A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928)

The Crowd begins with the birth of John Sims (James Murray) and the prophecy that he will be somebody, a belief that he clings to 12 years later, on the day his father dies suddenly. And then there's a jump to 21-year-old John arriving in New York City, still fired with ambition. The jump leaves an odd hole in the narrative: We expect his father's death to have made an impact on his expectations -- to have shown him, for example, the threat of the unexpected or the value of hard work. But 21-year-old John is a bit feckless, a dreamer who can't quite get in gear to succeed. He falls in love too easily, and is soon married to a woman named Mary (Eleanor Boardman), because the John-and-Mary trope is a little too hard for Vidor and his co-scenarists John V.A. Weaver and Harry Behn to resist. This is a 20th-century Everyman story. If the hole in John's backstory is obvious, however, Vidor makes the father's death a visual motif by an expressionistic shot of young John in the stairwell of his house when he learns of the death, a remarkable image of entrapment that Vidor echoes throughout the film: The skyscrapers of New York, for example, loom in the same funnel-like way as the stairwell. But most celebrated image of entrapment in The Crowd is the web-like rows of desks in the insurance office where John finds work but not fulfillment -- an image frequently imitated, most notably by Billy Wilder in The Apartment (1960). (It's worth noting the work of cinematographer Henry Sharp here, as well as the set designers Cedric Gibbons -- who may or may not have done actual work on the sets, since as head of MGM's design department, Gibbons had his name put on every film -- and A. Arnold Gillespie.) As a parable about modern work, The Crowd is an enduring film. John gets what little satisfaction he has from creativity -- in his case, entering contests to write advertising slogans -- and not from what he has to do to earn a living. Murray turned out to be a case of life imitating art: He was an alcoholic who, like John Sims, had trouble staying employed, but while the movie ends on an optimistic note for the character, the actor died at age 35, in a drowning that was possibly a suicide.
John Sims, age 12 (Johnny Downs), learns of his father's death.
A skyscraper echoes the stairwell scene in The Crowd.
The insurance office in The Crowd.