Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Crowd (1928)

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”The Crowd” got to be one of the most depressive movies I ever saw. For me it was no pleasure seeing it. To see it a second time for the commentary required a few deep breath and still I had to stop midway just to surface for a while.

It is not a bad film. I mean it is well made technically and acting-wise and certainly there is a point to the story, but this is no feel-good flick. Instead it seems as if King Vidor when making this took a sadistic glee in bringing down misfortune in every shade on our leads and he did not even make the male lead particularly sympathetic to boot.

I would say that the story is a negative reaction to the story of the American Dream. The belief that the individual is special and can get far if he works hard and is given the right opportunity. This is how the story starts out. John Sims has been told since childhood that he is special, that he will get far and he believes it to the extent that he is not really working in any special direction. He is just looking for that magical opportunity and then his ship will come in as he phrases it.

But what King Vidor hammers through to us is that John is not alone with that ambition. There are tons of people around, millions, and John is no better than any of them. The world is not turning around for the benefit of him. In fact the public and particularly fate could not care less for him.

John’s particular misfortune is that he keeps believing he is special. That he keeps promising that it will get better, but it is as if he is not really trying. Fortune is supposed to find him but it does not. He is getting a job, but it does not lead him anywhere, yet he hangs on to it. He gets a wonderful wife, but in-laws from hell and they keep pounding him for not getting anywhere. Even when he rebel it does not work because he does it in an egocentric and hurtful way, like when he escapes from the in-laws at his wife’s birthday and end up partying all night at his friend Bert’s place.

And then when finally he gets lucky and he wins 500$ for a slogan his little infant daughter gets run over and dies. This was just too much for me. At this point I wondered if I at all wanted to finish the movie and I certainly needed a break. I cannot deal with children getting hurt and seeing your little daughter get run over must be any parent’s nightmare. I know it is mine. How do you recover from that? John does not. From this point his life is a downward spiral. He loses his job, cannot find another one and gets the humiliation of being offered a job by his horrible in-laws, a job out of pity and for her, not for him. His wife gets fed up with him and he despises himself. It sounds bad and it is a lot worse. King Vidor knows how to present misery.

It ends on an upside, but it is an upside at the cost of the American dream. His life is not about success. Even the lowliest job is okay because the real value is his wife and son. That he has to accept that he is nothing special. He is just one in the crowd.

We have a special concept in Scandinavia called the Law of Jante (Janteloven). It goes like this:

1.       Don't think you're anything special.

2.       Don't think you're as good as us.

3.       Don't think you're smarter than us.

4.       Don't convince yourself that you're better than us.

5.       Don't think you know more than us.

6.       Don't think you are more important than us.

7.       Don't think you are good at anything.

8.       Don't laugh at us.

9.       Don't think anyone cares about you.

10.   Don't think you can teach us anything

We use it to pound each other in the head to make sure nobody sticks out of the crowd. While we all on the face of it despise this law, we unknowingly adhere to it and try to be modest, because we know people do not like it when we show off. And we do not like it ourselves when others cannot keep their feet on the ground.

To see this principle applied so blatantly in a movie is tough and also a bit shocking. John gets pounded, not by small-minded bystanders but by fate and his own self-deceit. And fate is brutal to him.

I hope there are not too many of this sort of movies on the list.


  1. Interesting... thanks for including that Law of Jante. I had never seen that or heard of that before. It certainly has an uncanny connection to this film.

    What is it about these early films that make them so downtrodden? I suppose this was one way of dealing with the economic realities at the time. Definitely not an uplifting movie.

    1. And this is even before the big bust.
      This is a really hard one to see.

  2. American exceptionalism is a disease we Americans are not born with but force-fed from infancy into adulthood. King Vidor grew out of it and tried to impart the lessons he learned to the rest of the country with The Crowd.

    It is depressing, but, oh, so true for so many people here who think they are "special".

    1. That is also my impression. This movie is almost too hard.