Last night was a really special evening: my friend Farran Smith Nehme has written a wonderful novel called Missing Reels. It’s about a bunch of movie-mad characters in 1980s New York who start on a wild goose chase to track down a (fictional) lost film. In an early scene, the lead character, Ceinwen, a Southern transplant to New York, goes to see King Vidor’s masterpiece 1928 silent film, The Crowd, with her romantic prospect, a British post-doc mathematician named Matthew. Neither of them have seen it. (Warner Brothers did release it on VHS, but it has never been released on DVD to this day. If you want to see it, you have to keep your eyes peeled on the TCM listings, or you have to look for it at art-house theaters.) It is a crucial moment in the book (and Farran opens the book with a perfect quote from the movie): the two characters bond together in a new love of silent films, and it starts them on the path to see more of them. They basically trip over a mystery of a lost film, completely forgotten in the mists of time. All sorts of wonderful hijinx ensue as they try to track it down.
Last night, at the IFC Center down in the Village, they showed The Crowd, in a 35mm print, and Farran spoke afterwards about the film. A nice crowd showed up (speaking of crowds), many of whom knew Farran, but also many who just wanted to see the film in a theatre. There were a lot of people there who had never seen it before, so that was thrilling as well. I saw it on TCM years ago and it blew me AWAY. I have never seen it since, and never seen it in a big theatre with a live audience, so I was extremely excited.
Afterwards, Farran spoke about the first time she saw it, in the middle of the night on TCM. It stunned her, and she said she realized how often this film had been copied or imitated or flat out stolen from, and she never knew it. You recognize shots from other films, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment comes to mind, with this shot from The Crowd of the lead character’s job in an insurance company:
That’s a long swooping shot over the heads of the crowd, down, down, down, until we find our hero. The shot feels endless. But that is just one example of many: King Vidor was doing things that would become vogue and hip in the 60s with the French New Wave, revolutionary things like filming out on actual streets, the camera tracking along with the character. Vidor would place the camera in a pushcart. There’s one scene where the hero runs down a sidewalk, and the camera careens alongside of him. It’s a completely modern shot and so common now as to be almost cliche (Steve McQueen expanded on it in Shame, but it’s basically the same shot), but seeing it here in 1928 is a revelation. Farran observed afterwards, “The sad thing is is that talkies came in just at the time that silent movies were getting this good.”
The acting is naturalistic, funny, and poignant. James Murray, who had been an extra and plucked out of the literal crowd by King Vidor, plays John Sims, the lead. Mary, his wife, is played by Eleanor Boardman. The transformation that James Murray has to go through is nothing less than epic in scope. From a hot-shot eager young guy, to a ruined shell of a man … and he’s fantastic, heartbreaking (as well as super handsome). Boardman is wonderful: she is a realistic wife, not sentimentalized or idealized. She’s funny and supportive, but also worried and rightfully frustrated that her husband is not making good choices. How much more can she take?
There’s an absolutely gorgeous moment where she is by herself: They have had a fight, a terrible fight, and he has stormed off to go to work. She is left alone in the apartment, and the camera stays on her, as she cries, and then … with her body language, her gestures … you can see her realize that she forgot to tell him that she is pregnant. This is the first time WE know she is pregnant. But the way her hands run over her belly, her face suddenly registering fear and shock that he has gone storming off, and he doesn’t KNOW … it’s all there. You don’t need words. When I talk about the old-fashioned school of acting, the pantomime-based gesture-based school of acting that was in vogue for centuries until film came along and other skills started to be prioritized … THIS is what I’m talking about, a moment like this. She is magnificent in her clarity of gesture, and yet it still looks completely naturalistic. Every gesture has an emotion attached to it. And it flows. It tells the entire story.
There’s a lot of physical comedy. Wife calls out, “Don’t fall on the ice, dear!” Husband is irritated at being corrected and fussed over, please stop hectoring me, dear, and then promptly falls on his ass on the ice. There’s an absolutely uproarious sequence when the newlyweds, on their way to Niagara Falls after their wedding, have to have a cramped wedding-night on a sleeper-car. The husband keeps barging into the wrong compartment. The film predicts Death of a Salesman, in the fact that John, the lead, keeps saying he’s going to do “something big,” he’s going to be a big shot somehow, he is going to stick out from “the crowd.” His father told him he would be something big. But the film knows that that is a fantasy, and it also separates him, in very bad ways, from all that is good in life. You can’t have contempt for “the crowd.” You’re one of them. The husband and wife struggle, she’s no doormat, they live in a cramped apartment where they are (at times) literally on top of each other. Life is tough. Unforeseen things happen. They struggle to make sense of it. He is desperate to make a name for himself, but he just … can’t quite … get it together. The film is meticulous in its attention to small details (the chaotic picnic on the beach, the coffee pot falling into the bacon) and also grandiose in its universal concerns. Both elements of the film work together. The second the characters go outside, they are swept up in a seething mass of humanity, swirling through the streets, whirling through revolving doors, pushing their way onto the subway. The crowd scenes are, frankly, overwhelming.
Warner Brothers had sent the print to the IFC Center, but had neglected to send along the accompanying soundtrack. That was a snafu on Warner Brothers’ part, but it ended up being fascinating and gave me a completely new experience in movies: watching a silent film with no music. Total silence in that theatre, the audience watching, in total silence, sometimes bursting out laughing, but then falling back into rapt watching, and – in one unforgettable moment – gasping, when something tragic occurs. If you’ve seen the film, you know what that tragic event is, and even though I knew it was coming, it was heartbreaking. And hearing this modern New York crowd all around me, gasping in their collective breaths, one guy murmuring, “Oh no …” somewhere behind me …
It brought me to tears. This is why movies are important. This is why the best of them can bond us together. We go into this dark space together, we don’t know each other, but we are there to have some kind of collective experience. Together. That’s the key. It’s also great to have the technology to watch movies at home, in privacy, and I see a lot of movies that way. But watching The Crowd, with no music, and hearing that gasp of horror and empathy and sadness from a group of strangers … It just doesn’t get any better than that.