The Crowd is that rarest of all Hollywood productions – a studio-made film that was never intended to make money. Released by industry leader MGM in March 1928, this magnificent cinematic treatise on the pitfalls of American Dreaming was greenlit by F. Scott Fitzgerad’s “Last Tycoon” himself, wunderkind Irving Thalberg, who believed that true success in the entertainment industry entailed tossing the occasional “pure prestige” production at the public, whether they wanted it or not. Made at the height of America’s dizzying 1920s business boom, The Crowd is perhaps even more timely today than it was 85 years ago, and Saturday’s TSFF screening (endlessly enhanced by the improvisational piano work of accompanist Laura Silberberg) proved that it has lost none of its capacity to dazzle and unsettle contemporary viewers, in equal measure.
King Vidor’s film (which he wanted to call One of the Mob – a prestige play that even Thalberg couldn’t get behind) derives much of its uncanny power from its steely focus upon the fundamental contradiction at the heart of American (and, indeed, all mass liberal democratic) culture — i.e. America’s business was never, as Calvin Coolidge claimed, “business”; it was and always has been the assembly-line manufacture of consenting consumers, each one of whom believes that he or she is a one-of-a-kind work of art. A famous title card from the film asserts that “we do not know how big the crowd is, and what opposition it is… until we get out of step with it”; but Vidor’s larger point is that, in the “land of opportunity”, no citizen is ever more “in step” with the crowd than when they believe themselves to be out of step with it. The story of “Employee #137” John Sims (handpicked newcomer James Murray) and his wife Mary (Vidor’s then-wife Eleanor Boardman) dramatizes that fundamental insight with pitiless (but poignant) precision.
Born on the 4th of July to a father who expects the world (expressed in the cliched hope that John might be President – i.e. “first among equals” – someday) of him, our protagonist matures through the years into an absolutely typical white middle-class male of his time (and he is most typical of all in believing that he is destined to do something extraordinary). Of course he goes to New York, as soon as he’s able to. That’s what millions of standard issue supermen had been doing for decades by the 1920s. And he gets his opportunity, earning a spot at a desk in a nightmare moderne insurance office that inspired many future filmmakers and set designers (both Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, for instance, feature clear homages to John Sims’ pathetic corporate proving ground). Early on, Sims “distiguishes” himself from his peers by launching into a minor diatribe against “groupthink” that is as nearly perfect a specimen of banal “individualism” as you are ever likely to hear. A scene later, he is telling his blind date – Boardman – that “most people give me a pain in the neck, but you’re different!” All she has done, to that point, is laugh at his insipid jokes, chew gum and look like Eleanor Boardman (which, admittedly, is no small thing).
Vidor shows us that every step of John’s progress through this supposedly unique life that he is carving out for himself is dictated by advertizing cues. He even “pops the question” after consulting with a subway furniture ad that enjoins him to “furnish the girl” to complement the company’s domestic props. But John isn’t oblivious to the impact of these ubiquitous slogans. On the contrary – he wants to write them! (For Vidor, the main avenue of escape from the confines of the crowd – at least in economic terms – is to create the billboard/signposts that function like “thought balloons” for these massed individuals.)
If this review makes The Crowd sound cynical, then it’s doing its job – but Vidor’s cynicism is by no means the kind we get from contemporary pieces of conformist agitprop like Southpark or Family Guy. The secret of the film’s enduring power is its unconditional acceptance of its thoroughly mediated characters as human beings worth caring about. The little triumphs and tragedies of their lives, as maudlin or mundane as they might seem on paper (or on title cards), become so much more in the hands of Vidor and his actors (along with the fingers at the piano). After the lights came up at Saturday’s screening, this reviewer overheard one of his own crowdmates saying: “I never expected that film to have a happy ending.” And perhaps the conclusion is uplifting, in a way – although audiences should not forget that, when all is said and done, John Sims has actually become the ad-branded mass culture clown that he made fun of on his first date with Mary. Is John’s laughing acceptance of his fate something to take heart from? Or is this Vidor’s last “Sleight O’ Hand”?
The Toronto Silent Film Festival continues on Sunday with a 4pm “Slapstick Smorgasbord” at the legendary Fox Theatre, which opened its doors in 1914. You can find the entire TSFF schedule here.