By Robert Abele
Director Paul Weitz (Photo: Glen Wilson)
"I wanted to be a playwright, but I was beginning to fall in love with film," says Paul Weitz as he settles in at his Venice, Calif., offices to revisit King Vidor’s 1928 silent masterpiece, The Crowd, an early favorite from Weitz’s younger, movie-bingeing days. "I was probably 19, and would have gotten it from Kim’s Video in New York. I loved that it was about the sting in the tail of the American dream, and it seemed extremely modern to me. I saw this, The Big Parade (1925), and Show People (1928), and got really excited about King Vidor."
After the enormous box-office success of The Big Parade, Vidor, who was a co-founder of the Directors Guild and its first president, had enough cachet at MGM to pitch his idea for The Crowd to Irving Thalberg, who liked to sprinkle some arty pictures in with the regular studio fare. The film is about an ordinary guy (James Murray, a studio extra Vidor spotted) whose belief that he’s meant to stand out from the rest of humanity is routinely shattered by the ups and downs of real life: a dead-end job, romantic bliss with a kind woman (Eleanor Boardman, Vidor’s then-wife) that becomes a turbulent marriage, and parenthood wounded by tragedy. Its unusual focus on the realistic plight of everyday people made it a dramatic oddity in its day. However, its reputation grew, influencing directors from Billy Wilder to the Italian neorealists, and in 1989, it was one of the first 25 movies selected to be preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
"In general I’m drawn to movies that discuss the culture through totally personal stories," says Weitz as the film opens with the birth of its hero, John Sims, on July 4, 1900, to a nervous, wide-eyed father who declares of his son, "There’s a little man the world is going to hear from." Weitz acknowledges the risks of the kind of realism Vidor was seeking in this scene. "Sometimes you get actors desperately afraid of overacting, and that father, who is emoting a lot, you might say is overacting. But I’ll bet if you looked at actual dads seeing their baby for the first time, they’re probably mugging like crazy."
Vidor segues to now-12-year-old John sitting on a fence with his friends, whose grown-up ambitions include "preacher" and "cowboy," but Johnny’s is a nebulous "somethin’ big" as he gets a dreamer’s look. Adds Weitz, "Somebody did a study recently that showed some ridiculous portion of students said their main goal was to become famous. That’s what’s happening to the hero in this movie, so Vidor shows his younger self staring off into the distance, at his own great fate."
Suddenly a medical carriage pulls up to John’s house, surrounded by onlookers, and a worried John rushes into the throng. Inside, shot from the top of a sharply angled, enclosed staircase, we see "the crowd" bunched together at the bottom as our young protagonist, his father on his deathbed, gingerly ascends toward the camera to experience his first dose of reality and responsibility. "This is a great shot, expressive and graphic," says Weitz. "It feels like German expressionism, and it’s easy to forget those directors were all lurking around at the time. The shot lingers on him for longer than is comfortable. And the kid is great here. He doesn’t overact."
Vidor fast forwards to the 21-year-old John Sims on a ferry, beaming as he stares at the New York skyline, innocently telling a stranger, "All I want is an opportunity." (The stranger’s skeptical expression suggests he knows it’s not that simple.) Then comes a montage of bustling streets—some of which Vidor captured on location—and skyscrapers, including a miniature used for a vertical tracking shot up its face and into a high-story window. "The documentary-style shots help you believe that the more staged and backlot shots later are actually taking place in New York," says Weitz.
From that window, Vidor dissolves to a legendary forward tracking shot, from a high angle, across a wide grid of insurance workers’ desks before narrowing at our protagonist’s, just one of the crowd. Weitz takes a moment to reflect on Vidor’s multifaceted technique so far. "What he’s achieved is to take you from something utterly expressionistic, bordering on cloying, and into something incredibly cynical and dehumanizing," he says. "We go from the boy who in very artificial fashion is brought toward the camera, with the shot lingering, to the deadpan nature of our protagonist on the ferry and the guy scoffing at his naiveté—akin to Ernst Lubitsch or Billy Wilder—and then the pure documentary shots of New York, well-composed and cut. Within a very short span of time, he’s done three different types of filmmaking and managed to make them all work."
John, prone to writing advertising slogans in secret at his desk, is set up on a double date through garrulous co-worker Bert. He meets sweet-faced Mary (Boardman), and she and John hit it off, acting silly and having fun at Coney Island. "It’s really interesting how he’s bonding you to this guy," says Weitz. "They’re a couple of goofs. It’s endearing, and it erases the distance between us and John. But then John sees a clown juggling, and thinks he’s better than these poor boobs in the crowd. When he sees an ad for furniture on the bus, he says, ’Let’s get married!’ It’s a constant seismograph of cynicism versus idealism. There’s a certain kind of great filmmaker who [can] have both operating at full capacity."
Vidor cuts to their wedding day, then John and Mary get on a train for Niagara Falls. ("Vidor’s great at pressing ’skip,’" Weitz quips.) Sitting in a compartment, they soon realize they’ll be sharing a bed together for the first time. "They’re afraid of having sex; it’s quite edgy," says Weitz. "Instead of having something seem explicit, it’s great to just show how anxious they are. It’s like the end of The Graduate, where they’re like, ’What do we do now?’ It’s totally modern, unlike the romances of the time."
In the next scene, Vidor shows us John in the washroom zealously preparing, laughed at by two male passengers, with a cut to Mary primping separately, followed by a gently comic bit in which John forgets which curtained sleeping berth is theirs. (He finds a family jammed into one, and an old bearded man in another, before locating theirs.) Backing into their cramped sleeping space, he accidentally sits on a valise. Insert close-ups show Mary, turned away from him, waiting nervously. The scene ends with belongings falling on his head from the shelf above before a fade to black. "This is fantastic, how he makes a whole sequence out of two people about to have sex for the first time, surrounded by other people. There’s a lovely, deft touch. It’s a real lesson in using every shot. Vidor doesn’t have him go in head first—he sits on the bag. It’s so intimate and funny, but also sexy, because she looks so beautiful. The cutting pattern is great. It’s so much better to build up tension before the fact. And then all the stuff falls from above, which might be the orgasm."
Their home life in a tiny apartment near elevated train tracks is considerably more humdrum. She cooks and cleans. He amuses himself. On Christmas Eve, he escapes her visiting (and disapproving) mother and brothers, and gets drunk with Bert. A jump forward to months later, though, gives us a scene of petty complaints—mostly his, about broken fixtures and how drab she looks—
turning into a full-on marital dispute, the movie’s longest scene so far. "He’s showing a very realistic fight," says Weitz, who comments on how the two-shots of John and Mary have changed. "They’re crowded together in the frame, but there’s space between them. It’s insane that he’s able to get this intimate and make you extremely uncomfortable. He’s stuck us in this apartment for a helluva long time, and what’s spectacular is that he’s turning our hero into an unlikable bastard."
When Mary tells him she’s pregnant, though, the sniping stops and they reconcile. At the hospital, the multitude of recovery beds graphically arranged reminds Weitz of the multitude of insurance desks earlier. "Vidor does incredible stuff with big, huge spaces, then juxtaposing that with their tiny apartment," he says. "He’s reminding us he picked somebody out of a crowd to make a movie about."
Another leap in time now reveals John and Mary with two children. At work, John hasn’t been promoted, while Mary is beginning to chafe at her husband’s increasingly foolish belief that his ship is coming in. Then comes good news: A slogan of John’s wins $500 in a contest. The couple’s celebration is short-lived, though. Waving to their kids from their window, they witness their daughter dart into traffic and get hit by a truck. Once again, humanity gathers around as a distraught John gathers the child in his arms to carry her back into the building.
"This is an echo of the shot when he was a kid and his father died," notes Weitz. "He’s coming up the stairs, and everybody’s faces are behind him. Vidor’s staging is instinctive, but it bears relation to other shots in the film."
In a poignant vigil scene in their apartment, Weitz is moved not only by Murray’s performance, but also by Vidor’s use of the camera to transform a close-up. "It starts on John as a close-up, then it goes down one side first, then the other, hinging off him as he tries to quiet people down, going back to him each time. One tends to think of shotmaking in terms of the biggest shots, but here, how a close-up can become a two-shot, then a close-up again is equally expressive."
In a fit of grief John quits his job, and then a series of others he deems beneath him. Mary takes up dressmaking to earn money, but John won’t accept a "charity" job from his rich brothers-in-law. It’s the final straw for her, and she throws him out. With his boy in tow pleading for him to stay, John despondently walks on a bridge across train tracks, an industrial expanse behind them. He prepares to jump in front of a train, but decides against it. "At first he intercuts with the wheels of the train, and it’s amazing," says Weitz. "Then it zooms out into this accurate reflection of how much of the world is not human. And at the same time, John is so selfish. Vidor cast this beautifully. He cast somebody in Murray who looks like a child."
Chastened by his boy’s love, John hustles down a job juggling in a clown outfit with a sandwich board, just like the guy he made fun of earlier. With renewed optimism, he goes home, and Mary, compassionate as ever, decides to stick by him. He puts on a record and they dance, as if to blot away the harshness of life once more. It’s a reconciliation Weitz admits feels odd. "There’s something airheaded about it, but also something like, that’s all that one has," he says. "He’s as happy as he’s been at any time else. The whole movie’s about degradation, this addiction to success. The central message of the movie is, don’t think you’re special."
Finally grateful to have any kind of job, John buys tickets for them all to see a vaudeville show that night. At the theater, John and Mary enjoy themselves, and Vidor closes with a famous shot that pulls back from the pair laughing to show the rest of the audience, also in full guffaw. Weitz comments again on Vidor’s choice to echo an earlier shot. "The thing about that final shot is, of all the crowd shots, it’s one that starts on [the family], and then they become part of the crowd," he says. "The earlier shot was about dehumanization, going in toward the desks, but this last shot, with people laughing, it’s succumbing to the non-specialness of being human, and that’s OK. The fact that he’s quoting, or formally recapitulating, a very flashy shot from earlier makes the statement more interesting. You look at everybody as ants, but they’re made up of individualized lives. Everyone has their own drama, Vidor is saying."
Weitz pauses a moment to think about his own approach to movies, and how Vidor’s uncompromising film affected him. "You can see here that he succeeds, but he’s not afraid to fail, and that’s something I’ve applied," he says. "Sometimes I’ve failed, but the idea that you can have cynicism and innocence to the point of naiveté in the same movie is really hard to pull off. I’ve tried to do that. This couple here goes through some horrible shit, and he gets humbled. My movie Grandma (2015) is about being humbled as well. What a great tool humility is to get over the curse of living. And here, Vidor is probing this ache, this disease in the culture, and to me it’s incredible the degree to which he was able to do it on both a conscious and subconscious level. It’s about the tragic elements in the American myth, but it also operates on a purely existential level of, we’re all the same. The movie is not called John and Mary."