Dir. King Vidor. Starring James Murray, Eleanor Boardman, Bert Roach
I rate Sullivan’s Travels as highly as the next guy unless the next guy is Jeet Heer, but I still think the movie’s message, for that’s what it is, comes off a little corny. When Joel McCrea sits there, laughing with a bunch of convicts screaming their heads off about Pluto and Mickey and the gang, it’s clear that any laugh is a good one, even if it’s not got the sheen of a “Sinclair Beckstein” novel. Almost fifteen years earlier, King Vidor very nearly came to the same message. John Sims (Murray), a nobody who has been raised to believe that he’s going to be a huge success, is at the theater with his family. On the verge of leaving her husband, who has just gotten a job as a juggler wearing a sign—the most reliable work he’s had in ages—Mary (Boardman) dances with him in their nothing house and they start laughing. They go to the theater with their son and yuk it up at the cheap performance. This family has gone through the wringer. John quit a dead-end job in a mixture of rage and grief; the grief is for the loss of their little daughter, hit by a truck while running across the street to play with a new doll. Here, tonight, they can laugh. John can stomach seeing the slogan he won a prize on, his most remarkable/only professional accomplishment, sitting on the back of the program. He even brags about it a little bit to the man next to him. It’s not that far off from the future Sturges sees, until Vidor moves the camera. From overhead, he pulls back from the family. There are so many rows in front of them. (We’ve been duped by Vidor, who by necessity has shot the preceding sequence from space mimicking an aisle, so when we see the sheer number of people in front of the Sims, the surprise takes us a little bit.) All of these people are laughing and rocking back and forth in their chairs by the hundreds, and then there’s a cut. Now entirely overhead, we just see the mass of people. It’s the same crowd as we’ve been watching the entire picture, maybe, unless this is just a new crowd that John and Mary and Junior have sat down with.: a crowd of losers. Before we saw the crowds of people throughout New York City, huge numbers of people that are crushed together like there are four or five men compacted into the same duster and hat. We saw the office building, the slow climb up the facade and then into that office where rows of desks make its descendants in The Apartment look humane. Those crowds were filled with hustle and bustle, possibility and opportunity. The crowd that John Sims sits in at the end of the movie is a hopeless crowd, laughing because throats are hoarse from shouting at spouses and sore from the tears. Any laugh is a good one, and nothing to sneeze at, but most of us die doing something rather different.
The pessimism in The Crowd is a well-earned one, even though the movie goes out of its way to make its points. Killing off the Sims’ little girl is not an ineffective choice, although most of that has to do with what we might consider limitations in the technology. Rather than showing someone get crushed under the tires or leaving it to our imagination to figure out what happens to her, Vidor superimposes her running across the street onto the footage of the truck trying to slow down; what we see is a ghost running to her parents as she’s being made that way, and that’s such a tremendously effective shot that it’s kind of a shame we’ve “evolved” past it. However, it’s also a huge blow to give to the marriage and the family life. If this were Sinclair Lewis, which if The Crowd is not aspiring to it certainly owes a debt to, the daughter might have been maimed, but more likely she would never have been in the path of the truck at all. There are choices made her for the sake of melodrama, including four jobs in a week for John, or that scene where a young John tells his friends that his father dreamed for him to be a great man perhaps in the very moment where his father died. But on the whole, they are minor compared to the better scenes in the movie, which depict the frustration of man and wife as well as any others I’ve come across in a movie. At Niagara Falls, the stereotype of a honeymoon, John spreads out a picnic blanket for Mary, and the two of them kiss in the mist of the Falls; he compares his love for her to the unending supply of water that thunders down. Almost immediately, and unsurprisingly, marriage gets in the way of the romance. (I’d say “stop me if you’ve heard this one before,” but hey, it was 1928 and the Oscars were new.)
John picks up two strikes almost immediately. The first one is a big whiff at a nickel curve; he flunks the first test with the in-laws. He waits too long to dress and shave, leaving Mary to make conversation with her prim mother, who is deaf, of course, and her brothers, who don’t have enough humor between the two of them for one man. When he does come out, the conversation comes around all too quickly on John’s faults. He’s still got shaving cream on one of his ears; one of the brothers tells his mother that he’s probably had it there since yesterday, which isn’t fair (we have, after all, watched him shave), but it’s also not as if he prepared adequately for them. He tells the three of them that he has “prospects,” which, as the other brother tells his mother, is what he says every time out and it’s never true. John takes a real beating from Mary’s family, but at the same time he more or less deserves the beating he gets. He was slovenly; if he didn’t quit a couple years later, he might have died at the same desk. Realizing that they’re out of booze, John leaves the apartment to fetch some from a work buddy, Bert (Roach), who set John and Mary up in the first place. One thing comes to another, and John spends the evening drinking at Bert’s and making a new friend, who insists on dancing with John and putting her cute little bob under his chin. He resists at first, and then there’s this fascinating moment. John’s face changes, and in that moment this is no longer a husband whose legs are halfway to amputated because of the hacksaw job his in-laws are doing. This is a man who has a boldness in him again. On the trip up to Niagara Falls, we find out that he’s got about as much sexual experience as a twenty-year-old Steven Spielberg, no matter how fresh he got with Mary in the tunnel of love they float through on Coney Island. (I love that this movie makes everything about courtship in New York an acrid, foolish stereotype; there’s something too perfect about a first date on Coney Island turning into a train ride to Niagara Falls before coming back to a job in Manhattan or something that might as well be in Manhattan, Kansas, for all the good it’ll do our protagonist.) As his face lights up, we can sense the possibility of a man who didn’t marry Mary, someone who got a few more dates in with the other girls that Bert has scrounged up. But it’s too late. Our aspiring Chad is hiding out now, too embarrassed by the accurate things that his in-laws said about him to go home again, and when he does return home late at night, he needs Bert’s help to ascend the icy stairs.
The second strike is an enormous cut he takes in a single morning. He complains about everything. The apartment, which is hilariously compact and uses more than the space it has inside, is packed up amusingly in an earlier scene. (This is where I learned that you can put a bed in “its garage,” which, lemme tell you, was an experience.) What was cute before is now frustrating. The bedsheets get stuck in the frame of the garage. The toilet isn’t working quite right. He explodes a bottle of cream on himself and blames Mary for not telling him that it was full. Two things stand out. First, the almost embarrassingly realistic portrayal of a marriage leaving the honeymoon phase: Brené Brown is somewhere asking herself how she can turn that scene into a TED talk on irrational blame. Mary is almost haggard in this scene, and her husband calls her out on it. Her hair is like “a cat’s,” and when she pins it up it does not much improve her robed, scant appearance. Where he puts all the failures of the household on her, she calls him out with the accuracy that her brothers called him out. He’s like a child. He lacks the maturity to make this arrangement work. (Later in the picture, the two of them have a beach trip straight from hell. He burns his finger on a fire, and she has to put butter on it like she’s his mother. It’s much later on, but John is no more an adult at the beach than he is in the apartment years before.) In the end, what saves the fight from overflowing is what is perhaps the movie’s funniest joke: she’s having a baby.