I have a fallacy for how I perceive movies made before 1960. Any movie I’ve watched that was released prior to then I had always thought of as a bit more goofy, movies admirable in their attempts to be art, but fell a few stones away from being actual art just because they didn’t have the tools that the great, “new Hollywood” filmmakers had decades later.
So when I watched 1928’s The Crowd, I was a bit skeptical. I immediately thought it was going to be a comedy but was shook at the amount of existential angst and distaste for humanity and society this silly little film has. On paper, the movie is the story of John and Mary Sims and their foibles and follies in married life. Lurking underneath that rom-com exterior is a tragic criticism of society, 9-to-5 working world, and the lack of collective empathy in the wake of tragedy.
It’s not all bleak and grim, though, as director King Vidor employs some very clever storytelling and camera tricks to propel his story. Anytime there’s a significant amount of movement, Vidor tries something different, like when a camera is placed on a slide as characters proceed down it. Vidor also has a knack for eschewing a sense of claustrophobia, with his protagonists caught among crowds, able to capture a wide amount of people in a small frame. And when tragedy strikes Josh Sims near the end of the film, we see images being projected onto his head to convey a sense of “here is what Sims is thinking.” They’re all bold efforts, and if any of them were missing, the film wouldn’t be nearly as impactful.
What’s particularly strange about The Crowd is that it was released one year prior to the great Stock Market crash of 1929. This movie totally seems like one that would have come out AFTER, reflecting the now depressing nature of society. It did come out during Prohibition though, so maybe that has something to do with it. But if anything, the fact that The Crowd has such a bleak outlook before truly bleak times took hold shows that directors and auteurs still can make art independent of the world around them. That while films more often than not reflect the times we live in, there are certain films like The Crowd that instead reflect us who are living in those times.