"If you get your head up above the mob, they try to knock it off. If you stay down, you last forever." So said Allan Dwan, the veteran Hollywood artisan who understood how much of an endangered species artistic individuality could become in as market-inclined a system as the film business. King Vidor lived and fought with Dwan's adage, but, despite enduring his share of decapitations at the hands of studio heads throughout his career, he resisted the martyred-auteur pose. To Vidor, the "mob"—the swarming human mass from which the individual emerges—is but one of the many surging forces people meet in their continuous metaphysical struggle. It isn't an easy fight, for the cosmos breathes vividly and fiercely in Vidor's work: the heaving volcano in Bird of Paradise, the river in Northwest Passage, the molten steel in An American Romance, and the swamps in Ruby Gentry, among others, remain as indelible as—and often make even more forceful presences than—the characters trying to stake their place in them. This sense of flabbergasted awe at the larger forces of the universe is matched by the notion that the emotional inner realms of people are scarcely less staggering supernovas, that frenzies of feeling are seething biospheres of their own.
The "mob" noted by Dwan is the subject of The Crowd, Vidor's silent masterpiece. As the follow-up to the director's successful WWI drama The Big Parade, the film was intended as a vast, ambitious work, yet for all the overreaching themes at play here, it is supremely intimate. Vidor links the epic and the personal in the opening scene as the protagonist, John Sims, is born on July 4th, 1900: Characteristically, the birth of a life is shown as no less a momentous event than the celebration of the birth of a nation. Readily baptized as "a little man the world is going to hear from" by his anxiously proud father, John is a 20th-century child, all right, from the crib ladled with suffocating expectations of success and entitlement.
Vidor's characters become aware of the largeness of the world as they hit their heads on the ceiling of their existences, and young John's first shock of life comes via death, suspended in a staircase between the curious mass below and the dead father just off-screen. Geometrically designed and excruciatingly sustained, the shot is reminiscent of German expressionistic cinema, just as the bustling New York City that beckons 21-year-old John (James Murray) seems motored by the same pistons powering Fritz Lang's Metropolis. John arrives alive with anticipation and momentarily disappears in Vidor's symphony-of-a-city flurry, only to be found by the diagonally descending crane shot which places him at one of countless desks in a cavernous office building. A close-up shows his name next to a number, but he refuses to see himself as a mere digit: from the lavatory to the skyscraper's revolving door, there is a constant struggle for individuality posed against formalist compositions. A mascot for the go-getting spirit of the Roaring Twenties, the hero and his quest for private assertion in the urban landscape caught the eyes of contemporary reviewers hungering for man-versus-city statements, yet Vidor's view of the theme now feels more complex and ambivalent.
Riding the bus with his date Mary (Eleanor Boardman), John laughs at a juggling clown he sees in the streets; he fancies himself above the "boobs" of the crowd, yet his own desire to stand out is connected to his need to follow the decade's ideals concerning material achievement. (In fact, John proposes to Mary after spotting the furniture ad on the subway that trumpets "You furnish the girl—We'll furnish the home.") The couple's tiny working-class apartment attests to the potential pitfalls of chronic American dreamism, but Vidor never cleanly pits one as the cause of the other; city life bursts with excitement as much as desolation, just as the filmmaker never spares us the hero's complicity in his failures ("Are you sure it's always somebody else…and not you," his exasperated wife finally asks).
As with Vidor's later H.M. Pulham, Esq., plot in The Crowd is structured as the progression of a life, with all the undulations of ups and downs driven by the director's faith in human emotion. John declares his love for Mary in front of the Niagara Falls, but not before the two have spent their honeymoon stuffed inside a Pullman sleeping car—the glories and frustrations of a couple painted with as much offhand beauty as in L'Atalante. Vigo's tonal shifts might have been influenced by Vidor's: A morning of a thousand irritations between John and Mary suddenly dissipates upon news of her pregnancy, the elation from a new bonus check gets darkened by the startling demise of their young daughter.
Vittorio de Sica admitted to taking the climax of The Crowd for his Umberto D., while Roberto Rossellini often declared admiration for the film's surplus of human veracity. With German Expressionism behind it and Italian Neorealism ahead of it, Vidor's film remains a veritable compendium of European influences, even as its interests and approach mark it as unmistakably American. As Walter Chaw perceptively noted, the toilet in the apartment for which Vidor had to fight to keep in is integral to the uncovering of the "mendacity behind the spit-shined promise" of the Jazz Age, of the grasp for the material that leads to a disconnect from the self. "Face the front," John's buddy tells him at the elevator, and one of the film's most lasting images has the protagonist trying in vain to hush the noises of the city as his ailing daughter lies in bed, facing the onslaught of people as if holding back a livid deluge.
Dwight MacDonald praised the film's thematic seriousness while chiding Vidor for burying it underneath a mass of human interest, but to Vidor it is this same human interest that gives the theme its weight, the concept of a rich, architectural visual style rattled by the life inhabiting it. How powerfully the characters strike against the world, and how overwhelmed they are when the world strikes back. Racked by tragedy, John sinks in self-pity until he's a broken man contemplating jumping in front of a rushing train, rescued by another instance of invaluable emotionalism, his little son's simple affirmation of love. It is in passages such as these that Vidor's energy rivals Murnau's in Sunrise, thanks incalculably to the extraordinarily eloquent simplicity the filmmaker located in John Murray's everyman face. Like Boardman, who can look domestically exhausted and glowingly ethereal within the same scene, Murray provides an archetypal tabula rasa transformed by feelings vividly communicated and shared with the audience. (The actor's own struggle with his inner demons would lead tragically to alcoholism and suicide. Shaken by his death, Vidor tried to tell Murray's story in a film titled The Actor, unfortunately to never get made.)
The Crowd moves toward an affirmation of wholeness that is both personal and cosmic; John's humbling realization that the lofty goals imposed on him from day one are not nearly as urgent as keeping his family together. The brilliant concluding movement is one of acceptance and unification which enriches rather than negates the individualistic thrust of the rest of the film, a view of catharsis that both posits wholeness and perpetuates the struggle; it's no accident that the ending, featuring an ascending crane shot that integrates John, Mary and their son into the laughing masses of a vaudeville show, can be simultaneously a joyous one and a desperate one. For Vidor, living with the crowd is less a matter of keeping your head than of saving your soul.