The Crowd King Vidor
(USA 1928) Eleanor Boardman James Murray
Viewed: Star and Shadow Cinema 22 march 2015; Ticket £6
Retro-crit: We see what he does not see…
Almost right from the start of the Crowd, Crowd King Vidor puts his audience on notice that they are viewing a film that is a critique of American ideology. And the manner in which this critique will be effected is through the interplay of a routine but brilliantly executed melodrama which Vidor juxtaposes with images that undercut and undermine the belief systems endemic to the plot. These images reveal the macrocosm the real context against which the family, the microcosm has to play out its hopes. The lay bare the reality that for most people the idea of success, of being able to emerge out the crowd, is an illusion. Vidor may have been influenced by Metropolis, Lang’s futurist parable where the world is divided between worker slaves and masters, with no social mobility.
The early shot in the film that caught my attention came in the second sequence of the movie. In the first we see John Sims our protagonist being born and his father declaring, in the ripe cliché of the ‘American Dream’ a great future for the boy. We cut to John Sims about 10 years later, finding him on a bench with his gang of kids, who are talking talking about what they want to be when they grow up.
As the camera pans across the bench we see the kid at the end is black. This is surprising in a feature film of this era. In the clothes he wears the black boy is in no way differentiated from the other kids, he just seems part of the gang. But he takes no part in this talk. His future is written in the colour of his skin. The camera pans back along the line to John and the intertitle card reads that John is telling the gang that his dad has said he is going become ‘somebody’ in the world, perhaps President. The formulaic belief has passed down the generation. For the black boy there is nothing to discuss, no illusion, only the reality of race. But will John Sims realise the dream?
Cut to New York City, the crucible of individualistic hope. Vidor follows John through work and home, marriage and children, using the building blocks of melodramatic form to create a characteristic life for him and his wife. We see the emotional relationship between them which is brilliantly executed and the cramped homes where they live with their children. The consistent vein of belief that sustains the family is the idea that the American way will ultimately reward John with success for his hard work and ability.
Vidor’s use of moral imagery transposes the viewer outside of the binding clinch of melodrama. It enables the audience to see what John himself cannot see: that his hopes are vain and illusionary. He is the subject of a con game. He hasn’t really got a chance, only crooks and the amoral get out of the ‘crowd’. Everyday decency has no future, except as a wage slave.
Actuality shots of New York City brilliantly evoke it as a thronged city, compressed masses of workers scrambling to earn a buck. Vidor returns to actuality sbots periodically through the film: Coney Island, hundreds of men in line trying for work. But the film is mostly memorable for the three amazing sequences employing huge expressionist sets to depict the reality of John Sim’s situation. It is a moot point that the viewer sees what the sets represent, John does not, he is simply in the movie, where King Vidor has placed him.
The sets represent the world of work, the hospital and the entertainment industry. John’s Office, a vast space filled with serried lines of clerks, stretches back almost to infinity creating the sense that the individuals there are lost and helpless. There is no way out of this world. The second set that takes the breath away is the maternity ward where John visits Mary. The door to the ward opens up to John revealing a huge space filled with beds of new mothers. The space is a huge incubating factory for workers. How you are born is how you will live. John’s walk into the maternity ward is filmed as an extraordinary track in which the space seems to expand out before him. These scenes certainly evoke Metropolis, but are stunningly executed and contrived to respond to Vidor’s specific purpose: to express the America of his day.
The third set that dominates the film doesn’t use a specially built structure, but utilises an existing building, the huge auditorium of a theatre,. Vidor treats the theatre as a set in the same way as the hospital ward and the work place. It is the final shot of the Crowd. May John and their son are in the auditorium of the theatre. John’s future is uncertain, no job no prospects of realising the Dream, and at risk of losing his wife. We see the little family watching the clowns on stage. They are framed as a tight compact group laughing enjoying themselves. The camera moves up away from them tracking back away from them towards the stage, revealing the whole auditorium packed with people watching the stage, all happy all enjoying themselves. The movement of the camera over and revealing this huge crowd seems to continue an impossibly long time, revealing more and more people, until eventually the picture fades and credits roll.
The end shot suggests that the future for the crowd is to be entertained. Distraction is their fate. The Crowd draws on Metropolis and anticipates Chaplin’s Modern Times. And with its vision of America Vidor presages the Great Depression. It is a remarkable film. The melodramatic scripting and the playing of Eleanor Boardman and James Murray, are both superbly handled. Boardman’s resilience and naturalness ground the film in the everyday. James Murray gives a performance which calls up the idea of the Clown. Without ever using exaggerated gesture, Murray in mien and movement at moments suggests both Chaplin and Buster Keaton: the both archetypal victims of fate. Adrin Neatrour