After John and Mary’s refreshing (but thoroughly culturally prescribed and signposted) “escape” into sexuality and the Sublime at Niagara Falls, the film quickly undercuts that intangible bliss by cutting back to the couple’s cramped apartment in New York City. At first, Vidor lets us believe that the honeymoon’s prophylactic effect has survived anomiespheric reentry, showing a very contented-looking John strumming away on his ukulele:
However, John’s ditty’s lyrics parse out the doomed inside/out pattern of a Victorian “separate spheres” worldview that The Crowd consigns quite unceremoniously to the dustbin of history. Popular jingles might still be peddling the illusion of a “private” realm unaffected by “publicness”; but, by the 1920s, the pedlars and publicists themselves had already done a pretty thorough job of laying down the infrastructural tracks for the rapidly dawning age of mass culture.
Indeed, El is The Crowd. It roars and rolls through all things, including the gates of John and Mary’s domestic bliss bunker, where it soon deposits the singularly superegorific Trinity of Mary’s inaccessibly hard-of-hearing mum and her two white collar stormtrooper sons:
It’s Christmas! And this evil-eyed trio comes bearing gifts of Guilt, Incensed “Frankness” and Murmur, cathechizing John re: his puling “prospects” for economic ascension. He stands trial for as long as he is able to, but the thing is, he shares their homiletic understanding of the world as a place where the good and dutiful are predestined to rise, and he’s already beginning to see himself as one of the “fallen” who isn’t likely to get up. No wonder he takes such violent exception to Mary’s repeated injunctions not to “slip”, as he slips away from the inquisitorial in-laws.
He spends the night drinking with his old office bud Bert (played by old pro Bert Roach), and stumbles home into the arms of a very understanding Mary (the title cards actually tell us that she “understands” him). Things seem destined to remain “swell”, until John spoils it by scolding Mary for “always doing something wrong” when she opens his Christmas present (an umbrella) in the house. Again and again, Vidor works against the stereotype of the “nagging” wife to show us a rapidly maturing Eleanor Boardman weighed down by her husband’s increasingly nagging self-doubt. The upshot is a radically bifurcated (and far from “swell”) flat, shot through with stark vertical lines between our protagonists:
Things get so bad that the pair reaches the threshold of divorce, before news of a more welcome intrusion from the Karmic crowd pool pulls them back from the precipice. Mary is pregnant, and for Vidor, unlike, say, for Borzage (whose works express pretty much the point of view contained in John’s doggerel tune – albeit in a far more powerfully poeticized form), there’s no tragedy in tampering with the dynamic duoism of romantic love. As the film’s rapid lesson in domestic cell division has made clear, the world inside was always already “El”. It just took John and Mary a minute or two to trip over the rails. So, yes, “three”, as they say, “is a crowd”; but then again, so was two (or one, for that matter). This film isn’t some chronicle of sovereign subjectivity (or Emersonian “individuality”) under siege. From the moment we meet him (as he emerges from the womb), John Sims IS a member of the crowd. That is to say, he’s a participant in the society that he’s born into (on the 4th of July, no less!) It’s in thinking that he is above the crowd (as when he jeers at the clown or imagines himself to be in an adversarial position vis-a-vis the rest of New York City) that John manifests the most pathological personality traits of the particular mass-mind that Vidor takes for his subject. That’s how “late capitalism” works. It blithely grants the franchise to all of its subjects, knowing (as Marx never dreamed) that a majority of them will always use it to feather the economic nest of the “winner’s circle” they see themselves sailing into, on that much-anticipated day when their ships finally come in.
And really, who can blame them, when the results of even a $500-dollar dinghy docking are so deliriously joyful?
There is no way to put into words just how wonderful this sequence is, or how much it has to tell us about the continuing (and so terribly puzzling, from a critical theorist’s point of view) appeal of the “American Dream”. When the arrival of one not-even-especially-huge check can swell four connected hearts to such epic dimensions, the socialist’s task becomes daunting indeed (and please don’t misunderstand me here — I am as thoroughgoing a socialist as you are ever likely to meet). Vidor, of course, was a socialist (or something very close to one) during this stage of his career, and he quickly steers the narrative away from nuclear bliss toward nuclear calamity, as the youngest of our family’s celebrants is cut down in the street by melodramatic vicissitude before she even gets a chance to partake of the Capitalistic Eucharist furnished by the good folks at “Sleight O’ Hand: The Magic Cleaner”.
The aftermath of this tragedy is heartbreaking to behold, as John realizes, perhaps for the first time in his life, just how implacably clamorous the group organism he belongs to (whether he acknowledges it or not) can be. The men and women on the street are certainly affected by the terrible tableau of an aggrieved father cradling his broken daughter, but (as a policeman later tells John) “the world can’t stop because your baby is sick”, and the crowd’s nocturnal avatar has moved on with its bustling life long before the little girl draws her last ragged breath within the crushed and imperfectly hushed confines of the victorious sloganeer’s flat.
John’s gradual descent into ineffectual self-pity is beautifully handled, as Vidor dramatizes his protagonist’s ironic awakening to his true position as a member of the Crowd just as he finds himself most “out of step” with its irrepressible “can do” optimism. What, John (and his director) asks, does all of this dutiful striving amount to, if scenes like this can’t be prevented?
Those numbers make me think of the bizarrely detached idealist banquet Vidor serves up in Truth and Illusion — although here, of course, they don’t add up to anything very (self-)satisfying. John quits his job, diving into a rabbit hole of despair that soon makes him a rather unfit companion for the robustly healthy Mary (Vidor the proto-feminist takes pains to show us – as in the wonderful beach scene that I could easily have rhapsodized about as well, if I hadn’t already ranted about so many other aspects of this endlessly thought-provoking film – that Mary has blossomed into a far stronger person than John will ever be). Things move quickly toward a Capraesque sequence of contemplated self-destruction, but here, as in everything else, Vidor differs quite dramatically from Capra. In the latter’s oeuvre, the hero would pull back from the tantalizing brink of self-destruction because he is needed (by his family, by his fellow citizens, by the overarching imperatives of some noble cause). Vidor’s John Sims isn’t needed. The director pulls no punches in that regard. The only thing this guy can do is juggle. Mary can easily raise Junior without any help from her erratic husband. However, he is wanted. First by his son, who joins John in the highest-stakes game of “fetch” ever committed to celluloid
… and whose radiant proclamation (“I like you”) is one of the most justly famous title cards in the history of silent film:
Mary likes him too – against her own better judgment, but perhaps all the more wholeheartedly because of that fact.
And when John accepts his long-predestined fate and becomes a self-conscious “man of the crowd” – a mass-culture clown clothed in the advertizing copy that holds consumer capitalist society together – he earns the family three tickets to the post-modern equivalent of the Victorian private sphere’s refuge from all worry and care – the audience! And here, as so often with Vidor, a sequence of shots (taking the Sims family from their pop tune jingling flat to the raucous halls of Vaudeville) can tell you so much more about the astonishingly complex nature of mass-subjecthood than any 20,000 words I might come up with. Do the benefits of spectatorial crowd-membership outweigh the costs bewailed by romantics and Frankfurt School theorists? Does the Sims family’s joyous (and comradely) acceptance of their place alongside their fellow spectators open up greater possibilities for political cooperation and group agency, or kill them forever? Is John’s concern for his neighbor an emblem of his widening empathy, or merely a shrewd prelude to a sales pitch? This is the director’s final “Sleight O’ Hand”, and no matter what answers you come up with to the questions I’ve posed, the images are indisputably magical.