The Crowd (1928)

directed by King Vidor

Plot Summary
On July 4, 1900, John Sims is born, and his father declares that he will grow up to be somebody important. As the years pass by, we see John's father die when he is only twelve, and at twenty-one, he sets off for New York in search of opportunity. John takes a job as a clerk in a massive, standardized company, surrounded by hundreds of others like him. After work one day, John goes on a double date with his friend Bert and meets his future wife Mary. Over a period of months, their marriage is shown to be rapidly deteriorating to the point of separation, until one day Mary reveals she is pregnant. John promises to treat her differently from now on and to work harder. An intertitle informs the viewer that five years have passed, and the Sims now have two children, while John has received a meager raise in that time. He continuously talks about his 'ship coming in' and promises to make a success out of himself; one day, he wins a $500 contest for inventing an advertising slogan. However, that same day, his youngest child is injured in a street accident and eventually dies. John falls into an extended depression and quits his job in a rage one day. He is unable to find or hold another one for very long, and he and Mary argue angrily. John contemplates suicide, but his son offers him support and encouragement. He eagerly takes a job as a juggling clown wearing a sign to advertise a restaurant. When he returns home, Mary was preparing to leave him, but he convinces her to stay. The Sims family, John, Mary, and their son, go to a vaudeville show where they laugh their troubles away. The camera pulls back and upward to reveal them surrounded by many others like them until they become indistinguishable in the crowd.

Commentary


A portrait of one manís struggle for his sense of worth and individualism against industrialized, mass-consumer culture, King Vidorís The Crowd remains powerful and relevant today. It is also a despairingly bleak film in many ways, despite a relatively upbeat ending. Probably more than anything else, the film resembles an American version of the kammerspiel, exemplified by films like F.W. Murnauís The Last Laugh. The picture also has a certain ambiguity that marks it out as a serious work by gifted filmmakers who refuse to lead their audiences into obvious or comforting directions. Because of their integrity, the film remains pertinent today in addressing questions about the pursuit of the American dream and the lifestyle that accompanies this pursuit.

Vidor discusses the genesis of The Crowd as the desire to do a picture about the "average fellow" and some of the major events in his life, similar to some of the ideas behind a kammerspiel film or even a work of Neorealism. From the very opening of the film with his birthday on July 4th, 1900, it seems as if John Sims intends to represent the common American man, and his story begins taking on symbolic significance. We learn his father dies when John is still a boy, and we never hear anything else about the rest of his family, giving him the appearance of being alone in the world. This may be one reason why John is shown to be highly dependent, not only on his wife, but eventually on the crowd as well. His reason for going to New York seems archetypal as he mentions that he is just looking for an opportunity. The problem is that John, although he wants "to be somebody big" and differentiate himself from the crowd, often joins right in with it at every chance he gets. His job is exceedingly impersonal and standardized, although early in the film, one may think that he will be able to climb up the corporate ladder in this company. However, the sheer number of nearly identical workers surrounding him ensures that this would be a struggle, and the film points out the workersí anonymity by having them all say similar things to John while he is washing his hands. Even worse than the mechanical nature of his job is Johnís naïve tendency to be easily swayed by advertising. This factor is given most obvious expression when John proposes marriage to Mary after seeing an ad suggesting this act in route to buying a home. His obsession with commercial jingles also hints at this whole-hearted acceptance of consumer culture, yet even this is not enough for John to succeed.

The filmís critique of American culture continues by obliquely linking materialism with destruction in the scene where Johnís youngest child is injured in the street. Besides the fact that it is a speeding automobile, a symbol of rampant progress, that inflicts the damage, what stands out about this sequence is how the parents are holding up the new things in the window to lure their children in from the street. But then, later, by turning his back on society and its economic constraints, John merely brings misery to himself and his family and winds up contemplating suicide. As in The Bicycle Thief, however, his young son saves him from ruin by innocently saying that he still believes in his father and wants to be just like him. This instills John with a new sense of purpose, and he rushes out to rejoin the crowd and to accept whatever job he can find. In this way John is able to keep his family together for at least a little while longer, and they seem to laugh away their troubles in the final sequence, with little thought of what lies ahead. The somewhat dispiriting point of this film is that, with the exception of his childís tragic accident, John has really no one to blame for the failures in his life but himself. The competitive nature of capitalism, and of life in general, unfortunately means that not everyone will become completely successful, particularly, as other critics have pointed out, when one refuses to work toward his goals and chooses to wait for his "ship to come in".

The presence of the crowd is made explicitly clear in key points of the film. A long take emphasizes Johnís departure from this group when he slowly walks up the stairs to learn about his fatherís death, perhaps suggesting a link between the separating of oneself from the crowd and the dangerous consequences of taking this risk. Similarly, a later title mentions how the great opposition of the crowd only becomes clear when one gets out of step with it. The crowd is also established as somewhat of a leering presence at the amusement park when they stare at the couples on the ride to discover, "Do They Neck?" This notion is expanded on during the sequence when John retrieves his injured child from the street, and the crowd seems to get in the way, if only to catch a glimpse of the horrific spectacle. John is helpless in trying to control the passers-by as his ailing daughter clings to life, and he tries to make everything quiet around her. However, his attempt to make the crowd conform to his desires is unsuccessful, and it seems that the influence can work in only one direction. The film tricks the viewer during the beach scene so that while it appears the Sims family is "all alone", the camera cuts to a man who is annoyed at Johnís singing, and one can see the large number of people spread out behind him. This sequence emphasizes the near impossibility of being alone while living among the masses, and Johnís children are given only a modicum of privacy when needing to go to the bathroom. However, the film suggests that being a part of the crowd is perhaps preferable to being completely alone when, at the conclusion, John manages to temporarily hold his family together and seems happy to be one of the many in the audience. Nevertheless, although the film itself ends here, it is hard not to contemplate the familyís future struggle since nothing that substantial has occurred to bring them to prosperity or happinessóunless we are to believe that Johnís newly found work ethic will be sustained rather than him slipping back into indolence.

Vidor illustrates his struggle of the everyman with striking visuals and camerawork and also makes interesting dramatic comparisons. The film introduces John and the viewer to New York with a skillful montage that blends the huge number of people walking the streets with extreme long shots of the industrialized landscape. A spectacular shot involves the camera apparently tracking up the side of a skyscraper to look inside and to hover over the plethora of similar workers sitting at similar desks. Besides being aesthetically impressive and reminiscent of the best in German Expressionism, this shot succinctly conveys one of the filmís theme about the individual struggling to make it in the mass. An interesting motif involves many of the signs or labels in the film having numerals on them such as Johnís desk being marked with a number and the presence of his name and some digits on the hospital nursery door. This suggests the depersonalization present in this environment where specific names eventually get replaced by more impersonal numbers in the name of efficiency. During the newlywedís train ride, John is offered a drink from another passenger but turns it down, so that his later drinking seems to stem from the failure of his career. He temporarily cannot find his wife because all of the train compartments look alike, another comment on the culture making everything more similar and indistinguishable. His sneaking into bed in an effort not to disturb her is repeated later when coming home drunk from Bertís, and this repetition shows how things have taken a turn for the worse in the coupleís lives in a relatively short time span.

The final comparisons with the clown hearken back to the opening of the film when John ironically commented about one on the street and jokes about how that person's father probably wanted him to be president. In retrospect this clearly foreshadows John's own eventual decline and the failing of his lofty expectations. Through ridicule, John had hoped to distance himself from the crowd of average people, but in the end he is forced to take comfort in his identification with them. Because John's plight is a common one and because James Murray effectively embodies him, the viewer sympathizes with his situation, even though the filmmakers make no special effort to sentimentalize their protagonist. In its effective and moving portrayal of the struggle (or lack thereof) for success in America, The Crowd remains one of the great films coming at the end of the silent era and foreshadows the nation's struggles soon to follow.

8 of 10


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© 1999

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