[EDITOR'S NOTE: Contributor Robert Nishimura's video series Three Reasons continues with King Vidor's The Crowd. He feels this film deserves attention in light of the Best Picture Oscar for The Artist and is a perfect candidate for restoration and release on the Criterion label.]
The last time the Academy nominated a silent film for Best Picture was in 1929, at the 1st Academy Awards ceremony. Hosted by Douglas Fairbanks and held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the ceremony honored the best films produced in 1927 to 1928. At that time the Best Picture category was broken into two separate awards, one for Outstanding Picture Production and one for Unique and Artistic Production. Those distinctions were quickly eliminated in the subsequent Academy Awards in favor of a single statuette for Best Picture. Although sound film had already made an appearance by this time, all the films nominated for Best Picture (in both categories) were silent. F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans won for its artistic merit and William Wellman's Wings won for making Paramount an ass-load of money.
It should be no surprise that all of the nominees at the first Academy Awards were for silent pictures, since the event was created to defend itself from the threat of sound film. Louis B. Mayer (one of the Ms in MGM) came up with the whole idea for The Academy as a response to the shift in technology and as a way to keep "the talent" in their right place. Essentially a means to praise itself, the Academy Awards reinforce the Hollywood mythology and provide the perfect venue to pat itself on the back. By the time the 2nd Academy Awards were held the following year, Hollywood had fully embraced sound technology and a silent film was never allowed to grace the red carpet again.
Among the films nominated for Best (Artistic) Picture at that first fabled ceremony was King Vidor's The Crowd. Considered by many to be his masterpiece and a timeless American classic, The Crowd shares many thematic elements to this years Best Picture winner, Michel Hazanavicus' The Artist. Although both film's protagonists have similar trajectories, The Crowd is the opposite of how The Artist presents itself. King Vidor's film was remarkably different for its time in portraying a very non-Hollywood representation of everyday life. While revealing the stylistic influence of his European predecessors, Vidor evoked a natural realism that had not been seen before on American screens. Casting a relatively unknown actor (James Murray) in the lead role of John Sims, he embodied the everyday struggle of a typically average American trying his best to make his mark in a massively foreboding big city. An ambitious, experimental, and socially relevant film, its no wonder why it had been nominated for Best Picture, or why it still resonates today.
The film begins with the birth of John Sims on the fourth of July, 1900. On such an auspicious date, John is destined to become someone great and as his father proclaims, John "is a little man that the world is going to hear from." We see the progression of John's life from an ambitious childhood to mundane adulthood. But with every turn of fortune there is equal tragedy (usually double). In fact almost every moment of brief triumph is accentuated by a harsh bittersweet tragedy that forces John to struggle even harder. As a child we see John's aspirations to be "someone big." As soon as these words are uttered John's father immediately dies, leaving John to be the man of the house at an early age.
When John turns 21 he naturally goes to New York City with the high hopes of making it big. We see John at work, one of the many faceless drones in a sea of desks, but John doesn't fit in with the monotonous routine. John aspires to write ad slogans and is constantly doodling ideas while at work. He soon meets his bride-to-be, Mary through a co-worker who entices John to a night on the town. Played superbly by Vidor's wife Eleanor Boardman, Mary provides the next logical step in John's life; get married and have kids. The expectations that John has towards married life do allow some respite from his boring job, but soon tragedy strikes again by taking their youngest child. Desperate and unable to work, John's domestic life is threatened to fall apart as well, causing him to contemplate suicide right in front of his son.
John is able to find solace by becoming a member of the crowd, instead of struggling to rise above it. Like Jean Dujarin's character Valentin in The Artist, John hits rock-bottom by trying to maintain a sense of pride and ambition, and ultimately must learn to embrace conformity in order to survive. John's self-realization comes full circle when he becomes the very thing that he despised at the start of the film; just another poor sap in the crowd of people. The last shot of The Crowd finds John seemingly content with his family enjoying a vaudeville show, but as the camera cranes away from the Sims it feels much more desperate than the faceless laughing masses would indicate. Just as Valentin must perform his little song and dance to regain approval from the studio heads, John must grin and bear the weight of being just another cog in the machine, and one that will inevitably be replaced when the time comes. Vidor is able to perfectly sum up our lot in life with one intertitle, "The crowd laughs with you always...but it will cry with you for only a day."
The same year that King Vidor made The Crowd he made another film that was eerily similar to The Artist. Show People was Vidor's swan-song to the silent era and included cameos from every prominent star of the day. Chaplin, Fairbanks, and a host of others all showed up to show their support for King Vidor (although it had probably more to do with William Randolph Hearst who was pushing for the project). It spoke volumes on the transition from silent film to talkies, in addition to being a vehicle for Marion Davis in her portrayal of struggling actress Peggy Pepper. Both of these Vidor films were re-released in the 80s and Carl Davis composed amazing scores to accompany them, so if Criterion were to release The Crowd it would be an ideal supplement to include Davis' score as well as any others that compliment the film.
It goes without saying that Hazanavicus' borrowed heavily from film history to make The Artist, and possibly from Vidor specifically, but it is not my intention to single out every cinematic reference point of the film. Hazanavicus clearly has an understanding of silent film choreography and editing that is easily missed by an average moviegoer, but again, this is not about The Artist. This was just a friendly reminder that we should not forget which came first. Unfortunately it seems that MGM has already forgotten as The Crowd still remains unavailable on DVD/Blu-ray. Should Criterion decide to release The Crowd it would allow a home viewing audience to see what Hazanavicus had in mind. The Artist's Best Picture win is the first time a silent film has taken home a statuette in 83 years, but it's not the first time the Academy gave praise to a film that glorifies the Hollywood mythology. As Hollywood runs screaming from yet another technological advancement, history repeats itself.
Robert Nishimura is a Japan-based filmmaker, artist, and freelance designer. His designs can be found at Primolandia Productions. His non-commercial video work is at For Criterion Consideration. You can follow him on Twitter here. To watch other videos in his "Three Reasons" series, click here.