The Crowd (1928), directed by King Vidor, is a film of a life freighted with great expectations. Unfortunately, great disappointments accompany those hopes.
Born on July 4, 1900, John Sims (James Murray) is raised to believe that he can do important things. With such an auspicious birthdate, he would seem poised to become a leader of the new American century. After the unexpected death of his father, his desire to thrive is cemented.
As a young man, John moves to New York City, where he works as a drone in a large office. The film’s visuals owes a debt to German Expressionism, particularly in how Vidor shoots the city. Shots of crowded streets are superimposed on each other, creating an oppressive mass of people. After focusing on the splendor of the tall buildings, Vidor’s camera flies up the side of the skyscraper where John works, then a crane shot tracks in through a seemingly endless office floor to find John’s little desk among dozens of other identical ones. The shots are remarkably effective, both breathtaking and anxiety-inducing. The featureless workers in John’s office are reminiscent of the worn down laborers of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Like those men with their nonsense machines, The Crowd also chooses not to explain what John does. Something involving numbers on a ledger, but we never learn more than that.
John meets his future wife, Mary (Eleanor Boardman), while on a fortuitous double date at an amusement park with his coworker, Bert (Bert Roach). Film cameras were able to move fluidly in the years before early sound equipment weighed them down, and here the camera even goes down a toboggan slide. The exhilarating shot creates a brief window into their moment of joy.
John and Mary’s marriage is marked by John’s wild hopes and expectations, followed by his inevitable disappointment with life. When the newlyweds take an overnight train trip to Niagara Falls, John enthuses about the big suburban house they’ll live in. Of course, John can’t afford a house like that, and the couple settles into a cramped, poorly built apartment in the city. John suppresses his disappointment at first, but eventually becomes frustrated with his living situation, and by extension his job. John expected to be an executive by now, but Bert takes the position he desires. John never considers that he wasn’t promoted because he doesn’t even like his job.
Mary bears John’s insults and misplaced anger as his mood sours. Her character is underwritten and often just a barometer of John’s changing moods, but Boardman’s restrained portrayal of Mary is revelatory. Like any silent film, The Crowd has its share of broad expressions, but Boardman avoids cartoonish mugging. There’s a veracity to how she expresses her frustrations with John that pulls the viewer into their strained marriage. This burgeoning realism would only be fully developed with the advent of sound film, but Boardman’s forward-thinking performance is essential to The Crowd’s emotional impact.
Over the next few years, John and Mary’s lives improve incrementally, and he wins $500 after sending in a winning advertising slogan. Rather than a respite, though, the prize is a reminder of wasted opportunities. As a newly-wed, John had planned to submit regularly, confident in his talent with slogans. Instead, he complains about how his unsent slogans are better than the winning entries, or how he had the same idea as the winner, but just didn’t get around to sending it in. The characterization of John is subtle and effective; Vidor doesn’t have to resort to showing John goofing off at work to convey that he’s wasted his time and talents.
Tragedy soon strikes John and Mary’s family. Grief-stricken, John can barely perform at work and quits in a rage. He finds other jobs — many jobs — but quits them within days of starting because they seem too demeaning to him. After he refuses a job from Mary’s family, Mary announces that’s she’s leaving and moving in with her family.
In a deep depression, John contemplates killing himself, but chooses to live after his son tells him how much he admires him. Reinvigorated, John takes a job as a clown advertising for a business, something he had previously disparaged. When he returns, Mary is prepared to leave, but at the final moment she is unable to end their marriage. John convinces her to let him take the family out to a show. They experience true joy for the first time in quite a while, but the film ends with no guarantee of a bright future for them.
The Crowd is an exemplary work of the late silent period. Its expressionistic visuals effectively convey the loneliness of individuals in society, and its toned down performances give viewers a more realistic look into the lives of John and Mary than had been seen in films to that point. It’s one of the high points of the short-lived silent cinema.
Despite John and Mary’s apparent happiness, the ending of The Crowd is ambiguous. As they laugh and seem to experience true happiness, the camera tracks through the theater. The other spectators appear demented; their bodies rock back and forth, and as we see more of the crowd they start to look more like marionettes than people. Soon John and Mary have completely disappeared into the crowd. John dreamed of rising above the fray, but he settles for just being a face in the crowd.