Friday, January 22, 2010

Film #5: The Crowd (1928)

Director: King Vidor (who wins the award for "Name That Belongs in a Star Wars Movie")

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: none

The Story (in which I give away the plot and spoil the hell out of the movie for you. Fair warning):

In 1900, on the 4th of July, John "Johnny" Sims is born to a father who envisions his son doing something grand with his life. Fast forward 20 or so years. Johnny arrives in New York where he hopes to prove himself a success, as long as he's "given the opportunity." He grinds at a monotonous job, marries a nice gal, and has two children over the next 5 years, all the while toiling in the same career and persistently confident that his "ship will come in" any day. He goes through several ups and downs: some typical, like domestic feuds with his wife and in-laws; others much more tragic such as losing his young daughter to a traffic accident. After this horror, he quits his job, hops from one low-level gig to another, and nearly commits suicide. In the end, he finds a job as a juggling clown wearing a sandwich board and barely manages to save his marriage. His dreams of making it big are dashed, but he finds some sort of peace with his wife and remaining child. Swirling around it all is the titular "Crowd" of New York - the ever-bustling, ever-callous, never-still swarm of people that pump through the streets and buildings of the metropolis.

Take 1 (My opinion based on one viewing done before any research on the film):

Lame. Simple as that. If took five films to get there, but I've now seen one that I flat-out didn't like. I do need to mention that I had to watch this on a pretty shoddy VHS tape since it's not currently in-print. The picture quality is quite burned out, which leads to extremely bright spots and washes out a fair bit of the detail in many of the scenes. Still, this was hardly the problem. However, before I pummel the shit out of this movie, I'll take a look at the merits that I could see.

The obvious plus is the handful of interesting camera shots. As suggested by the synopsis on the tape jacket (one of those old-school, hefty plastic snap-case jobs that will end up buried in a landfill for at least 1,000 years), several shots were groundbreaking and iconic. There are three or four scenes with striking symmetry. One of them is when the 12-year old Johnny stands in a crowd at the bottom of a staircase leading into his home, preparing to ascend and learn that his father has died. We look down from the top landing and can get a sense of how distant and alone he is. Another, more famous one is our first look at Johnny's first job in New York. Here's a still shot:

Pretty exacting, eh? This scene and several more reminded me of the brilliant Coen brothers/Sam Raimi movie The Hudsucker Proxy (which I suspect drew very heavily from The Crowd), and which used many similar techniques to convey the sense of the cold machinery of big business. The problem, though, is that there's not nearly enough of it in The Crowd. Aside from these few admittedly impressive moments, nearly all of the rest of the camerawork was rather mundane to my eye. Had there been more shots like what you see above, I probably would have been more engaged. As it was, the extended montages of New York City traffic, the Coney Island amusement park, and Niagara Falls were yawners.

The other positive that stood out to me was that, compared to the other films I've watched from this era, The Crowd seems to be edgier and take on slightly risque topics: domestic fights, broken toilets, getting sauced on bootlegged hooch and picking up flapper "wrens", and the nervousness of a honeymoon evening. It lends a bit of verisimilitude to the story and the sense that Sims' story is that of your average fella. But again, it's the story of the average fella in the 1920s. For us 80-plus years later, the things that seem authentic are very different and amount to a slight disconnect. It's a bit hard for me to sympathize with a guy whose grand dream is winning $100.00 in an advertising contest. In the end, I couldn't say that I was overly wrapped up in whether Johnny was going to "make good" or not.

One final thing that brought me a touch of amusement was the dialogue on the title cards. Since the script was trying to convey the speech of the common New Yorker, we get some prime 20s-era slang. I had to chuckle at terms for people like, "old Bean," "you big egg," and admonitions when one of Johnny's co-workers tells him to "quit the high-hat"(a term used wonderfully by Jon Polito in Miller's Crossing).

On a final note, the overall story had a certain admirable appeal in that it served as a social commentary on hyper-urban culture. In this, the film does good work; however, to be truly effective, it really needed to be more tragic, a la the novel Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser or even the previous movie in this review, The Last Command. As it is, things end on a somewhat chipper note, with Johnny and his wife reconciling and moving forward with life. To me, this was a bit of a cop-out and amounts to the filmmakers trying to side-step alienating a popular audience.

Basically, this movie, though not overly long, was a struggle to get through. I don't really recommend it to anyone but hard-core film heads, critics and historians.

Take 2; or: "Why Film Geeks Love this Movie" (written after doing a bit of reading & research on the film.)

It would appear that, after reading a few critical analyses of the film, that the key words are "Everyman" and "camerawork." In a break from standard film topics, The Crowd was the first film to really tackle the plight of the average Joe trying to run with the rest of the pack. The fact that there is no "hero" or "villain" here seems to be one of the two major innovations here.

The second is, as mentioned, the filming. The use of tracking shots to illustrate how John Sims is either in or out of sync with the pulsing mob is still lauded by critics and filmmakers today. Apparently, the topic and style have been used in several other classics like the aforementioned Hudsucker Proxy and Billy Wilder's equally-heralded The Apartment.

Despite having these things pointed out to me and recognizing the merits, I'll never watch this one again. Well, maybe if someone paid me. A lot.

That's a wrap. 5 films down. 100 to go.

Coming Soon: Film #6 - The Man With a Camera (1929):

Based on the poster, I'll undoubtedly have to do stacks of acid before watching this movie in order to make heads or tails of what the hell is going on. Check back in a few to see if I can explain just what on God's green Earth this playbill is about.