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In my series thus far, I’ve described King Vidor as the cinema’s preeminent mediator between ideality and the quotidian – a Plotinus/Montaigne (to borrow, once again, James Russell Lowell’s description of Emerson) who, through some miracle of epistemological deep focus, always manages to keep the subjective and the sociological in the shot (and without forcing a Capraesque showdown between these two seemingly incompatible perceptual modes). Nowhere is this more true than in The Crowd, a film which many consider to be his supreme achievement. Set and shot (wherever possible) within the mechanistic whirl of late-1920s New York City, The Crowd shows Vidor the 20th Century Transcendentalist truly engaging, for the first time in his career, with the realities (and the undergirding fantasies) of life in a consumer capitalist society.

Where most of Vidor’s earlier films gave us open air auteurs working within and against the constraints of their social and physical environments to shape their autobiopics on the fly, The Crowd explores the ideological foundations of “idealism”; and without, I would argue, in any way cheapening the experiences of the visionary in question (James Murray’s “John Sims”). That’s John in the film still above, poised on the first step of a double-decker streetcar, quietly contemplating the mysteries of wife-to-be Mary (Eleanor Boardman)’s ass and existence as she makes the climb in front of him.

It’s all part of an extended courtship sequence that helps to place/ensnare these people just as fully within the context/web of their society as Vidor’s more famously virtuoso camera stalk of “#137: John Sims” through the skyscraperscapes and white-collar alleys of densest, brightest America (I’ll just inundate your mind with those images right now, since I know they’re in there anyway, before getting back to John and Mary’s long date).

Vidor’s greatest feat in this film is to create a believable protagonist who is at once absolutely typical (of white middle-class masculinity, at any rate: it should never be forgotten that John belongs to a group that occupied a privileged place within his society – and continues to do so) and utterly convinced of his own atypicality (which, according to the prescient logic of the piece, is what makes him absolutely typical). John Sims is both victim and beneficiary of the American Dream (plenty of his fellow citizens weren’t deriving any benefits at all).

To borrow from the script of Frank Capra’s thematically-related (but tonally very different) 1941 masterpiece Meet John Doe, he’s “the man that all of the ads are written for”

(Later on, of course, they will be written by him — at least once

and on him — possibly for the rest of his life)

(Returning to Capra and Robert Riskin’s script) “He keeps the books” (other John Simses are flying the planes and driving the buses…)

“And when a cop yells: ‘Stand back there you!’ He means [John Sims]”

Yes, John is that elusively ubiquitous quarry of politicians, pollsters, preachers, pundits and publicists everywhere (in our “mass culture” society), the “Average Man.” The sort of guy who, in his classified personal ad (or OK Cupid profile) would undoubtedly describe himself as having “his own of way seeing things” and an “offbeat sense of humour”.

And, as the film begins, he’s about to fall in love with Ms. Average Flapper, 1928.

Their courtship is pointedly banal. He puts her in stitches with some of the least inspired comedy routines ever committed to celluloid (the ol’ smile/frown magic face eraser game), and then dazzles her with some condescending snark directed at a hapless sandwich board clown:

that’s a terrible French translation, by the way… “malin” means “scheming” or, at the very least, “crafty”

To this point in the film, Mary hasn’t done anything except laugh a bit goofily and look like Eleanor Boardman (which, admittedly, is no small thing), but somehow John finds it in his thoroughly mediated heart to utter this declaration as they glide through the balmy city air, looking down upon the masses, from the rather crowded roof of their streetcar:

Yes, this is Vidorian sociology in action. But it’s so much more than that. Unlike John, the director is not condescending to his subject. And, as cliched as their sparse dialogue is, there is no denying the reality of the bond that is growing between these characters. Time and again, during the course of this film, Vidor will surprise us by purposefully melting the icy edge of his proto-Adornian cultural critique by capturing the inarticulate warmth generated by the physical and emotional propinquity of these living, relating bodies whose title cards have been hijacked by the sloganeering cant of commercial copy. John and Mary’s montage/date plays out with the ruthless efficiency and foreordained cultural logic of something that’s been itinerized by some combination wedding planner/urban travel agent. And yet, there’s no denying that it looks like fun!

The whole sequence is a proto-Busby Berkeleyan delight – equal parts inspiration, mechanization and sniggering patriarchal glee.

It’s fantastically telling that, once the couple reaches the end of their culturally signposted journey to the honeymoon sleeping car, their romance hits a bit of snag. The pop taglines and jingles that have scored their lives to this point simply don’t describe what happens after you “neck” and “pop the question”. Simultaneously prurient and prudish, the advertizing culture of the 1920s crept as close to the sexual realm as was politically feasible, and then left the rest up to their increasingly dependent audience’s imagination.

Ah sweet liberty!

These Waldorf and Statler types know where it’s at, but when it comes to sex, John and Mary are left high and unlubricated by their mass cultural education.

Fortunately, they get their respective mojos back by tapping into the ferociously sublime “natural” energy of their era’s most ardently cherished (and prescribed) sexual metaphor: Niagara Falls. Here again, Vidor identifies a multi-layered cultural logic at work, and involves our critical faculties and emotions in the process as it unfolds. We shake our heads as they seem bent on seeing the falls merely as a chastely beautiful backdrop and then cheer as they begin to take on some of its more electrifying properties, turning the postcard “photo op” into something more akin to a “French postcard” tableau. “Naturally”, this is exactly what is supposed to happen – the brochures just can’t mention said fucking by name.

I’ll be back later in the week with Part II of my look at The Crowd. I hope you’ll join me! (And please, feel free to comment, quibble and flat out disagree with me! I’m here to converse with people!)

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(Reposted from my defunct film-only blog — Cailloux de Cinema. I’m finally ready to start following through on this one.)

This Alternative Film Guide piece on Mark Vieira’s new book on Hollywood’s first “Boy Wonder” (Hollywood Dreams Made Real: Irving Thalberg and the Rise of MGM) intrigues me, but not for the reasons you might think.

I’m sure it’s a fine book, and I have no doubt that I’ll be checking it out–but, at the moment, I’m more interested in the metacritical issues that its publication raises.

To put it succinctly–enough with the Thalberg already!

Please don’t take that the wrong way. I’m not objecting to the lionization of the Lion on (Pauline) Kaelian grounds. I love MGM’s early sound catalogue (and it does seem to me that Thalberg’s rep depends upon the films he oversaw during the 1930s, doesn’t it? That’s what the hagiographers focus on. And I want to stress that point because, paradoxically, the studio’s really innovative period came during the late 1920s–with Sjöström and Vidor). I am eager to concede that they made some fantastic films–and (again, unlike Kael) I love Norma Shearer.

However, I must confess that I am baffled by the widespread fixation upon Thalberg. I just don’t see any warrant for it.

Is it F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fault? I mean, The Last Tycoon IS awesome. But if you make up a list of the great Hollywood films made between 1929 and 1937, how many Thalberg films would be there? Tastes vary of course, but what MGM films provide an experience to match All Quiet on the Western Front, Waterloo Bridge, Dracula, Frankenstein, Back Street, The Old Dark House, Counsellor At Law, Imitation of Life, Little Man What Now?, The Black Cat, The Bride of Frankenstein, My Man Godfrey, Remember Last Night?, Show Boat (Universal); The Miracle Woman, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Man’s Castle, It Happened One Night, Twentieth Century, Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment (Columbia); The Smiling Lieutenant, Animal Crackers, Morocco, Blonde Venus, Trouble in Paradise, Love Me Tonight, Duck Soup, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil is a Woman, Peter Ibbetson, Desire (Paramount); The Last Flight, Blonde Crazy, Jewel Robbery, One Way Passage, Five Star Final, I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Baby Face, Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Petrified Forest, Stranded, Living on Velvet, They Won’t Forget (Warner Brothers); Little Women, Dangerous Corner, Alice Adams, Swing Time, Stage Door (RKO); Bad Girl, Six Hours to Live (Fox); Cynara, Dodsworth, These Three (Goldwyn); Our Daily Bread (Vidor) etc ad infinitum?

Again, I’m sure there’s lots of room for disagreement here… and I do think that MGM releases like Daybreak (a Jacques Feyder film from 1931 that everyone ought to see!), Possessed (1931), Freaks, Red Dust, Queen Christina, Mad Love, A Night at The Opera, Libeled Lady and Fury belong on a list with the above items (along with movies produced by Thalberg’s in-house rival David O. Selznick–who somehow always comes in for a beating in Thalberg-love-ins, and the article that prompted this post is no exception!–like Dinner At Eight, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities)… but there’s no way anyone can convince me that MGM’s films were appreciably BETTER than what the other studios were putting out.

The only difference is that they made money, during the “depths of the Depression.”

Is that any reason for us to get excited about the guy?

Apparently, yes.

And perhaps that’s valid–much of this scholarship, after all, is grappling with the question of Hollywood’s steadying influence upon the country during an insane period in its history. And MGM certainly can take the lion’s share of the credit for that.

But if you wanna talk aesthetics and politics–film for film, MGM lags FAR behind Universal during the early-to-mid-1930s. No?

So wherefore Thalberg?

I get that this was a guy whom intellectuals (i.e. writers) could (and can) take seriously–even though he was primarily responsible for the system that obliterated the screenwriter’s autonomy in Hollywood. And I get that his life story appeals (in a creepy way) to people of all political persuasions who cherish the idea that integrity and success can (or, at least, at one time, could) go hand in hand in America. And Fitzgerald’s investigation of the damage that really living the Horatio Alger dream can do to a potentially sensitive mind is truly unparalleled.

But wouldn’t it be even more fruitful to study the career of a mogul who leaped into the key role at his studio (the same one that gave Thalberg his start–and by virtue of the same nepotistic good fortune) at the dawn of the sound era, determined to present America with prestigious films that proceeded from an almost uniformly, and, ultimately, suicidally counter-hegemonic position (on the economic, cultural and psychological levels)?

Wouldn’t it be great to see some books about Carl Laemmle Jr.?

All I know about this guy is what I read from the movies.

Oh sure, there’s some stuff about him in Thomas Schatz’s The Genius of the System–a bizarre mixture of insight and maddening conventionalism that is at its weakest when it tries (and it wisely doesn’t try very often) to analyze the films (as texts) themselves.

And I guess I should read this book–although it looks like more of the same, in terms of its misplaced emphasis upon Junior’s faemmle ties, rather than what he did with his six years as a production head.

There’s a lot of stuff out there on Universal’s horror unit too–but, in my experience, none of these works (including Kevin Brownlow’s documentary–which is good as far as it goes, but, like the filmmaker himself, has DECIDED limitations) ever takes the, to me, logical step of connecting these films up with the amazing things that Milestone, Borzage, Stahl, Wyler and even non-horror James Whale were doing at the studio during the same period.

Come on–let’s have a book (or at least a series of blog posts!) on the Lost Tycoon.

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