Early & Silent Film

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The Crowd, USA 1928

Posted by keith1942 on October 18, 2017

On set.

The film was screened from a Photoplay Productions 35mm print as the opening Gala at this year’s Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. The film looked pretty good though the print was more worn than when I first saw it as a Thames Silent. As then we had a score composed and conducted by Carl Davis and played in this occasion by  the Orchestra San Marco.

I have written about the film in ‘Early and Silent Cinema’ and reviewing it my thoughts were more or less unchanged. It is a fine piece of direction by King Vidor. The script is excellent, the combined work of John Weaver, Harry Behn and Vidor himself. Behn had worked on the M-G-M’s earlier success, The Big Parade (1925). The title cards were composed by Joseph Farnham.

Vidor and the writer of his big success, Harry Behn, penned the original story. Jon Waver produced a full screenplay which was considerably adapted by Vidor and Behn.

‘Vidor pitched Irving Thalberg a film about an average man walking through life, and the drama taking place around him.” (Jordan R. Young in the Festival Catalogue).

Both the producers at the time and some reviewers treated the film as presenting the ‘working man’ However, true to Hollywood values, the hero John Sims (James Murray) is not strictly a member of the working class. He works in an office and is imbued with petit-bourgeois values. The film does not depict his father’s occupation but he clearly buys into the ‘American dream’ and is at pains to distinguish himself from the proletarian masses. At key points in the film John consciously distances himself: the notable example when he laughs at a man earning his living as a juggler/advert in a New York street.

The irony is that, as predicted by Marx and Engels, John is hurtled down in the reserve army of labour. But even here, reduced himself to working as a juggler/advert, he remains committed to the same values. The key representation of these is a recurring plot trope, John’s successful; entry in a competition to provide an advertisement slogan for a popular commodity, ‘Sleight-o-Hand’ ‘The Magic Cleaner’.. The final shot of him and his family is as the advert of the product [with his jingle] provides added pleasure to a celebration, displayed in the programme of a theatre entertainment. At this point the camera tracks back and they gradually are lost in the large audience. This emphatically places John in ‘the crowd ‘of the title. But this is not a conscious working class grouping, but an anonymised mass dominated by the ideology of the free market and ‘a fair day’s pay’.

The Catalogue noted that the Coney island sequence in the film was actually shot at Abbot Kinney Pier in California. But the film does include actual footage shot in New York, the major setting for the film.

One scene that I noticed this time round was interesting. At a dramatic climax John Sims contemplates suicide. He actually stands ready to jump un der an approaching train but draws back. Following this his young son (Johnny Downs) helps to restore his self-esteem by stating his love and admiration for his father. They now wend their way home. Here they pass a cemetery with ranks of gravestones set out in neat rows: this looked like a back projection. It suggests a visual comment on the situation. Oddly John leaves his son on a bench in front of the cemetery and runs to where a job vacancy is publicised. This is the work as a Juggler/advert and we see him dressed in clown uniform, juggling balls, in the street. Following this he returns, collects his son and both go home. It must be an oversight because strictly speaking the son must have been left alone on the bench for hours.

The film remains a powerful and effective movie. it went down great at the festival as did Carl Davis and the orchestra. I think his scores at certain points do rather overpower the films. But the musical sweep in this case works very successfully with the emotional melodrama.

 

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