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Tuesday 6 January 2009

The Crowd (1928)

It's the 4th of July, 1900: America is 124 years old and young Johnny Sims is born. As a child of the century, Mr Sims wants his son to be somebody big and sets him on the path for success. Of course, the path is just the start and Johnny has to follow it himself, which he has every intentions of doing, being an earnest young thing. The defining line of the film comes when he's a 21 year old looking down from the top of a double decker bus at the people of New York City: he tells his date, 'Look at that crowd! The poor boobs... all in the same rut!' What he doesn't see is that he's already one of them.

One of the most acclaimed silent films of all time, I was underwhelmed when I saw this in 2005 and wanted to give it another shot. I think it was the story that did it, which seemed like a pretty basic runthrough of a couple's rise and fall compared to the obvious artistry that had gone into the film. 1928, right at the end of the silent era, was a great time for artistry in film and this one has some of the most quoted imagery of the era, including two masterpiece shots that were highly influential and often seen.

The first comes when Johnny is a kid and his father comes home on a stretcher, dead. The camera is static and positioned at the top of the stairs looking down at the bustle of official folks carrying the stretcher in. As they pass we see the emptiness of the stairway and the crowd at the bottom, then up comes young Johnny, slowly climbing the stairs, knowing the worst but hoping for something much better. It's an astounding shot that really leaves the heart in the mouth and the acting on the face of the young actor playing Johnny.

The second comes in New York City when he's 21 and working for a living. After wandering round New York for a little while to show us how big it is and how many people are teeming around it, the camera heads up the Atlas Insurance Company building from the bottom, angling in to one window, entering to show us a huge floor full of desks laid out at regular intervals and zooming in to the desk where Johnny Sims works. There is a cut between the outside and the inside, but this is 1928 and it's a superb shot nonetheless, created through imagination and artistry rather than reliance on CGI.

What's most surprising is that there is CGI here or the analogue technology that equated to it in 1928, which is pretty impressive. The best is some superimposition work that I presume involved reusing the same film with masks in different places. However it was done it looked very good indeed for 1928. Some people can't reach that quality today with all the digital tools that can be brought to bear. The camera also really moves around in this film in many different ways. Some of the more ambitious shots involved heading round New York on the top of a double decker bus or heading down a slide ahead of a foursome out on the town.

James Murray is solid as Johnny, but Eleanor Boardman is even better as his wife. She's present throughout here, as we progress through the years in scenes that represent defining moments. She's luminous on their honeymoon at Niagara Falls, forgiving during Christmas with Johnny disappointing the in laws, believable during a big fight in April and a making up in October, frustrated during a disastrous picnic at the beach five years on, griefstrick through the death of their daughter and on. Throughout all this she's the lynchpin as Johnny waits: for his big promotion, his pay raise, his ship to come in, all of which stubbornly refuse to actually turn up. It's a rollercoaster ride for them, but it's a pretty believable one.

The real name behind the success of the film is King Vidor though: it's definitely his film, it says something that he obviously very much wanted to say and it says it very definably. I'm a lot more impressed this time out than last. I can't call it a favourite and I'm not blown away but it's certainly a powerful piece of filmmaking that was certainly ahead of his time.

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