The Crowd (1928)

Individuality is a need we all strive for in some capacity. Some find contentment with praise of a close knit circle, others want applause of the entire world. Music, film, art, literature and the internet are grand stages to perform uniqueness. But increasingly, these platforms become suffocated as people aggressively shove for space, trample over one another for the spotlight and project their voice until the stage is nothing but a crowded cacophony.

The Crowd is an exploration of this inherent desire as John Sims (James Murray) searches for success in a bustling metropolis and tries to balance home life.

The Crowd is something of a companion piece to Lang’s Metropolis. Glittering spires jut across the skyline and huge masses surge through streets. But Vidor does not veil his reality with subjectivity and spectacle. These towers are the Empire state and Chrysler buildings and footage of crowds are documented footage. Vidor desired to create a film which confronts a harsh reality, using unknown actors for universality and setting his story in the globally recognised Big Apple ripe for a cynical bite.

As one title card reads ‘When John was twenty-one he became one of the seven million that believe New York depends on them’. It would have been an interesting mocking of Frank Sinatra’s crooned promises ‘If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere’, had it not been created decades prior. The surging crowds, impatient police, and mile long congestion are real, the location true and the problem current.

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Sim’s woes spring from an ill defined dream of being a somebody as he inherently holds a belief that success is an entitlement. His view is a predecessor to the the gameshow embedded in American TV culture which promises a turn to play for the big prizes. Vidor is oddly prophetic of the 21st century obsession with super success, yet his vision could not predict the explosion of modern technology.

The internet has unlocked endless possibilities for expression and the chance to reach millions. On Youtube, anyone can be a singer, on Vimeo, anyone can be a filmmaker, on blog sites, anyone can be a writer. These developments allow vast groups of people to connect, inspire and share passions. But increasingly, immense success stories inspire others to seek super-success regardless of content.

A survey conducted in 2014 with five to eleven year olds discovered that the top three career aspirations were sports star, pop star and actor. Psychologist Yalda T. Urls states ‘a focus on extrinsic rewards, outside of oneself, can reduce achievement motivation. Fame may be the ultimate extrinsic reward’.

Keeping Up With The Kardashians is one of a plethora of shows creating celebrities without achievement. X Factor yearly discovers and develops a global talent over a few weeks before many fade out of the limelight. Twenty four hour sites document any person in the gravitation of fame for critical fodder. These endless depictions fall into two categories; success and underdogs. In the former, stars live the life others dream of, the latter promises immediate stardom.

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Before these leaps of invention, Vidor already understood the crushing disappointment of expectation vs reality. Early in the film, young Sims and friends talks of what they want to do when they are older. Each replies with a goal unlikely to be obtained. Sims dreaming follows into his adult life as he slips into becoming a faceless worker in a myriad of identical office desks. He desires the success of others, like his best friend, but his pride prohibits him from lowering to unctuousness and stagnates as he waits for his ‘ship’ to come in.

Sims edges away from being a young man at the beginning of life towards a man in the middle of a crisis. His life slowly loses its lustre; the apartment which had the novelty of being called home starts to creak, romance fizzles out of intensity and work no longer holds promise of success.  The words ‘Look at that crowd! Poor slobs… all in the same rut’ uttered in hopeful youth take on a darker irony. Finally, Sims becomes the punchline of his own life as he is hired as a clown.

Clearly, this picture ran into trouble with producers for its bleakness. But bleakness is often a synonym for honesty. King Vidor reflects reality starkly from the shining of the silver screen. There is no end of a rainbow or riding into the sunset, some people have dreams which are never fully realised.

Years after the success of the The Crowd, Vidor spotted a pan handler whom he realised was his former star. Success never visited the actor and his life fell into a destitution from which it never recovered. The Crowd retains its unique universality from this tragedy, and a strange reflection of life imitating art becomes increasingly relevant in an age of instant gratification.

Classic Moment… 

SPOILER ALERT:

The Sims family laugh at a clown performing silly stunts. In a pamphlet, Sims spots his only creative contribution to the wider world – a slogan. This slogan is complimented by a clown picture eerily similar to the costume of his job. Sims is so blinded by happiness, he fails to connect the clown they chuckle at now, the one in the pamphlet and himself. Instead, the camera pulls further and further away as the crowd laugh until all distinction is lost.

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