Despite its thematic truths, there really is no reason to watch “The Crowd,” as it outlines obvious societal ills and offers no conclusive solution to the hardships of life other than escapism.
“The Crowd” is a 1928 silent film written and directed by King Vidor that chronicles the personal journey of everyman John Sims (James Murray), as he is cyclically rewarded and defeated by life as an American businessman, husband and father. Sims becomes the prototype for the average working class man at the brink of the depression era, as he slaves away as an office worker at an insurance company in New York City. He hastily falls in love with Mary (Eleanor Bordman), a bland but kind young woman from a wealthy background and proposes to her during their first encounter. The viewer sympathizes with John throughout his futile attempts to connect with his brothers-in-law. Yet we find ourselves turning on him when he leaves Christmas dinner in pursuit of liquor, unable to impress his wife’s family. He finally returns home, a pitiful stumbling mess. It is here that he first begins to “slip on the ice” literally and metaphorically.
The storyline is a sped-up depiction of John’s life, from his birth to the early years of his marriage and fatherhood. Major changes throughout the plot are motivated and foreshadowed by advertisements, such as the couple’s decision to move in together after John sees the pamphlet about home furnishing, and the “time to re-tire” ad in the newspaper. The camera cuts to the couple’s decision to settle down together and start a life for themselves. The storyline progression prompted by advertisements reflects the couple’s obedience society’s expectations. Events such as these exemplify the predictable nature of the characters and the film, which not-so-subtly recreates the droning, inescapable progression of life that Vidor attempts to capitalize on.
Scenes are driven by organized chaos; daunting wide-angle shots of New York City and the faceless masses of the crowds that populate it, as well as a comical scene of the family’s hectic beach outing.
The Man vs. Society theme is beaten into the audience throughout the film, and adheres to the idea that the only real solace from life’s daily coffee-stained, number crunching torture is family. The film takes a drastic turn when John and Mary’s youngest daughter dies in an automobile accident. Vidor is telling us that just when we’ve thought we’ve finally figured it out, life will present you with unpredictable tragedy. You will be defeated and left with nowhere to turn. Title cards tell us that the crowd will stop to cry with you for a day, but will keep moving without you come the next.
Title cards replacing dialogue all too blatantly summarize the film. “We do not know how big the crowd is, and what opposition to it is until we get out of step with it,” one reads. Daily life is a test of survival of the fittest around us. It becomes easy and agreeable when you are in line, going the right direction and at the same pace as everyone else. But dare to step out of line, take a less traditional path or start slipping on the ice, and society turns against you, just as it does when John loses his job and fails to fulfill his role as the provider for his family. This message, while bleak and repetitive in the film does reflect a profound truth.
Yet the cyclical nature of life is overemphasized in “The Crowd” when John takes the job as a juggling jester, a figure on the street he and Mary made fun of on their first date. “And I bet his father thought he would be president,” they had jeered. The relationship between father and son also becomes a driving element in the film, such as when John’s son restores hope in his father after John’s almost-suicide attempt.
If a critique of the American work force during the early 1900s was what Vidor was aiming for, he succeeded. The characters are believable and the message is clear. Although the plot develops in an anticipatable way, the storyline is cohesive. However a truly successful film – at least for this critic – aims for more than a predictable societal commentary, and reaches to inspire the viewer from a constructive angle. Instead, we are presented with a depressing conclusion in which John is taken back by his wife and son out of pity. Uninspiring to say the least.
Themes in “The Crowd” are not outdated. The characters have problems and moments of success similar to those modern day Americans endure. Bliss of glittering new love dulled by marriage, the struggle of Man vs. Society and inevitable encounters with death are very real elements of the human experience. However comprising a film out of these unavoidable parts of life offers no real insight – just a pessimistic lens into the rat race that life can become, and the story of one man’s failure to hold his head above water.