Three years after the immense popular success of King Vidor's THE BIG PARADE (1925), Vidor directed THE CROWD, another silent drama about an average man caught up in great social forces that he doesn't fully understand. One of the few major Hollywood productions to deal realistically with the daily struggles and disappointments of ordinary people, THE CROWD,...read more
Three years after the immense popular success of King Vidor's THE BIG PARADE (1925), Vidor directed THE CROWD, another silent drama about an average man caught up in great social forces that he doesn't fully understand. One of the few major Hollywood productions to deal realistically
with the daily struggles and disappointments of ordinary people, THE CROWD, though fully as ambitious as its predecessor, was considerably less ingratiating.
On July 4th, 1900, John Sims is born in a small American town. At the age of 21, nine years after the death of his father, John (James Murray) arrives in New York City, where he procures a job as a nearly anonymous accountant in a large insurance office. One night, he takes Mary (Eleanor Boardman)
on a blind date, falls in love with her, and impulsively proposes. Following their honeymoon at Niagara Falls, the happy and hopeful newlyweds settle down in a cheap flat by an elevated train line. After a few months in their old and cramped apartment, John and Mary begin to get on each other's
nerves, but a major rift in their marriage is averted when Mary gives birth to a boy, an event that so inspires John that he pledges to try harder to advance his career.
During the following five years, the only significant occurrences in the Sims's lives are the birth of a second child, a daughter, and a paltry raise in John's salary. Mary's increasing criticism of her husband for his inability to get ahead comes to a sudden halt when he wins $500 in a
slogan-writing contest. No sooner has the lucky couple begun to celebrate their windfall than tragedy strikes: their little girl (Alice Mildred Puter) is run over and killed. Her death, in concert with ongoing career frustrations, so upsets John that he quits his job.
John's impulsive resignation is followed by a period of off-again, on-again employment at increasingly demeaning jobs, while Mary takes in sewing. When her brothers (Daniel G. Tomlinson, Dell Henderson) offer John a job working for them, he refuses their "charity," much to the displeasure of his
wife. Feeling thoroughly defeated, the young man very nearly commits suicide, but is unable to go through with it. Stirred by the love of his little boy (Freddie Burke Frederick), he decides to keep trying and finally lands a position: a sandwich board man in clown costume. When he returns home to
tell Mary the news, he finds her with bags packed, about to leave him. John repledges his love to his wife and vows to win back her affection. Mary goes, but returns within moments, realizing that John needs her desperately. That night, the reconciled couple and their son attend a vaudeville show.
As the story ends, John and Mary--along with hundreds like them in the theater audience--can be seen laughing boisterously at the onstage antics of a clown.
When MGM executive Irving Thalberg asked Vidor what he had in mind to follow the success of THE BIG PARADE, the director pitched him an idea for a story to be called "The Clerk," "March of Life," "One of the Mob" (which sounded to Thalberg too much like a story of capital-labor conflict), or "One
of the Crowd." When THE CROWD was completed, MGM dragged its feet before releasing what they feared might be a commercial failure. Vidor himself was unsure how to resolve this tragicomedy and filmed and tested as many as seven alternate endings. Ultimately, exhibitors were given a choice of two:
the familiar conclusion cited above or a happier one in which John Sims strikes it rich writing slogans.
Although moviegoers formed no "big parade" to THE CROWD's box offices, the movie did turn a decent profit in addition to garnering rave reviews. Audiences apparently responded favorably to its mix of unsophisticated comedy and agonizing tragedy, and no one's political sensibilities were
offended--with the possible exception of Marxists. (Where were the fat bosses? Where were the noble physical laborers?) In his autobiography, A Tree Is a Tree, Vidor recalled that when THE CROWD was released, "it was supposed to be what is called in Hollywood an artistic failure or 'flop
d'estime'....When [it] was reported to be over the heads of the audience, I made a point of discussing it with every bellboy, salesgirl, soda jerker, and taxi driver I met who had seen it. I never found one who hadn't thoroughly understood every idea I was trying to put forth."
James Murray was not able to rise above the crowd either before or after his moment of fame as the movie's central character. When Vidor was seeking a lead for his 1934 film OUR DAILY BREAD, a kind of thematic sequel to THE CROWD, he thought of Murray but was unable to learn his whereabouts. Then
one day, he recalled, he bumped into the actor, unshaven and bloated from drink, and was solicited for food money. Vidor offered him the starring role in OUR DAILY BREAD on the condition that he slim down and dry out. Murray walked off in a huff. Three years later, an alcoholic derelict, he
drowned in the Hudson River.
A remarkably prescient picture, THE CROWD was a Depression movie made before the Crash of '29. Although it was (and is) one of Hollywood's most honest and earnest A-movies, it was not a very influential one. Among its few offspring, however, are two superb films: CHRISTMAS IN JULY (1940), in which
Dick Powell, a James Murray look-alike, portrays another white-collar drone who dreams of hitting it big writing slogans while stuck in an office crowded with row after row of identical desks, and THE MARRYING KIND (1952), in which the marriage of another lower middle-class couple is threatened by
the economic hardship of living in New York and by the accidental death of their child.
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