Ezra Haber Glenn Introduces King Vidor’s “The Crowd”

Editor’s note: On July 30, 2018 Ezra Haber Glenn, lecturer in Community Development and the Undergraduate Chair in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning, introduced The Crowd, part of the Brattle’s Elements of Cinema program. These are his introductory remarks. –Jessie Schanzle, Film Notes editor

Thanks, Ned, for that introduction. It’s so great to see so many people here, willing to show up for 90 minutes of free air conditioning on a Monday night.

My name is Ezra Glenn, and as Ned said, I teach in the urban planning program at MIT. My background is on the applied side of the field – I worked for over a decade in municipal government, including stints as the director of planning for the city of Somerville and director of community development for the city of Lawrence. So I came to MIT having worked a lot in the actual making of cities.

Over the past ten years, though, I’ve drifted a bit: I’ve become aware that there is a lot we don’t even really understand about cities – how they work, how they shape humans and human interactions, and what they mean to us. This has led me to move from “urban planning” to something more related to “urban studies,” and the culmination of that shift is a course I developed called “The City in Film.”
It’s a lot of fun. The basic idea is that starting around the turn of the last century, the development of cities and films have been intertwined: movies provided one of the earliest forms of mass media and benefited from the density of cities and the relative abundance of leisure time.

In turn, these films helped us make sense of – and actively shaped – our shared urban culture, collectively, on screen in real time: in theaters around the world the great urban masses gathered to enjoy this cheap, communal form of entertainment, and in the process learned what it meant to be urban.

A poster for “The Crowd” via IMDb

I often show The Crowd (1928) at the start of the semester, as one of the first few films. As you’ll see (and I hope we will discuss after the show), it connects many of the themes I try to cover in the class.

It’s also a great reminder for the students that just because a film might be old, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be simple: people back then were just as diverse, interesting, and thoughtful and they are today, and their stories and concerns were just as complex and varied. (As my wife’s history teacher used to remind her students: “The people in history are just dead – not stupid.”)

I’ll just make a few comments now to set the stage.

The Crowd came out in 1928, directed by King Vidor. For starters, that is actually his real name.

Vidor grew up in Galveston, Texas. As a young boy he survived the Galveston Storm, a major hurricane that devastated the city – still listed as the deadliest natural disaster in the nation’s history.

He became interested in movies, and as a teenager made his first film, footage of another hurricane, shot on a homemade camera he’d made with a friend. He sold the film to a newsreel company, and thus began a long directing career, spanning the silent and sound eras, both black and white and color.

In addition to The Crowd, he directed dozens of films, although unfortunately most don’t get a lot of play these days. But what if I told you that nearly everyone in the room has seen something directed by Vidor? It’s a great little nugget of Hollywood history.

In 1939, the great director Victor Fleming was shooting The Wizard of Oz, when he was called away to work on another film he was making that same year, Gone With the Wind. To help keep the schedule, he brought in a backup director to finish up, mostly the black-and-white Kansas scenes, including the musical number for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the famous tornado sequence. That director was King Vidor. (He remained uncredited his own request until Fleming’s death – they were good friends.) So you’ve probably all seen his work.

OK, let’s go back before then, to 1925, when Vidor had a big hit with a film called The Big Parade – a wildly popular World War I epic, one of the early blockbusters. After this success, Vidor had carte blanche to pretty much decide what he wanted to do next.

As recounted in Jordan Young’s King Vidor’s THE CROWD: The Making of a Silent Classic, there was an added wrinkle as well: Vidor should have received a 20 percent stake in the profits for The Big Parade, but the studio convinced him to take a one-time – much lower – cash payment; Young suggests that some of their willingness to indulge Vidor’s next vision came as a sort of consolation prize.

Given this free rein, his follow-up was The Crowd, a real labor of love.

It’s a hard film to categorize: it combines aspects city symphony, silent comedy, melodrama, epic genres, and a sort of nascent proto-neorealism. The visuals are heavily influenced by the German Expressionism of the 1920s, but really blends everything into a style all his own.

In terms of the history of film, there are a lot of technical innovations – this was considered an “experimental film” at the time – but in some ways the most experimental aspect was the story Vidor wanted to tell: from the outset, he wanted to tell the story of an ordinary guy. The original working title was One of the Mob, morphing into variations, like Just One of Us, A Face in the Crowd (luckily, they saved that one for Elia Kazan to use 30 years later), One of the Crowd, and then eventually just The Crowd.

The movie tells the story of John and Mary Sims, two regular people trying to make a living in the big city.

Vidor cast a relative unknown, James Murray, to play the lead. Murray had been in a few films already, mostly uncredited, including Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality. (There’s a story that Vidor saw Murray hitchhiking in LA and offered him the part – it’s probably apocryphal, but it captures the sort of “everyman” than the director was seeking.)

Mary Sims was played by Vidor’s wife, Eleanor Boardman. She described this as “a story with no glamor.” (As an aside, at the risk of introducing a tiny spoiler: Boardman was actually pregnant during some of the shooting, including the Coney Island sequence, where she had to be filmed on all sorts of nausea-inducing thrill rides, hiding her stomach and trying to look happy. Of course, as Young notes, “ironically she wasn’t expecting when she filmed the scenes where her character was pregnant”!)

The film, of course, was silent – it came out just a few months after The Jazz Singer. It was shot partially on location, capturing a lot of New York City. Vidor wanted to include real places, everyday locations – including a number of street scenes shot secretly, with a camera hidden in a van.

In general, it’s a very mobile camera. Remember that in the Silent Era, cameras could be small and portable, and as a result some of the best camera-work came from this period. Once sound arrived – requiring special cameras and lots of extra recording equipment – it became much more difficult to go out on location or to film surreptitiously – or even move the camera around so much. It’s really not until the late 1940s that directors get back to the dynamism they were exploring in the 1920s.

This being “The Elements of Cinema” there are a few “firsts” and “important influences” we should note.

For starters, 1928 was also the first Academy Awards. Most film fans know that Wings won the very first Oscar for best picture, but actually in 1928 there were two categories for best picture – in addition to the award that Wings won, there was an award for “Best Unique and Artistic Picture.” That year was the only time this category was ever used – the Academy dropped it in the next year – but The Crowd was one of only three nominees. (It lost to F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise, which is another great film.)

Vidor was also nominated for best director in that year, but he didn’t win. In fact, he never won an Oscar for best picture or director, but in 1980 he was entered in The Guinness Book of World Records for the special distinction of having the longest career as a director (67 years).

A still from “The Crowd” via IMDb

Another interesting first: since Vidor was determined to show every aspect of the couple’s life – work, home, courtship, marriage, childbirth, and so on – he recreated the look of a real cramped New York City apartment, and even included shots showing the bathroom. So tonight at the Brattle you will see motion picture history, the first time a bathroom ever on appeared on screen in a Hollywood movie. (According to legend, when it came time to vote for the Academy Awards, the head of MGM, Louis Mayer, would not vote for The Crowd – his own studio’s production – because he said he wouldn’t vote for “that goddamn toilet picture.”)

In a similar vein, the film did not shy away from showing drinking – remember: this is during prohibition – or from suggesting other “adult” themes.

In terms of influence, The Crowd is mentioned frequently – by everyone from Hitchcock to Billy Wilder to Orson Welles. The film’s style – and the notion of celebrating the drama of everyman stories, shot in everyday places using ordinary actors – presaged much of the populism of the Italian Neorealist movement as well. (Vittorio de Sica has cited The Crowd as a major influence in the making of Bicycle Thieves.)

After The Crowd, Vidor made the transition to sound and as noted, had a long and productive career, including adaptations of The Fountainhead and War and Peace, as well as a sequel to The Crowd, called Our Daily Bread.

As you watch, I do want to emphasize a couple things. Many people latch on to the idea of this as an “everyman tale,” and it is – but be careful: Vidor wanted to tell the story of a regular guy, but he insisted on paying attention to the particular: the camera picks one person from the crowd, but throughout the film we realize that he – like everyone – he is a complete person.

Second, while it is definitely the story of John Sims – and we begin with him – it is also the story of Mary. Focus on her, as well. See the story from her perspective, as Vidor does. (This is not hard: Boardman gives the performance of a life-time here: extremely powerful and nuanced at the same time.)

When I show this film in class, we also read two important articles in the sociology of the time: Georg Simmel’s “The Metropolis and Mental Life” and Louis Wirth’s “Urbanism as a Way of Life.” Both help the students think about how the city shapes the individual, and how the individual conforms to, or struggles against, these forces.

As you watch, be sure to pay attention to the way the characters interact with the city and the crowd: the city of the 1920s is an extremely public place: notice the tension between private and public, between free will and conformity, between individual and “the crowd.” There are profound tensions – especially for an increasingly urban America after the closing of the frontier. Watching movies together in the great old movie houses like this – alone in the dark with our fellow city-dwellers – provided an important forum for us to navigate these tensions, in our own heads and in public, individually and as a crowd.

I hope you enjoy the film, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the discussion afterwards.

Ezra Haber Glenn, Lecturer in Community Development and the Undergraduate Chair in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning. In addition to offering graduate subjects on “Statistical Methods for Urban Planners” and “Wanderings in Pyschogeography,” he teaches a popular undergraduate class in “The City in Film.”

Prior to coming to MIT, Ezra held positions as Director of Community Development for the City of Lawrence and Director of Planning & Development for the City of Somerville. He has been a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners since 2002, and is currently serving as president of the board of directors for the Somerville Community Corporation.

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