One of legendary director King Vidor’s greatest masterpieces, The Crowd, had its grand première 28 February 1928 in NYC, and went into general release 3 March. This is one of the absolute classics of both the silent era and film history in general.
On its face, it seems like a simple story of normal people going through everyday life, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a grand, powerful, epic human drama, poetry in motion.
John Sims (James Murray) is born on the Fourth of July 1900, and his dad vows to give him every opportunity in life. At age twelve, Johnny sings in a choir, plays piano, and recites poetry. When all his friends share what they want to be when they grow up, Johnny says his dad says he’s going to be something big.
Johnny’s world shatters when an ambulance arrives at his house. With a huge crowd gathered, he walks upstairs and learns his father is dead.
John moves to NYC at 21, idealistically drawn to it like so many others with grand, romantic dreams of making it big. A friend says he has to be good in this city if he wants to beat the crowd. John says that might be true, but all he wants is an opportunity.
One of the film’s most famous shots is a panning up a giant skyscraper, showing just how massive it is, and zeroing in on John in the middle of a mass of desks. This kind of sweeping camera work became impossible in the early sound era, due to technological limitations.
At the end of the workday, John rushes along with the crowd to wash up in the company bathroom. His friend Bert invites him on a Coney Island double-date, which John reluctantly accepts.
John battles another crowd on his journey out of the building and onto the street. Bert then introduces John to the ladies they’re going out with, Jane and Mary. Bert picks Jane, and John likes Mary (director King Vidor’s wife Eleanor Boardman).
John and Mary have a blast at Coney Island, going on so many rides which now exist only in memory. I love watching footage of Coney Island’s golden age.
On the bus home, John sees an ad saying, “You furnish the girl, we furnish the home.” He’s so taken with Mary, he proposes marriage, and she accepts. Naturally, a great crowd sees them off for their honeymoon.
Bert gives them a year or two tops.
On the train, John shows Mary a photo of a house in Liberty magazine, and promises it’ll be theirs when his ship comes in. Mary is quite embarrassed by another ad, “Maybe it’s time to re-tire,” with a kid in pyjamas. Her discomfort increases further when a porter goes to make up their bed.
I love the scene of Mary and John getting ready for bed, and their ensuing nervousness at sharing a bed for the first time. It’s so true to life, a sweet portrayal of an era when many people’s first sexual experience was the wedding night.
After their Niagara Falls honeymoon, John moves into the flat Mary shares with her mom and two brothers. The animosity between John and his in-laws is very mutual.
By April, John and Mary have moved into their own apartment. Though their relationship has started heading for the rocks, their love is rekindled when Mary reveals she’s expecting. John vows to work harder to make something of himself after their son’s birth.
Over the next five years, a daughter is born, and John gets an $8 raise. Mary remains frustrated with their poverty, and John keeps insisting his ship hasn’t come in yet.
When John wins $500 for one of his advertising slogans, it seems their luck has finally turned around. Instead, even worse hard times quickly follow. Will John ever catch a break, or will he be crushed by the all-powerful crowd?