Retro Review: ‘The Crowd’

By the time of the late 1920’s silent cinema had fully embraced a more fantastical style. Acclaimed director King Vidor wanted to buck this idea with his 1927 film, the Crowd. However, the head of MGM Irving Thalberg was unsure of how successful it would be and held the film back for a year releasing it in 1928. It has since become one of the great triumphs of the silent age of film.

Being born on Independence Day, John Sims was prepared for a life where he would achieve success and rise above “the crowd”. This outlook on life is what drives him as he moves to New York City, where he meets and marries Mary. Together they establish a family as he waits for what he inevitably believes will be his ship which will come in. When it looks like he will finally hit it big, John’s daughter is tragically killed. This puts him on a downward spiral of joblessness and a crumbling marriage. It is not until John realizes what his place in the crowd is that he can put his life back together again.

What King Vidor made with the Crowd was a film which reflected ordinary life in a beautiful way. This made the film not as popular with ticket buyers, as they avoided the movie with it’s depressing tone. That being said, the artistic merits of the Crowd are impossible to deny. The visual language of the film is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Going from wide epic shots to establish just how big “the crowd” is, to smaller close-ups to capture heart-grabbing emotional moments. This shows the shifting in attitude about “the crowd” over the course of the film. Initially it is something to be conquered and risen above, but in the end being part of a larger community is something to be embraced. The Crowd even serves as a cinematic time capsule of sorts, being filmed in the Big Apple in the 1920’s it captures the hustle and bustle of the city during this period.

The performances of James Murray and Eleanor Boardman, in the two leads are what you need to show anyone who doubts the talent required to act in a silent film. They perfectly capture the emotional journey of their characters. While MGM at the time focused on glamorous stars in their productions, these two looked like ordinary people. I defy anyone not to get a choked up when Murray as John, wander aimlessly after losing everything and contemplates throwing himself into the pass of a train beneath.

While the Crowd was not a hit upon it’s release, the film has gone on to be one of the finest examples of the best of silent cinema. Legendary filmmaker Jean Luc Goddard, believed no other film in history captured the struggles of ordinary people better. During the first ever Academy Awards, King Vidor was nominated for Best Director while the film itself was nominated in the short-lived category Best Unique and Artistic Production.