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?

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

The filming of The Circus was plagued with problems—Chaplin’s messy divorce from second wife Lita Grey, the death of his mother Hannah, the scratching of the film negative, a studio fire, a windstorm, real estate development drastically changing the scenery, the theft of the circus train, and the IRS going after Chaplin for alleged unpaid back taxes.

Filming started 11 January 1926, and had largely wrapped by November. This included the restoration of the abovementioned film negative, which was discovered to be scratched one month in. Then in September, the fire broke out, and delayed production for a month.

Lita Grey filed for divorce in December, which pushed release back for over a year. They’d been mismatched from the jump, and barely spent any time together. It’s no secret theirs was a shotgun marriage to avoid scandal and trouble with the law (as she was a minor).

Chaplin had to smuggle the film to safety when Lita’s lawyers tried to seize his studio assets.

The divorce was finalized 22 August 1927, and in the largest divorce settlement of the time, Chaplin was ordered to pay over $600,000 and $100,000 in trust for each of their sons ($8,452,874 and $1,408,812 today).

The Circus was the seventh-highest-grossing film to date, earning over $3.8 million in 1928 ($54,444,774.57 today). The film largely received positive reviews, though a few reviewers pointed out spots where they felt the funny business stretched on too long, or felt it wasn’t as poetic and emotional as previous Chaplin films.

It was nominated for four Academy Awards—Outstanding Picture; Best Writing (Original Story); Best Director, Comedy Picture; and Best Actor. However, the newly-founded Academy removed Chaplin from the running by giving him a Special Award “for writing, acting, directing, and producing The Circus” and “Versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing, and producing.” It was meant to honor his overall contributions to film.

Officially, the Academy no longer lists Chaplin’s nominations in their list of nominees through the decades.

Chaplin had plans for a circus film as early as 1920, and began developing his ideas in late 1925. He started with a comedically thrilling scene of himself taking the place of the tightrope-walker and being attacked by monkeys, who tear off his pants. He then wrote a story about everything leading up to it, and the resulting finale.

Aspects of The Circus were drawn from his earlier two-reeler The Vagabond (1916), which featured a mistreated “Gypsy Drudge” (his longtime leading lady Edna Purviance). Another influence was The King of the Circus (1925), the last completed film of comedy legend Max Linder.

The scene where the Tramp is locked into a lion’s cage also parallels a scene from Linder’s feature Seven Years Bad Luck (1921). Chaplin often borrowed plot points and gags from Linder.

The scene with the lion took 200 takes, many of which truly did take place in the cage. Chaplin’s fearful expressions and body language weren’t all acting! He and co-star Harry Crocker (Rex) also spent weeks learning tightrope-walking.

Crocker also plays a clown and disgruntled property man.

A scene of the Tramp’s confusion with identical twin prize-fighters, using double-exposure to depict the twins (played by Doc Stone), was deleted out of concern for the film having too much comedy.

In 1947, prominent Austrian composer Hanns Eisler (who went into exile after the Nazis came to power) created a soundtrack for flute, piccolo, bassoon, string quarter, and clarinet in B flat.

In 1967, Chaplin created his own new musical score, and a theme song, “Swing Little Girl,” to be sung over the opening titles. He was 79 years old when he recorded it. This updated version premièred in NYC on 15 December 1969, and in London in December 1970.

The Circus at 90, Part I (General overview)

Charlie Chaplin’s last fully silent film had its grand première 6 January 1928, by NYC’s Strand Theatre, and opened 27 January by Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. While it’s quieter and less sweeping in scope than a masterpiece like City Lights or Limelight, it’s a very solid, enjoyable film nonetheless.

A struggling circus has come to town, headed by a cruel ringmaster who mistreats all his performers, including his stepdaughter Merna (Merna Kennedy). Into this scene steps the dear Little Tramp, who’s so hungry he has to take bites from a baby’s doughnut.

His situation worsens when he’s framed him for pickpocketing a wallet. At first he’s assumed to be the victim, but then the true victim alerts the cops, and the Tramp escapes into the circus funhouse.

The Tramp next tries to evade capture by posing as a dummy outside the funhouse, but when the ruse is up, he runs back into the hall of mirrors. He then ends up under the big top, with the cop unwittingly becoming part of the entertainment.

The Tramp is such an audience hit, he’s asked to audition in the morning. Being starving and poor, he jumps at the opportunity for any job.

As destitute as he is, he kind-heartedly share some of his meagre food with Merna in the morning. Her abusive stepfather forced her to go without food yesterday.

Every act the Tramp auditions for goes hilariously wrong, and the ringmaster orders him out. He’s leaving the fairgrounds when he runs across Merna, who helps him to clean up, and expresses sorrow for how he won’t be joining the act after all. She also thanks him for giving her the egg.

The Tramp’s fortune changes when the property men quit on account on not getting their rightful back pay. The ringmaster orders the head property man (veteran character actor Tiny Sandford) to get anybody to fill the role, and of course the Tramp is roped in.

Once again, the Tramp unwittingly stumbles into a circus act and becomes a huge hit. The ringmaster agrees to keep him on as a pretended property man, without the pay he’s owed.

The Tramp is kept in the dark about how he’s the hit of the show, and given a lot of gruntwork when the circus isn’t performing, such as cleaning equipment and giving horses pills.

The Tramp accidentally runs into a lion’s cage after running away from the head property man’s wrath, and then accidentally locks himself inside as well.

After Merna saves him, the Tramp shimmies all the way up to the top of a pole. Once he comes down, Merna reveals he’s the hit of the show. Her stepfather is quite displeased to overhear this, and tries to whip her.

The Tramp threatens to quit if he strikes her, and the ringmaster finally agrees to pay him. The Tramp haggles his weekly pay up to $100.

This newfound windfall not only increases his quality of life, but also Merna’s.

The Tramp is thrilled to overhear a fortuneteller predicting Merna will find love and marriage with a dark, handsome man who’s close to her now. Who else but himself could that be referring to?

In steps Rex, the new tightrope-walker. Naturally, he and Merna fall in instalove.

The Tramp, still believing he’s the one, gives a clown $5 for a fancy ring. His hopes are sadly dashed when he overhears Merna telling the fortunerteller she’s just fallen in love with a new tightrope-walker.

The Tramp barely makes anyone laugh during the next show, too depressed about his unrequited love. As the season passes with a similar lack of laughs, he becomes determined to become a tightrope-walker himself, so he might impress Merna more than Rex.

The Tramp is given one more chance to make the audience laugh, on a day Rex is nowhere to be found. He’s compelled into taking Rex’s place, in spite of having zero experience and Merna begging him not to do it.

Will the Tramp be able to save the show and help Merna get away from her abusive stepfather once and for all?

From foppish Bostonian to maritime Mississippian hero

Lea of Silent-ology is hosting her fourth annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, a yearly celebration of all things Buster. Click on the button for more information and a list of participants and their themes.

This year, I decided to do Steamboat Bill, Jr., my favoritest of Buster’s features.

Released 12 May 1928, Steamboat Bill, Jr. was Buster’s final film as an independent. Due to its financial failure, Buster had to stop making films for United Artists and move to MGM. He never enjoyed this much creative control ever again.

The title comes from “Steamboat Bill,” a popular Arthur Collins song from 1911. Collins was known as The King of Ragtime Singers. In turn, the film inspired Mickey Mouse’s début cartoon, Steamboat Willie.

In November, I’ll have a series in honor of Mickey’s 90th anniversary.

There’s a new steamship in Muddy Waters, King, owned by local bigwig J.J. King (Tom McGuire). The proud owner of the older steamship, Stonewall Jackson, is William Canfield (awesome character actor Ernest Torrence), nicknamed Steamboat Bill. Bill’s first and last mate is Tom Carter (Tom Lewis).

Everyone flocks to King, ignoring Stonewall Jackson. The arrogant King believes his floating palace will drive his rival’s junky ship out of business. Carter thinks it’s hopeless, but Bill swears he’ll run his boat even if he’s the only one on it.

Bill is thrilled when Carter gives him a telegram which arrived four days ago. He hasn’t seen Willie since he was a baby, and imagines Willie is now bigger than he is.

Shortly before Willie arrives, King’s daughter Kitty (Marion Byron) also comes home from school.

Bill has a devil of a time finding Willie, since many men are wearing white carnations. There’s a bit of ethnic humor many people may now find dated, as two of the guys with white carnations are an African–American and a stereotypically bearded Jew.

Bill is far from thrilled when he realizes Willie is a short, slight, ukelele-playing fop with a pencil moustache and beret. He warns Carter, “If you say what you’re thinking I’ll strangle you!”

Bill insists upon a makeover for Willie, which starts with a trip to the barber to get the moustache shaved off. Who else should be in the chair across from Willie than Kitty, his sweetheart!

The next order of business is a hat shop, where Bill makes Willie try on a parade of hats to replace the beret. Willie is open to a new hat, but Bill doesn’t like any of the ones he does.

This part of the film reminds me a bit of Putting Pants on Philip (1927), Laurel and Hardy’s first official short as a team.

Bill then takes Willie to get working clothes for the boat. While Willie’s in the store, Bill steps on his ukelele.

From the jump, Willie proves himself to be hilariously inept at any and all boat-related tasks. He’s only interested in sneaking away to meet with Kitty.

King is just as displeased with Willie as Bill, and orders him off the boat unless he wants his neck wrung. As bemused as Bill is with his son, he dislikes his rival more, and realizes he and Willie have a common enemy.

A silver lining in Willie’s mismanagement of the boat is the resulting mayhem it wreaks upon King and his boat.

That night, Kitty sends Willie a message, asking him to meet her. Both fathers are adamantly opposed to their relationship, but Willie, determined to see Kitty, outsmarts Bill’s attempts to keep him on the boat.

In the morning, Bill gives Willie money and a ticket back to Boston. His day gets worse when he discovers Stonewall Jackson has been declared unsafe and condemned.

Bill gets into a fight with a newspaper salesman who agrees with the condemnation. After he throws a rock and breaks a window, a lot of people come running, and Bill is arrested.

Willie tries to smuggle him a loaf of bread with escape tools baked in, but the jailer discovers this scheme. A short-lived prison break follows, and then even more trouble begins, accompanied by a growing storm.

Regardless of all the obstacles, Willie remains determined to save the day and prove his worth.

Buster spent over $100,000 building the sets, and spent $25,000 more on the famous storm scene. The storm scene includes Buster’s most famous stunt, depicted above.

Had Buster not stood at exactly the right spot, he might’ve been killed or seriously injured. Buster named that as one of his greatest thrills.

In spite of the mixed reviews and box office failure, today the film is rightly regarded as a classic.