“The Crowd” - King Vidor (1928)

The Crowd (1928) is not only one of the greatest silent movies, it quite simply stands, in my view, as one of the greatest of all films ever made, period.  Conceived and directed by famous filmmaker King Vidor, the film covers the joys and woes of an ordinary young couple trying to make a go of it in a teaming metropolis full of similar people all seeking to stand out from “the crowd”.  This may sound like a fairly simplistic narrative scheme for a film, and in fact some people, like the early reviewer in Variety found the film boring [1].  And even today, The Crowd does not usually come first to the minds of most people thinking of great silent films.  But Vidor and his production team took this basic idea and fashioned a truly noteworthy work.  And over the years, reviewers who have had a chance to see The Crowd have consistently heaped praise on this masterpiece [2,3,4,5,6,7,8].

Vidor had recently made his famous antiwar hit, The Big Parade (1925), which was concerned with the more spectacular theme of the devastating impact of The Great War (World War 1), the horrors of which still reverberated in the world’s consciousness; and so his producers at MGM Studios were hoping for another blockbuster like that from Vidor.  The outline for The Crowd seemed very tame by comparison, and they were not so enthusiastic about the new project.  But given Vidor’s track record at the box office, they went ahead with it anyway and provided relatively big-budget funding.  And when we watch the film, we can see that the screenplay by King Vidor and John V. A. Weaver, the cinematography (which features some remarkable moving-camera shots) by Henry Sharp, the film editing by Hugh Wynn, along with Vidor’s direction, are all first-rate.

One measure of the breadth and polish of The Crowd's production team is the fact the film is considered to feature both Expressionist and Neorealist elements to it (it is even said that Italian Neorealist master Vittorio de Sica was inspired in his own work by The Crowd)  [2,7,8] – these are two contrasting aesthetic approaches that seem almost at odds with each other.  Neorealism suggests the raw,  objective reality of the street [9,10], while Expressionism “seeks to represent the external world as a reflection of the inner feelings of the author” [11].  Somehow Vidor managed his production to effectively invoke both of these evocative perspectives to great effect at various points along the way.

Mention should also be made of the key acting performances of the dramatis personae in the film.  While most of the secondary performers display the exaggerated countenances and theatrics common to the silent era, the two main actors gave remarkably nuanced performances.   James Murray, a relatively unknown actor, played the role of John Sims, the film’s principal protagonist, and Murray’s sensitive, natural portrayal of that character is a key ingredient to the film’s success.  Murray’s expressive and moving performance in this film should have shot him to stardom, but unfortunately that is not how it played out for him.  Murray’s persistent alcoholism ruined his career and led him downhill to vagrancy.  In 1936 his body was found in the Hudson River, a possible suicide.  

Eleanor Boardman played the part of the female protagonist, Mary Sims, and her performance was also outstanding.  Boardman, who was King Vidor’s wife at the time, was a well-known actress used to playing glamorous roles.  But here in The Crowd she plays an ordinary, plain housewife, and in the process gives the greatest screen performance of her career.  I particularly liked her meaningful looks of anticipation, which subtly conveyed more about her mental state than any dialogue subtitles could do.  

The story of The Crowd, as I mentioned, concerns what happens to an ordinary American couple in pursuit of success.  In fact the male protagonist, who was born on the 4th of July, is an exemplar of one who chases after the “American Dream”.  In this regard, most young American children are told that, however ordinary their circumstances may be, any of them could grow up someday to be U.S. President – like Abraham Lincoln.  So the film resonates particularly with American audiences.  As we follow John Sims’s pursuit of his dream, the film passes through approximately three stages.

1.  Formative Years
When John Sims is born on the 4th of July, 1900 (making him a “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and a symbolic representative of the “American Century”), his father expresses the conviction that his newborn son will amount to something.  And John carries that hope with him throughout his boyhood.  At the age of 21, John goes to seek his fortune in New York City and gets a routine desk job working for an insurance company.  The moving camera shots showing the huge, faceless skyscraper, on one of the floors of which is the insurance company’s vast open-plan office is justly famous for its expressionistic feeling.  It is here that we first see the grownup John Sims (played by James Murray) as one of a countless number of white-collar robots, which evokes, for me, imaginative images of Herman Melville’s story "Bartleby, the Scrivener”.

Bert (Bert Roach), a colleague of John’s in the huge open-plan office, sets up a blind double-date for the two of them to take two young women to the Coney Island amusement park.  On the bus on the way to the park, John spots a juggling sandwichman on the street and, turning to his date Mary (Eleanor Boardman), derisively dismisses the man as a poor sap.  

Very soon John and Mary fall in love and get married.  On their honeymoon to Niagara Falls, they take a sleeper-car train  and have their first conjugal bed experience, a scene that is deftly and amusingly handled by Vidor and his crew.  

2.  Scenes from a Marriage
In the second phase of the film, the niggling frustrations of the young married couple are brought to the fore.  John is ambitious, but he is just another nameless cog in a vast office machine.  On Christmas Eve he comes home late and drunk, standing up Mary’s family, who had come over for a visit.  Mary is always forgiving, but her husband’s constant complaining at home begins to take its toll.  She contemplates leaving him, but just then she becomes aware that she is pregnant, and that brings them back to matrimonial bliss.       

A son is born to Mary, and a few years later they are blessed with a daughter.  However, John’s low job status and failure to gain a promotion continue to be a source of frustration.  When John wins a $500 prize for an ad slogan competition, it seems that things might be finally looking up, but that only leads to an unfortunate accident that kills their young daughter.  

John is now so frustrated and depressed that he loses interest in his boring office work, and finally, in a fit of temper, he angrily resigns from his job.  

3.  Getting Desperate
Our suddenly unemployed protagonist is now constantly looking for work. But the low-paying jobs that John does find are either too boring or ones from which he quickly gets sacked.  So his jobless status goes on and on.  And he is still constantly complaining.  Mary, who takes on some home sewing work to help make ends meet, is losing her patience, and she chides her husband with the query:
“Are you sure it’s always somebody else . . . . and not you?”
Although John is essentially an innocent and well-meaning guy, he becomes more and more depressed about who he really is.  It’s not surprising then to see that when Mary’s two pompous brothers come around to grudgingly offer John a job, he angrily rejects such an offer of “charity”.  Finally fed up with her husband’s deadbeat stagnation, Mary throws him out of the house.

Now outside and at his wit’s end, John contemplates suicide.  But when he is just about to throw himself off a bridge, he encounters his cheerful five-year-old son, who loyally assures  him that he wants to grow up to be just like his dad.  This loving gesture raises John’s spirits, and he vows to keep on going towards his goal.

John gets a street job as a juggling advertising sandwich man – the very same job he had mockingly ridiculed when he had seen it from the bus on his early trip to Coney Island.  Only now, John embraces the job with enthusiasm.  He heads back home to tell Mary about his new job  in the hopes that she will forgive him.

But when John arrives home, he sees that Mary is packing up to go live with her family (her mother and two brothers).  Mary is adamant about leaving, but John manages to convince her to at least accept his invitation to take their young son and go with him to a vaudeville show for which he has purchased three tickets.  

The final shots of the film show John and Mary sitting in the vaudeville show audience and joining them all in uproarious laughter as they watch the slapstick antics being performed onstage.

This somewhat enigmatic ending is a key to The Crowd’s greatness.  We don’t know what the future will bring to John and Mary, but we do know that John is a member of “the crowd” of humanity and he seems to have finally embraced that fact.  The film implicitly urges the viewer to embrace that fact, too.  Indeed, underlying the American Dream is the idea that we are all members of “the crowd”.  The studio was worried about the ambiguity of this ending and ordered seven alternative happy-ending finales to be filmed and tested on preview audiences.  But none of them could have matched Vidor’s original ending, the one that was finally released and what we see today.                               
 
Overall, The Crowd is not to be seen only as a historical relic.  It continues to this day to be a great cinematic narrative and a moving viewing experience.  
★★★★
 
Notes:
  1. “The Crowd”, Variety, (22 February 1928).   
  2. Mordaunt Hall, “THE SCREEN; Don Juans of the Deep”, The New York Times, (20 February 1928). 
  3. Margarita Landazuri, “The Crowd”, San Francisco Silent Film Festival, (2003).   
  4. Fernando F. Croce. “Film Review: The Crowd”, Slant, (25 February 2007).   
  5. Dennis Schwartz, “CROWD, THE”, Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews, (23 May 2007).   
  6. Mick LaSalle, “FILM REVIEW -- Vidor's Silent `Crowd' Still an Urban Masterpiece”, SFGATE, (8 November 1995, updated: 4 February 2012).   
  7. Tim Dirks, “The Crowd (1928)”, filmsite, (n.d.).   
  8. Bruce Hodsdon, “The Crowd”, Senses of Cinema, (August 2013).   
  9. The Film Sufi, “Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: 'Open City" and "Paisan'”, The Film Sufi, (18 November 2008).
  10. The Film Sufi, “Subjective Realism in the Italian Film”, The Film Sufi, (13 January 2009).
  11. The Film Sufi, “Expressionism in Film”, The Film Sufi, (28 June 2008).   

King Vidor

 Films of King Vidor:

“The Red Shoes” - Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (1948)

The Red Shoes (1948) is a British film that is very special and almost defies comparison.  And yet when one watches the film today, one can see that the basic story is rather simple and many of the production values were conventional for its day.  Nevertheless, the film has a rich, super-real aspect to it that evokes the feelings of a vivid dream.  Of course, many films can be said to be dreamlike, but The Red Shoes has a unique ability to carry the viewer very far in this direction.  And it differs from a cartoon in that it accentuates the real rather minimizing it.

The film concerns ballet production, which, itself, is an artistic medium that involves the production of dreamlike human landscapes.  But The Red Shoes goes further and blurs the distinctions between the dreamlike ballet and the production elements involved in making the ballet, and thereby it renders the whole ballet production arena into something of a dream.  This is what makes The Red Shoes so special.

The story of the film is inspired by the 19th-century fairy tale “The Red Shoes” [1] (1845) written by Hans Christian Andersen.  In that story, a vain and selfish young peasant girl becomes obsessed with a fancy pair of red shoes that she has acquired, and she ignores her family and community and only wants to show off her shoes by dancing in them.  But the red shoes have a punitive will of their own, and they force the girl to keep dancing in them nonstop, which leads   finally to the girl’s destruction.  

In the movie, the ballet production company’s impresario chooses to fashion and produce a new ballet, titled The Ballet of the Red Shoes, which is to be based on Andersen’s story.  As the film plays out, however, it can be seen that Andersen’s “red shoes” metaphor extends beyond this ballet to other aspects of the narrative, too.

The movie’s opening titles announce that film was written, directed, and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who characteristically operated as a team.(hey called themselves “The Archers”, and this was their tenth collaboration).  However, it is generally assumed that the film’s direction was primarily carried out by Powell, while the script was primarily written by Pressburger (although Keith Winter was also credited with having co-written this script).  The film also benefited from the expert craftsmanship of several top-level British filmmaking professionals – the cinematography (in Technicolor) of Jack Cardiff, the editing of Reginald Mills, the music by Brian Easdale, and the ballet choreography by Robert Helpmann (who also had a significant acting role in the film).  

Despite rather limited promotion from the financially strapped Rank Organization production company, The Red Shoes was well-received when it was released, especially in the United States where it was nominated for five Academy Awards [2].  And the film’s reputation has only grown with critics and viewers ever since [3,4,5,6,7].  In particular, noted filmmaker Martin Scorsese has cited The Red Shoes as one of his very favourite films, remarking [7]:
“It is a film that I continually and obsessively am drawn to.”
The story of the film is relatively straightforward, and it is focussed on three principal characters:
  • Boris Lermontov (played by Anton Walbrook) is the impresario of the world-famous Ballet Lermontov that gives performances all over Europe.  In this connection he is a strict taskmaster and totally dedicated to ensuring that his ballet company performs at the highest artistic levels.
     
  • Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) is a talented, but little-known, young female ballet dancer who wants to achieve stardom in her field.  She is willing to make whatever personal sacrifice is necessary in order achieve her dream.
     
  • Julian Craster (Marius Goring) is an ambitious and super-confident young music student and musical composer who is likewise dedicated to his personal success.
Circumstances in the early stages of the film bring these three characters together, and in due time Boris Lermontov hires Julian Craster to compose music for his ballet company.

At a chance meeting at a party, Boris and Victoria (“Vicky”) Page have the following exchange:

    Boris (to Vicky):  “Why do you want to dance?” 
 
    Vicky:                     “Why do you want to live?” 
 
    Boris:                       “I don’t know exactly why, but I must.”

    Vicky:                       “That’s my answer, too.”

Vicky’s answer expressing her dedication to dance so impresses Boris that he decides to add her to his ballet troupe.

As the story progresses, Boris becomes more and more impressed with Vicky, and he decides to star her in a new ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Red Shoes”, with a musical score to be composed by Julian Craster.  With the ensuing rehearsals for this ballet, Vicky and Julian have to work together, and their assertive egos clash at various times.  But the viewer is likely to anticipate that as more tome passes a romantic attraction will eventually arise.

Finally, it is time for the public performance of The Ballet of the Red Shoes, and this 20-minute full-ballet sequence is the highlight of the film. It is lyrically filmed with a combination of long shots and closeups skilfully edited into a continuous sequence.  And it has a dreamlike nature to it, because there are a number of portions that could not have been physically staged, such as shots of Vicky dancing with an unfolded newspaper that magically turns into a physical dancing partner, or other shots showing Vicky watching another version of herself dancing.  It all adds up to a vision of something that is happening in Vicky’s imagination rather than something that is being performed onstage.

The Ballet of the Red Shoes turns out to be a huge success, and Lermontov, feeling that his highly demanding control of Vicky and his troupe has payed off, thereafter makes Vicky the lead ballerina and Julian the chief musical composer.  However, during this time Vicky and Julian have fallen secretly in love.  When Lermontov learns about this affair, he is enraged (and possibly unconsciously jealous) – he declares that love is only a weakness and a distraction from one’s true commitments in life.  He doesn’t want his protege, Vicky, to succumb to “adolescent nonsense” and lose her chance at artistic greatness.  So he orders them to breakup.  In response, Julian leaves the Ballet Lermontov, and Vicky chooses to go with him to London, where they get married.  So Vicky has chosen love over art.

But sometime later while Julian is busy rehearsing for his new opera that is to open at Covent Garden, Lermontov runs into Vicky alone and convinces her to return to Monte Carlo and perform again in The Ballet of the Red Shoes.  When Julian hears of this, he rushes to Monte Carlo and goes to Vicky’s dressing room just prior to the ballet’s opening, with Vicky already wearing her red ballet shoes, and he pleads with her to return to him.  Lermontov shows up there, too, and he tells Vicky that she must choose between being a great dancer and being a housewife.

In anguish, Vicky tells Julian that, while he is the only man she loves, she must dance.  Seeing that he has apparently lost her, Julian despondently departs from the dressing room and heads for the railway station.  Vicky is now on the verge of an emotional breakdown, and she seems to succumb to the mysterious control of the red shoes she is wearing.  She runs maniacally out of the ballet theater looking for Julian, but she is headed for her own doom.  Did the red shoes force her into this climactic disaster, or was it her troubled imagination?

There are several aspects of The Red Shoes’s presentation that, almost surprisingly, contribute to the film’s effectiveness.  One of them concerns narrative realism.  There are three levels of  narrative “reality” in the film: 
  • The film, itself.  Every fiction film presents to the filmgoer a basic narrative, the story, that the film is about.  The context here is a ballet production company involving three principal characters. 
  • The ballet.  This story-within-a-story, which is told in a continuous 20-minute segment, relates to the outer story, but, of course, the narrative nature of the ballet form is particularly dreamlike and illusory.
     
  • The imagination of Victoria Page.  There are brief, disconnected segments showing unreal aspects that exist in Vicky’s imagination.
As I mentioned, he film’s exaggerated production values help blur the boundaries between these levels and contribute to fashioning a narrative whole.  Thus the rich Technicolor tapestry and the over-the-top acting unify some wildly disparate pieces into a continuous dream.

There are, in addition, two thematic elements in the film that stand out.  One concerns the expected role of women in society.  The two men, Boris and Julian, are well-intentioned but clearly chauvinistic towards Vicky.  They both emphatically demand that Vicky mold her entire life in accordance with their uncompromising requirements.  For her part, Vicky is entirely innocent and wants to do whatever she can to satisfy her two inflexible male dictators.  But she is faced with a choice that seems to be tinged with gender-specifics.  Boris Lermontov’s characterization of Vicky’s choice as one between choosing to be either a superstar or a housewife seems not to be too far from reality.  So the gender-related nature of the dilemma that Vicky faces can only further enhance the viewer’s sympathies for her.

The other thematic element that underlies the film concerns the tension between life and art.  Many times an artist has to choose between the two.  But in this regard, it is useful to remember that over our entire lives, we are continuously fashioning narratives about ourselves, about who we are.  And each of us is trying to make this the best possible narrative under the circumstances.  This is everyone’s life’s work, and it means that we are all artists/craftspersons.  So the choice between life and art involves the choice between two different forms of artistic expression.  One choice involves all the complexity of the world, and the other choice involves the streamlined expression of a specific art form.  And Vicky chose the latter – she wanted with all her heart to physically embody the abstract perfection of ballet dance.  As she asserted in her above-cited exchange with Boris, there was no choice involved – dance art was her life.

But the choice between life and art is frequently very complicated and stressful, and that is what “The Red Shoes” is all about.  As Martin Scorsese commented about the film [7]:
“It has to do with the mystery of art – the mystery of the passion to create and the darker side which can take over.”
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Hans Christian Andersen, “The Red Shoes” (trans. by Jean Hersholt), H. C. Andersen Centret, (19 September 2019).   
  2. Bosley Crowther, “THE SCREEN IN REVIEW; 'The Red Shoes,' a British Film About the Ballet, Stars Moira Shearer at Bijou”, The New York Times, (23 October 1948).   
  3. Roger Ebert, “A dark, glorious homage to dance”, RogerEbert.com, (1 January 2005).    
  4. Ed Howard, “The Red Shoes”, Only the Cinema, (28 December).  
  5. Christian Blauvelt, “DVD Review: Powell and Pressburger’s ‘The Red Shoes’ on the Criterion Collection”, Slant Magazine, (20 July 2010).   
  6. Ian Christie, “The Red Shoes”, Essays, The Criterion Collection, (24 May 1999).     
  7. Martin Scorsese, “Martin Scorsese: 'The movie that plays in my heart'”, Independent, (29 April 2013).    

Emeric Pressburger

 Films of Emeric Pressburger:

Michael Powell

Films of Michael Powell: