THE CROWD (King Vidor, 1928)

The birth of John Sims on Independence Day 1900 draws from director King Vidor a wonderful shot: John’s father exults about what opportunities his newborn will have while we watch in a mirror—it is a somewhat faint reflection in the otherwise clear-cut frame—the doctor taking the baby in the opposite direction, generating chilly irony. The father indeed loses his son early on by dying, and John himself loses his claim to his father’s dreams for him. .
     The focus of John’s saga is the dehumanizing impact on him and his family—John’s wife, Mary, and their two children—of a modern urban environment, in this case, New York City. John is but a number—137—on a huge floor of otherwise anonymous clerks in a vast, impersonal insurance company. But Vidor’s introduction of John at work is ridiculous; it loses the distinction between dehumanization as a theme and dehumanization as the film’s own method. The camera scales the exterior of an enormous office building and enters one of a multitude of windows and homes in on John at his desk in an expanse of desks. Vidor thus loses his heartfelt theme with a grandiose visual gesture. Compare Billy Wilder’s more restrained treatment of the same situation in The Apartment (1960).
     The plot is equally rigged, with the Simses losing a toddler to traffic—another casualty of place and the times. By the time John quits his job of numbers the narrative is overwhelming the theme it is supposed to be articulating. Although the final three-shot sequence in a vaudeville house is striking (the oceanic audience, including the Simses, constitutes “the crowd”), this alleged masterpiece, replete with bug-eyed emoting in lieu of acting, for the most part is little more than a sentimental tearjerker.

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