One of the most daring, groundbreaking films to be made in The Silent Age of Hollywood—or ever, possibly.
Directed and co-written by one of the greatest filmmakers of the era, King Vidor, The Crowd (1928) stars James Murray as John Sims, an ordinary young man who is blissfully confident that he'll be a great success when he comes to the big city. The only problem is that John is a dreamer who believes he can win that success through shortcuts, like thinking up corny advertising slogans or hitting on some big idea, rather than by actually working hard or applying himself. Eleanor Boardman plays John's loving, supportive wife Mary.
A horrible tragedy destroys John and sends him into a downward spiral. As his life slides out of control, he sees how "the crowd laughs with you always... but it will cry with you for only a day."
The Crowd was recognized as brilliant at the time, earning nominations at the first Academy Award ceremony for Best Director and Unique and Artistic Production (the latter being an alternate Best Picture award that was never given again). The years have not lessened its critical standing. In 1989 it was one of the first 25 films selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry.
In 1934 Vidor made a sequel, Our Daily Bread, with different actors playing John and Mary Sims.
The Crowd provides examples of:
- Alone in a Crowd: A recurring motif—the film's central theme, in fact.
- Amusement Park: The Sims family goes to Coney Island, like everybody else in New York City during those years did.
- Babies Make Everything Better: Initially played straight, as a marriage that had descended into angry sniping finds new life after Mary tells John she's pregnant. Later subverted.
- Big Applesauce: Inculudes a memorable montage sequence when John first arrives in the city, which highlights the film's theme of urban alienation.
- Bittersweet Ending: A Happy Ending at first glance, as John gets a job, reconciles with Mary, and gets a little money when one of his advertising slogans wins a contest. But the bone-chilling final shot reminds us that he is still a nobody among countless other nobodies.
- Brilliant, but Lazy: John could do so much if he'd just apply himself.
- Busman's Holiday: When the family goes to the beach at Coney Island, Mary winds up cooking a picnic lunch with an inconvenient portable stove. She complains that it's the same thing she does every day.
- Call-Back: To the clown. A young, confident John sneers at a man dressed as a clown advertising some business. Later, a down-on-his-luck John takes that same job.
- Chekhov's Skill: John's ability to juggle as shown in an early scene gets him a job towards the end.
- Death of a Child: The death of John and Mary's little daughter, run down in the street by a truck, is the catalyst for the second half of the plot. Their lives and marriage unravel as John is unable to deal with his grief.
- Disappeared Dad: John's father dies unexpectedly four minutes into the film.
- Epic Tracking Shot/The Oner: The famous shot where Vidor's camera swoops up a skyscraper and through a window (this actually a dissolve from a model) to find John at one of a sea of desks.
- The Everyman: The hero has the generic name of "John", has the generic birthday of July 4, 1900, and is portrayed throughout as unexceptional in every way.
- Exploding Calendar: A rather clever variation on this trope, as the passage of time from 1900 to 1912 is illustrated by a line of dominoes with the years on them toppling over.
- Fat Best Friend: Played with. Fat, jolly Bert seems like the prototypical sidekick to handsome protagonist John, but Bert actually works hard at his job and winds up far more successful in life than John does, to the point of becoming one of John's bosses.
- Foreshadowing: While John and Mary are riding on top of a double-decker bus, they pass a man on the sidewalk in a clown suit, juggling balls and wearing a sandwich board advertisement. John mocks the man's job and appearance, unaware that he'll be applying for that same job in desperation towards the end of the film.
- The Great Depression: NOT an example, actually, since this film was made the year before the stock market crash, but the scenes with hordes of desperate men looking for work are eerily prophetic.
- Happily Failed Suicide: At the end of his tether, John attempts to end it all by leaping from a railroad bridge in front of a moving train, but is unable to go through with it.
- I Just Want to Be Special: But he isn't. Or at least not enough to avoid ever actually applying himself enough to achieve the success he craves. One of the tragedies of John's life is that he probably could be a big deal were he not focused on getting there through short cuts.
- Ironic Echo:
- "All I need is an opportunity."
- While on his first date with Mary, John spies a man juggling balls while dressed as a clown and wearing a sandwich-board advertisement. Laughing and pointing, he says: "The poor sap! And I bet his father thought he would be President!" (In the opening scene, John's father told the doctor attending his birth, "There's a little man the world is going to hear from all right.") Doubly ironic, in that John winds up taking the very same juggling job toward the end of the film.
- Ironic Nickname: The one black child in young John's circle of friends is nicknamed "Whitey."
- Meaningful Name: The lead characters are named John and Mary, emphasizing their ordinariness.
- No Name Given: Mary and John's daughter is unnamed despite being a pivotal character. Their son narrowly avoids fhis by being called "Junior" (thus it can be assumed he's named after his father).
- Non-Ironic Clown: Not at first. Becomes ironic later, when John has to take that same job as a sidewalk clown.
- Obnoxious In-Laws: Subverted. Mary's mother and brothers can't stand John—but by the end of the film we see that there's a reason for that.
- Panicky Expectant Father:
- John's father is obviously nervous when he's born at the start.
- John himself is panicky at the birth of his first child.
- Potty Dance: John has to take his son behind a wooden post to relieve himself.
- Significant Birth Date: Johnny Sims, American everyman, was born on July 4, 1900.
- Skirts and Ladders: While boarding a double-decker bus, John and Bert let Mary and her friend board first and then sneak a peek as they're ascending the steps to the top.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: If this isn't the most cynical film made in Hollywood in the 1920s, it's a contender.
- Title Drop: Multiple references to "the crowd" throughout.
- Toilet Seat Divorce: At one point John and Mary seem to be headed in this direction, complete with bickering about the broken toilet. (This is in fact the first known appearance of a toilet in an American film. With the imposition of The Hays Code in the 1930s, toilets would disappear from American movies again, not to reappear until 1960 with Psycho).
- Token Minority: Amongst John's Childhood Friends is one black boy.
- Tunnel of Love: John and Mary go through a Tunnel of Love ride at Coney Island. The gag is that at the end, a curtain labeled "Do They Neck?" is pulled back, to show onlookers outside who is and isn't kissing at the end of the ride.
- White Collar Worker: John's rather vague job has him at one desk in a huge room full of desks, scribbling numbers in a ledger.
- The World Mocks Your Loss: When a desperate John tries to get people outside to quiet down as his daughter is dying, the traffic cop at the corner tells him the world can't stop because his kid's sick. Later, a title card says that "The crowd laughs with you always...but it will cry with you for only a day." Following scenes show how the uncaring world moves on as John plunges into despair.