by Allan Fish
(USA 1928 107m) DVD6 (China only)
A little man the world will hear from
p King Vidor d King Vidor w King Vidor, John A.Weaver, Harry Behn ph Henry Sharp ed Hugh Wynn m Carl Davis art Cedric Gibbons, Arnold Gillespie
Eleanor Boardman (Mary Simm), James Murray (John Simm), Bert Roach (Bert), Daniel G.Tomlinson (Jim), Dell Henderson (Dick), Lucy Beaumont (mother), Freddie Burke Frederick (Junior), Alice Mildred Puter (daughter),
One of the last classic silent films of the American cinema, King Vidor’s unquestioned masterpiece is probably the finest insight of its day into the daily rigour of modern urban living, a film whose visual and technical advances were revolutionary to the point of since becoming clichés, but which still stands fresh to this day.
We begin in 1900 on Independence Day, where John Simm is born to happy parents, but twelve years later his father is killed in an accident and his son is told to be brave, as his father would have wished. We next see him in 1921, slaving with thousands of others behind an office desk and living only for the five o’clock bell to get home and study. However, one night he is persuaded by his friend, Bert, to go out with two women friends. Paired off with Mary, John falls in love with her and, following a night at Coney Island, he proposes and they marry. At first things are idyllic, with a honeymoon at Niagara Falls and two children, but when their daughter is killed after being run over by a lorry, John cracks up and things begin to enter a downward spiral.
There are sentiments here that ring true down the decades, its vision of endless offices and Babelesque office towers prefiguring If I Had a Million and The Apartment and its much imitated sequence of fun and games at Coney Island still startling, particularly the innovative shot of the camera preceding the couples down on a mat slide. But the truth here isn’t merely visual, but in the scenario. “You gotta be good in that town if you want to beat the crowd” John is told on his arrival in New York. A city where, as a further caption states, seven million people believe the city depends on them. Marriage at first seems a blissful union, but in poverty and, even more so, drudgery, it can prove the opposite. “Take it from me, marriage isn’t a word, it’s a sentence” John tells Mary as he momentarily threatens to leave her, and it’s a sentiment many have echoed. Yet here even the most cynical will be touched by their plight. John may be full of himself, mocking the poor fellow performing tricks while carrying a sandwich board only to be destined to carry one himself in the last act, but we still side with him as we recognise him. Like the merry-go-round at Coney Island, what goes around comes around.
The most memorable aspect to the film in many ways, though, is the naturalistic treatment of the central love story, with much being said with the slightest gesture or act. One recalls Murray playing with the curls of hair underneath Boardman’s hat as she sleeps on his shoulder prior to proposing, Boardman’s touchingly letting her long hair down on her wedding night on board the train to Niagara Falls, Murray thinking of the lorry that killed his daughter when failing to do his job, or the reaction from both when Boardman finally loses patience with Murray’s lack of reality and slaps him. We can feel the pain, not just the tingle on the cheek but the emotional pain. A pain intensified by the tragic death of their daughter. In one of the truest observations in the entire scenario, a caption reads “the crowd laughs with you always, but it will cry with you only for a day.” It is to Vidor’s great credit that the couple’s plight is so dear to our hearts, and we certainly find it easy to empathise. He also managed to extract quite exquisite performances from his two stars, who were never as good again. Murray personifying the brash young man doomed to get a harsh dose of reality and Boardman as the touchingly plain yet still attractive wife who supports him at every turn. The film was only made because MGM gave Vidor carte blanche to make it in thanks for bloating the coffers with The Big Parade. Though his later films never came close to its power, The Crowd still remains one of the truly great American films, and one of the most touching.