood ending". It reinforces the concept that Hollywood is the place where dreams come true and movies serve as a form of escapism from the turmoil of everyday living. This would explain the ending of "The Crowd" where we see a crowd of people watching a movie in a theater laughing.

"The Crowd" was not a financial success upon its original release but the concept of "Hollywood escapism" would become more prominent during the Great Depression, a year later. In 1928 audiences were not in the mood for a realistic portrait of the misery of life and the struggle for survival. When are audiences ever in the mood for that? But the movie did enjoy critical success. It was nominated for two Academy Awards one for best director (Vidor) and best picture, unique and artistic production, a category which was abandoned the following year.

What makes "The Crowd" such an outstanding motion picture is the honesty in which it tells its story. Audiences can relate to the struggles these characters face. We can see ourselves in them. Heck, we are them. The world hasn't changed much. "The Crowd" hits on universal themes. It shows everyday life but still has a poetic streak to it with some impressive visuals. "The Crowd" should be able to stir strong emotions from today's movie audiences. It is a timeless tale told with great style and sincerity. It remains King Vidor's greatest film.