Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Silent Classic Movie Review: The Crowd

Silent films aren’t for everybody, although they should be. If you’re not into silent films or you’ve never seen one, you should give it a try. Even I will admit that I often find films from the silent era difficult to connect with. They require a different focus from your brain. For one thing there’s occasional reading involved. Apart from that, we’ve just become so conditioned to having things spelled out for us in the visual arts that many of us have become inured to anything less than an assault on the senses. When you no longer have things like sound effects and spoken dialogue to help you understand the story, it means your brain has to do the work of filling in the gaps. You have to imagine how the lines are spoken and how the scene sounds.

Yes, it can be hard work, but it can be greatly fulfilling. Charlie Chaplin is a great place to start with silent cinema. Another one is one of the great silent classics that I recently had the pleasure to enjoy at a local arts cinema with live musical accompaniment. The film is The Crowd directed by King Vidor. I had already seen the film probably about 12 years ago and remember thinking at the time that it was unlike any silent film I’d seen. At that point I could probably count on both hands (and maybe one foot) the number of silent films I’d seen. Now I’ve seen quite a few more and it remains a fresh and lively film more in the style of modern dramas than anything that was being produced in the late 20s.

In its subject matter it calls to mind Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris, an earlier silent film that was equally ahead of its time in presenting a treatment of family drama. The Crowd has no epic, no spectacle, no grand or bold gestures. It takes a simple run-of-the-mill young man, throws him into fast-paced New York City and challenges him to sink or swim. John Sims (James Murray) is an everyman who believes he is destined for greatness. On the boat arriving in New York a man beside him remarks, “You’ve gotta be good in that town if you want to beat the crowd.”

This film is the earliest example I know of that treats New York as a force not to be trifled with. Vidor shows us bustling streets with large swaths of people moving to and fro. He presents the concrete jungle of skyscrapers in a way that was striking for how similar it looks 84 years later (and this before even the Chrysler and Empire State buildings were constructed).

John meets and marries Mary (Eleanor Boardman) and they begin their life in a one room apartment next to the elevated subway. John grinds out his daily work doing some kind of accounting in a big firm, one man amid hundreds, most of whom speak the same way after having worked in a monotonous rut for so long. Things don’t ever seem to go their way as they struggle to raise a family as the years press on and John is continually passed over for promotion even while his good friend Bert (Bert Roach) moves up.

There is truly nothing special about John or Mary that should warrant our special attention enough to make them the central characters in a motion picture. Even their names are completely generic. What makes them fascinating is that they aren’t special. They are like any average Joe. When unspeakable tragedy strikes their family, we feel terrible watching John suffer through it because he is probably no different than you or me.

The Crowd stands out as a landmark film not only because Vidor and his co-screenwriter John V.A. Weaver dared to make a film about unremarkable people, but because Vidor and his cinematographer Henry Sharp composed shots that stood out. The use of crane shots is incredible considering the time period. The general fluid movement of the camera is something you just didn’t see in the silent era. Camera placement was most often stationary, editing kept simple. One of the early shots in the film has a camera gliding up the side of a building, entering a window to depict a roomful of men working at desks as the camera pans over the multitude to hone in on John. This shot would be mimicked more than 30 years by Billy Wilder in The Apartment. And the set design is just as wonderful. This isn’t the grandiose art direction you find in DeMille’s pictures, but the simple elegant work of Cedric Gibbons, who creates claustrophobic spaces that amplify the tension in John and Mary’s household.

The Crowd is narratively sound and never boring. It features a good deal of minimalist acting that stands in contrast to the large gestures and exaggerated facial expressions that was the style of the era. Anyone looking to delve into some dramatic silent films would do well to start here. It is a classic that deserves a lot more attention than it gets.

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