Fortunately for me, Turner Classic Movies aired the masterful 1928 silent classic, “The Crowd” last night. Unfamiliar with the film and on a whim strengthened by curiosity, I decided to watch it.
Cinema wise, it was one of the best decisions that I have made in a long time.
Recognized as one of the finest examples of American silent film and masterfully directed by screen legend King Vidor, “The Crowd” centers on ambitious but undisciplined New York City office worker John Sims (played by James Murray) who meets and marries Mary (Eleanor Boardman).
They start a family, struggle to cope with marital stress, financial setbacks, and tragedy, all while lost amid the anonymous, pitiless throngs of the big city.
Sound bleak? Well, yes, ultimately, it is – but it is so much more than one story of shattered dreams. It is also a heart wrenching story of endearing love, and visual parable against vanity, folly, and arrogance, a visually historic documentary of class struggle and the gritty urban life of living in New York City in the 1920’s and more.
All of this packed into 90 minutes and without words. Amazingly, King Vidor pulls it off in spades creating a film that, even after close to 80 years, is still prescient in meaning and scope.
Not only are the performances absolutely top notch ( it’s easy to forget that this is a pre-sound film as the actors seem much more natural than in their portrayals than most silent films and frequently, you are able to read the lips which gives an even deeper nuances into the characterizations.)
And, visually, there are certain scenes that are just stunning and King Vidor paved the way for modern American cinematography, It’s easy to understand after watching this mesmerizing film why it was chosen in 1989, to be one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
There is a phenomenal blog entry on the details of this film here http://silent-volume.blogspot.com/2009/12/crowd-1928.html which I highly recommend if interested.
But I couldn’t finish this entry without mentioning the fascinating back story of the leading actor in “The Crowd”, James Murray.
Stunningly handsome and naturally talented, Murray was lured into show business while working as a doorman at the Capitol Theater on Broadway and 51st Street (where ''The Crowd'' later opened). In the 1920s he hitchhiked to Hollywood from the Bronx, New York to try to succeed as an actor. After several years of work, mostly as an extra, with little hope of a starring role, he was "discovered" by director King Vidor, who saw Murray walking by on the MGM lot. Vidor was about to begin work on a new film and thought Murray might look right for the lead. Murray, however, failed to show up for the meeting he arranged with Vidor, apparently thinking it to be a joke. Vidor subsequently tracked him down, and Murray's performance in The Crowd was lauded by both the critics and the public. Before his work in The Crowd, Murray had starred alongside Joan Crawford in Rose-Marie in 1928.
Despite success in subsequent MGM films such as Lon Chaney's Thunder, Murray's life soon took a turn for the tragic that eerily mirrored his role in The Crowd. Excessive drinking led to a scarcity of roles, and by 1934 he was panhandling on the street. In an instance of extreme coincidence, he tried panhandling a man who turned out to be King Vidor. Vidor offered Murray a role in his upcoming film, Our Daily Bread, but Murray turned it down, deeming it an act of pity. Decades later, Vidor was still so haunted by Murray's tragic decline that he wrote an unrealized screenplay about his life, "The Actor".
In 1936, Murray drowned after falling from the string-piece of a pier into the Hudson River. The medical examiner determined that the cause was asphyxia by submersion, without ruling on whether it was an accident or suicide. He was interred at the Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens, New York. At the time of his death he was married to actress Marion Sayers.
Now that, my devotees, is irony pure and simple. In closing, let me suggest that if you ever happen to find the opportunity of watching this masterpiece, take it. My experience has catapulted this film to the number one spot of my personal list of all time favorite silent classics knocking down Metropolis, Greed, The Battleship Potemkin, and a few others down a few notches. And that, wasn’t an easy thing to do.