Director King Vidor (1894–1982) had a long and distinguished career in both silent and sound films, but his masterpiece is unquestionably The Crowd. Within the simple framework of the life of an ordinary man trying to make his way in the big city, Vidor created a landmark American film.
Vidor fell in love with the movies as a child. In 1913, using a camera made from a cigar box, Vidor filmed a hurricane in his hometown of Galveston, Texas, and sold it to a newsreel company. Two years later, he and his new wife Florence struck out for Hollywood. Florence Vidor soon began making a name for herself as an actress, while her husband wrote movie scenarios and took any film work he could get. He wrote 52 scripts before he sold a single one. In 1919, he made his feature film directing debut with The Turn of the Road, which did well enough to attract offers from several major studios. He chose to open his own small studio, Vidor Village, but experienced no success. He then accepted a job at Metro Pictures, and, in 1924, when Metro merged with Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions, Vidor went along. MGM remained Vidor’s professional home for the next 20 years.
At MGM, Vidor found a kindred spirit in the youthful head of production, Irving Thalberg, who thought that the time was right for a film about the most traumatic event of the recent past: the Great War. The Big Parade (1925) was Vidor’s devastating portrait of the physical and emotional wounds inflicted by war. The film features one of John Gilbert’s greatest performances and was also a personal best for King Vidor, who proved that he had the creativity and imagination to work on a much larger canvas.
With the success of The Big Parade, Vidor immediately became one of the studio’s leading directors. Florence Vidor, meanwhile, had become a star in such sophisticated comedies as Ernst Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle (1924). But even though the couple’s careers were flourishing, their marriage was falling apart. They divorced in 1924, and two years later Vidor married actress Eleanor Boardman, who was then costarring with John Gilbert in Vidor’s swashbuckler Bardelys the Magnificent (1926).
The Big Parade had placed an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation, but Vidor was convinced that there was also drama in ordinary life. And this time, he didn’t want a movie star, but an actual “Ordinary Man” to appear in the film that he would call The Crowd. He wasn’t having any luck finding such a person, until one day at the studio he spotted an extra named James Murray. On giving him a screen test, Vidor decided that Murray was “one of the best natural actors we had ever encountered.”
Vidor cast Eleanor Boardman in the role of the wife. Boardman’s screen image was that of a cool sophisticate, and she seemed an unlikely choice for the working-class girl. But Vidor was convinced that she was capable of delivering a good performance, and he worked hard to draw it out of her. He also used autobiographical elements based on their life together to sketch some of the little irritations in a marriage, adding naturalistic touches that give texture to the scenes. The result was a low-key, yet powerful performance that was Boardman’s best.
Vidor was impressed by the stylized films of German directors such as F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, a style which came to be known as expressionism, and he incorporated some of their techniques into The Crowd. Early in the film, John races home to be greeted by traumatic news. As he climbs up a long staircase, his apprehension is heightened by the use of forced perspective to create a dramatic, tunnel-like space, the walls and ceiling designed and specially painted to achieve the effect. Forced perspective is used to create a similar feeling in a scene set in a hospital corridor that appears to extend to infinity.
The downbeat yet hopeful ending was one of seven that Vidor shot at the studio’s request. Irving Thalberg was so concerned at the film’s prospects that he kept it on the shelf for a year before finally releasing it. And although The Crowd received excellent reviews and an Academy Award nomination, it was not a box-office success. Down through the years, its reputation among fans and filmmakers has grown. The final scene served as an inspiration for a similar sequence in Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941), and the great Italian director Vittorio De Sica told Vidor that The Crowd influenced his film The Bicycle Thief (1948).
But there was no happy ending for the star of The Crowd. In spite of rave reviews, James Murray’s career faltered, and he became an alcoholic. When Vidor was looking for a leading man to star in his film Our Daily Bread (1934), he ran into a bloated, derelict Murray on the street, panhandling. Vidor told Murray that if he could pull himself together, the part was his. Murray became hostile and stalked off. Two years later, drunk and possibly suicidal, Murray fell into the Hudson River and drowned.
King Vidor made only two more silent films, The Patsy (1928) and Show People (1928), before the transition to sound. His own transition was successful, in part because he refused to let it change the way he made films. Many of the location scenes in his first talkie, Hallelujah! (1931), were actually filmed silent, so he would have the freedom of movement that the cumbersome new sound cameras did not allow. Hallelujah! was the first major studio film to portray African-American life.
Vidor continued to direct at MGM until 1944, with occasional work at other studios on films such as Stella Dallas (1937) and forays into independent production. His final feature film was Solomon and Sheba (1959), and he then taught at USC and wrote books on the art and craft of filmmaking. But until the end of his life, he continued to develop projects for new films he hoped to make. In 1979, he tried unsuccessfully to raise money for a film called Actor. It was the life story of James Murray.
Presented at SFSFF 2003 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer