Although F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans may have done away with winning the only ever Academy Award for “Unique and Artistic Production” another film in competition at the time, being King Vidor’s The Crowd deserves a name for itself as one of the great American films of the period. King Vidor’s films have always revolved around this sort of melodrama but so rare are films like The Crowd coming by with the rollercoaster of emotions that they give out. It takes time before one gets down to the most beautiful aspects of The Crowd but to prepare oneself only for what would become one of the finest examples of melodrama ever to have been put on film. It has moments of happiness, sadness, and hopes – just like everyday life. It’s that feeling that only makes The Crowd a fraction of what it truly is.
Where the wonders of The Crowd start is simple: we observe a family living within what is perceived to be an idea of the American dream. Our protagonist, John Sims as played by James Murray, was born on the Fourth of July in 1900, and he has lost his father at the age of twelve, but at 21 he has one goal in mind as he believes he can make a name for himself as something important. He gets married to Mary, with whom he has two children: the perfect nuclear family. This is where the most common American citizen starts, but I recognized something about this that ended up resonating with my own senses in a way I would never have expected. Many times have we seen films that we can recognize as life as we know it, but a film like The Crowd achieves far more just for its own time – maybe it could be that running thought in the back of my head that allows its impact to take me in even more.
The title, “the crowd,” seems to be one that hints only at a growing pessimism that runs through people who try to achieve what they perceive to be the American dream in their own ways. King Vidor’s primary focus is on that of one family, but the ideology as hinted by the title only finds itself remaining all the more intact. When the most ordinary people wish to find a means of achieving the American dream, all of their ways build up to make a crowd in which many faceless individuals are walking by for others to get lost within. King Vidor doesn’t lose himself within this crowd, but it’s inside of his observations where The Crowd builds up its own power. There is a running thought that no matter how hard we try to remain intact with where we wish to be, we are still going to remain one of those ordinary faces in that crowd and that’s how our life recognizes us: one amongst many people inside this crowd.
Its painstaking depiction of real life on the screen is yet another one of smaller factors that allows The Crowd to grow as powerful as it is: for the mannerisms to which it forms melodrama never find themselves restricted amongst backgrounds. Life is full of moments of happiness just as it is full of tragedies. Every actor doesn’t feel like they are acting because they are in places to which we can recognize inside of our own lives. Like John Sims, we dream only big things to come for our comfort in some way or another. But no matter what the degree of our dreams may be, it’s in thought that King Vidor allows The Crowd to achieve where something grander has been reached. This blend of happiness together with challenges not only works in a way to create an effective melodrama, but it adds more to the realism that fits so perfectly well with this rather simplistic storytelling.
What stands out is how King Vidor frames these sequences, given how it all feels like a patriotic representation of the country, but in a sense it also plays out as a critique of the American dream in some way. If the cleverness hadn’t run clear yet, there’s an ideal it presents about the world in which its characters inhabit that feels so universal. Vidor’s film plays in a sense that it only wants to carry a sense of why the world around oneself is so unforgiving especially in a place where everyone seeks importance. King Vidor’s portrait of familial issues amidst this ideology if anything calls for something so much more thoughtful. Ordinary people dream of breaking away from what they see as mundane because they seek importance, but on the count for the individual, it’s amazing how much The Crowd has to say for oneself. The Crowd plays out on the end of a fight in which we see an individual standing out as a voice amongst this crowd for everyone to listen, but always presenting itself on an encouraging note. Yet on the most unexpected moments, it will hit a different note: mirroring the trials of real life.
The Crowd is an idealistic film that seems so rare for the sort in Hollywood, but to see how much emotion has come about in something that really felt like such an up close experience back in the day when it came out, it still carries as much an impact now as it did then. From start to finish, it caught me just noting how thoughtful an experience this was, showing aspirations fading away at the running pessimism that King Vidor allows to flow through this melodramatic epic. In its reflections of life as we know it, the recurring feeling of importance still remains intact, even as the film’s ending shot comes about, solidifying the ideology it runs upon. But I’ll certainly be damned if I wasn’t left reflecting on what is set to come about my place in life as a result of The Crowd, am I ever going to be as big a voice as I dream of being, or will I just be another one of those faceless cutouts that form the crowd walking by?
Watch a clip right here.
All images via MGM/UA.
Directed by King Vidor
Titles written by Joseph Farnham
Produced by Irving Thalberg
Starring James Murray, Eleanor Boardman, Bert Roach
Release Year: 1928
Running Time: 98 minutes