#564) The Crowd (1928)

#564) The Crowd (1928)

OR “The Wages of Sims”

Directed by King Vidor

Written by Vidor & John V.A. Weaver. Titles by Joe Farnham.

Class of 1989 

The Plot: John Sims (James Murray) arrives in New York with the dream of becoming someone important. While working a desk job for an insurance company, John meets Mary (Eleanor Boardman) on a double date. The two immediately fall for each other and are soon married. Like any marriage, theirs has ups and downs, along with the arrival of two children (Freddie Burke Frederick and Alice Mildred Puter). When tragedy strikes the Sims family, John realizes that his dream won’t make itself happen, and that in order to truly be important he has to stand out from the rest of…the population.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the “inventive and visceral” cinematography of Henry Sharp, the “highly emotional” screenplay, and the “naturalistic performances” of the leads.

But Does It Really?: Of the first 25 films to make the National Film Registry, I would probably rank this at number 25. “The Crowd” is a well-made piece of melodrama with good cinematography, but it doesn’t deliver on the same level as the other 24 films on the original list. By itself, “The Crowd” is worth a watch and deserving of its NFR standing (somewhere between “historical” and “aesthetic” significance), but it’s a B+ effort lost on the initial list of A+ movies.

Everybody Gets One: To help with the film’s everyman aesthetic, King Vidor insisted on casting unknowns for the leads. Although he had a few speaking roles to his credit, James Murray was working as an extra when Vidor saw him on the MGM lot and thought he looked right for the part of John. Eleanor Boardman’s casting journey as Mary was a little simpler: she was married to King Vidor at the time.

Wow, That’s Dated: This movie has many of the dated elements we associate with ’20s-’30s big city living, such as having a Murphy bed, going to Niagara Falls on your honeymoon, and expectant fathers waiting outside the delivery room.

Title Track: As one character relates to John when he arrives in New York, “You gotta be good in that town if you want to beat the crowd.”

Seriously, Oscars?: “The Crowd” opened in the spring of 1928, making it eligible for the 1st annual Academy Awards in 1929. The film received two nominations: Best Director for King Vidor (losing to Frank Borzage for “7th Heaven“) and Best Unique and Artistic Picture (losing to “Sunrise“). King Vidor would have to wait another 50 years before receiving an Oscar; a lifetime achievement award in 1979.

Other notes 

  • Following a run of successful pictures for MGM in the ’20s (including “The Big Parade”), King Vidor wanted his next film to be less commercial and more experimental. While Louis B. Mayer was against the idea, Irving Thalberg understood Vidor’s vision and gave the film the go ahead.
  • Vidor was inspired by the expressionism of F.W. Murnau to attempt more artsy cinematography. This is more than evident in one of the film’s opening shots. The camera glides into the office building, over endless rows of pencil pushers, and arrives at John’s desk for a closeup. No doubt a revelation in its day, and the shot that shows up in plenty of your Chuck Workman clip packages.
  • To achieve a realistic depiction of New York City, King Vidor and Henry Sharp filmed the real streets with hidden cameras. In one shot of a traffic cop telling cars to move along, that’s an actual cop speaking directly to Vidor behind the camera.
  • John, Mary, Bert, Jane: Everyone in this movie has the blandest names. Where’s Spike Lee?
  • This movie gives us the hot take that clowns are neither amusing nor scary, they’re just doing a job.
  • This is the fourth movie I’ve covered from circa 1928 where the main characters go to Coney Island/a Coney Island type beachside amusement park. Was that all there was to do in the ’20s? Doesn’t anyone go to the movies?
  • Wow, a pre-Code movie with implications of sex. Quelle scandale.
  • And another movie for my “Die Hard” Not Christmas list. I’ve really got to get around to covering “Die Hard”.
  • Mary’s brothers Jim & Dick are the Patty & Selma of this movie: the older siblings who consistently disapprove of their sister’s husband. In one of the brother’s case, Dick is aptly named.
  • In addition to the film’s visual storytelling, there is also significantly less intertitles than the usual silent movie. When Mary tells John she is pregnant, the entire scene is done without intertitles, but you always know what’s happening.
  • Mary, to John shortly after giving birth: “I’m sorry you suffered so.” HE suffered? Who wrote this?
  • Today’s movie inflation: the $8 raise John gets is about $122 today, and his $500 bonus is about $7600.
  • This movie uses such obscure phraseology as “crab” (an informal verb, meaning “to grumble”) and “darn” (as in to mend an article of clothing).
  • Well, things got super depressing real fast. I’m getting very tired of the 1920s’ fondness for tragic melodrama.
  • “The crowd laughs with you always, but it will cry with you for only a day.” Ain’t that the truth.
  • More Murnau influence as we get images superimposed over John’s head as he struggles to work: his daughter, the cars, spinning numbers. It all works.
  • Also dated: the profession of door-to-door vacuum salesman. At least he doesn’t have to hawk bibles.
  • It just occurred to me that neither of John and Mary’s kids have names. Their son is credited only as “Junior” (presumably John Jr.) while the daughter is credited as “Daughter”. Did they run out of generic names?
  • The film’s final shot is a reverse of the office shot, as the camera pans out from John and Mary enjoying the show to the entire theater packed with audience members. Once again, John and Mary becomes anonymous figures in…this group of people.

Legacy 

  • “The Crowd” was completed in 1927, but Louis B. Mayer hated the film and held its release for almost a year. New, more upbeat endings were filmed and tested, but everyone kept coming back to Vidor’s original ending.
  • “The Crowd” was a modest success with audiences, some of whom were turned away by the film’s stark realism and opted for more escapist fantasy. The film would not get a more positive reappraisal until after WWII.
  • Neither of the film’s leads made the leap to superstardom. Eleanor Boardman divorced King Vidor and left Hollywood in the early ’30s. James Murray’s bout with alcoholism cost him his acting career, and King Vidor found him panhandling on the streets. Murray drowned in the Hudson River in 1936 at age 35. King Vidor wrote a screenplay based on Murray’s life called “The Actor”, but the film was never made.
  • The characters of John and Mary Sims would return in 1934’s “Our Daily Bread”, easily the most obscure sequel to make it onto the NFR.
  • Many filmmakers have cited “The Crowd” as an influence, from Jean-Luc Goddard to Billy Wilder, the latter whom copied the office shots for “The Apartment“.

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