The Crowd at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Director King Vidor got the idea for The Crowd after his wild success with The Big Parade (1925). He wanted a truly innovative film, in terms of acting and story as well as cinematography. Much of the camera work was influenced by the legendary director F.W. Murnau in particular and German Expressionism in general.

Thanks to his previous success, Vidor got the green light for this ambitious, experimental project from MGM’s wonder boy Irving G. Thalberg. Unsurprisingly, the infamous Louis B. Mayer hated it and held up release for nearly a year.

MGM insisted upon seven alternate endings, which were previewed in small towns. The film originally was released with two endings, the one Vidor intended and a scene of the Sims family around the Christmas tree after John gets a job with an ad agency.

Each theatre could choose which ending it wanted to show, but according to Vidor, most opted against the Christmas-themed ending.

Vidor wanted to avoid casting big names, to add authenticity to this story of everyday people. For the role of John, he chose James Murray. Contrary to popular misconception, Murray had had prior starring roles, and wasn’t an unknown extra who got a big break.

Sadly, Murray’s alcoholism wreaked havoc on his promising acting career. In 1934, Vidor found him panhandling, and offered him the lead role in Our Daily Bread (a sequel to The Crowd) if he could lose weight, clean up his appearance, and stop drinking.

Reportedly, Murray turned down this generous offer by saying, “Just because I stop you on the street and try to borrow a buck you think you can tell me what to do. As far as I am concerned, you know what you can do with your lousy part.”

On 11 July 1936, Murray fell from the North River pier and drownt, aged only 35.

The role of Mary was played by Vidor’s second wife, Eleanor Boardman, who was under contract to MGM. Though she was much more popular and well-known than Murray, she wasn’t a gigantic star like Mary Pickford either.

She had a much happier life than Murray, and lived to the ripe old age of 93.

The Crowd enjoyed modest critical and financial success during its original theatrical run. Some critics, like the venerable Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times, loved it, while others found it boring, drab, and too long. In spite of the mixed reviews, the film earned twice its production costs.

Today, the film is rightly recognized as one of the greatest of both the silent era and overall film history. In 1989, it was among the first 25 films chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

In 1981, famed film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill restored the film, and prolific film soundtrack composer Carl Davis created a new score for it. Though it was released on VHS in the late Eighties, and then on laser disc, it’s inexplicably not on DVD yet.

Warner Brothers holds copyright to MGM’s silents, and has famously not only refused to release The Crowd, but also has ripped it off many free streaming sites. They also famously haven’t released The Wind (1928) either, and only cracked and released The Big Parade in 2013.

With any luck, this amazing film will finally have a proper DVD release and restoration soon. How does garbage like Year Zero get rushed right onto DVD, while classics of the cinematic canon gather dust?


The Crowd at 90, Part I (General overview)

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?