King Vidor's "The Crowd"
King Vidor's "The Crowd"

Death did not come to silent movies on little cat feet.  He burst in singing on October 6, 1927 when Warner Bros. released “The Jazz Singer.”  The irony is that silent movies reached their artistic peak in 1928, something that was strikingly demonstrated Tuesday night when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science and the Mary Pickford Foundation presented King Vidor’s drama about one common man, “The Crowd.”

As funny as it is sad, “The Crowd” had the audience at the half-filled Academy theatre laughing in all of the right places and none of the wrong ones. And the acting, particularly by Eleanor Boardman as the wife of a man fruitlessly trying to climb above the crowd (“One of the Mob” was Vidor’s original title) has nothing in common with the oversized gestures and dramatic poses that have made some silent films a modern joke. Boardman, Vidor’s wife, expresses everything from delight to despair with her eyes. As her husband endlessly hoping he will become the “important” man his father promised he would be, James Murray, a little known actor, is less certain and more awkward, as is John Sims. the common man he plays. The score by Carl Davis is almost uncannily right and helps to take away the need for words.

The silent film historian Kevin Brownlow who restored “The Crowd” has called the movie one of ten “Essential” silent films. Interviewed by phone Tuesday afternoon, he elaborated.  “It’s one of the few social problem films made during the 1920s and certainly the best of the lot. You’re in the middle of a Depression that hasn’t happened yet. What’s important is not the message but the plight of the people and the characters.”

The Crowd

What is most impressive in “The Crowd” is what Brownlow calls “its amazing use of expressionist techniques.”  He tells a story of Vidor at a European film festival where Vittorio De Sica threw his arms around him and said: “The Crowd!  That is why I made ‘The Bicycle Thief.’”  He tells the story again in a Q and A that follows the screening.

Images that have become clichés in American films began is this one -- the camera climbing up the exterior of a skyscraper and into a huge room full of rows of clerks, eyes focused on numbing numbers. Billy Wilder stole that dehumanizing room for “The Apartment.”  And the crowd -- the hordes of people oppressively walking, pushing, sunning on a beach, laughing together at a vaudeville show -- is almost as much a character as Mary and John Sims.

Today, when movie stars lift their skirts and pretend to pee while sitting on toilets in mainstream films, it is hard to recapture the anger felt by L.B. Mayer, the head of M-G-M, when a toilet was shown through an open bathroom door in “The Crowd.”   Although “The Crowd” was an M-G-M movie, Mayer was so incensed by “that toilet picture” he made sure the film would not win Academy Awards in 1927-28, the Academy’s first year. “The Crowd” was nominated for “Unique and Artistic Picture,” but that predecessor of Best Picture went to “Sunrise,” a 20th Century Fox film.

A special award was given “TO WARNER BROS. for producing “The Jazz Singer,” the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry.”

Both Kevin Brownlow, who introduced “The Crowd,” and Randy Haberkamp, the Academy’s managing director of preservation who had students from Hollywood and Fairfax high schools bused to “The Crowd,” are, in Haberkamp’s words, “trying to convert you.”  Basically, Haberkamp told the audience, the Roadrunner cartoons, “The Life of Pi,” “Wall - E,” and Robert Redford’s new movie, “All Is Lost,” about a solitary sailor dangerously adrift,are silent films.

It may not work.  Many of the great silent films, including “The Crowd,” are not even on DVD, although Vidor’s 1925 World War I movie, “The Big Parade,” was released on DVD and BluRay a week ago by Criterion. But another chance to convert an audience comes tomorrow night when the Academy and the Pickford Foundation present Ernst Lubitsch’s  “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg,” a Vienese romance in which a prince falls in love with a barmaid.   

Check out Indiewire's Press Play blog's "Three Reasons" video for "The Crowd," in the spirit of the Criterion concept videos: