Posts Tagged ‘Frank Capra’

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:

The battle line is drawn, or: taking umbrella-age

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.

Thanks for reading — and looking!


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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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With The Jack-Knife Man (1920), the Vidor oeuvre proper commences. The recruiting poster poseur of Bud’s Recruit is out. The Backyard Expressionist is IN. For the next four decades, before his creativity finally jack-knifed on the highway to Monism, Vidor managed to keep his camera trained on the crossroads between Mid-Victorian Melodrama and Modernist Mindfuck. It’s a rich symbiosis of incident and interiority; surface and surfeit subjectivity. You’re never lost in a Vidor film–but you never know quite where you stand, either. If you’re looking for the missing link between D.W. Griffith and David Lynch–you’ve come to the right place!

Like all of the director’s films, The Jack-Knife Man places the ideal and the quotidian worlds side by side, and then steps back to see (and show) how things’ll play out this time. Nothing is predetermined in these movies. And there’s never anything so simple as a mere clash between the subjective and objective realms. Vidor understands that these terms have no meaning without each other. We get “dreamers”. We get “reality”. What we don’t get is a Capraesque war to the knife between the two. Don’t get me wrong–I love Frank Capra. In the ol’ university days, I wrote reams of papers about his place within the “American Jeremiad” tradition discussed by Perry Miller, Sacvan Bercovitch and others. It’s just that, these days, I’m more interested in exploring the messy ways people have of transplanting their hopes directly out of (and then back into) the plots that they’re born into. Capra gives us too much metaphysical hierarchy–too little insight. His prophets simply wander into town from Mandrake Falls and outlast the cynics (all audience surrogates). Their ideas are never tested–only their ability to preach is. It’s interesting stuff, and I’m always gonna love it–but I think it rests upon shaky (or, rather, far too secure!) foundations. The imagination, or the human spirit, or the visionary impulse, or whatever you wanna call it, just isn’t that autonomous. I’m not saying that the mind isn’t its own place–it most definitely IS! But there ARE ways to get to it (like those secret passages in Clue) from the material and social world. And no one can get you from the Kitchen to the Study (and back and forth and back again) like King Vidor.

Case in point, our “jack-knife man” himself, Peter Lane (beautifully played by old pro F.A. Turner):

When we first meet him, he’s not a jack-knife man at all! He’s an old codger who lives in a “shanty-boat”, keeps to himself, makes lots of coffee (man do I ever love filmed scenes of people making coffee! Kings Row is the best for that) and busies himself by fidgeting with clocks …. “a tin clock is just like a baby,” he tells a rebuffed boat-buyer, “she don’t do a thing you’d expect all day long!”

Really Pete?

In Capra, this would be presented as wisdom. A simple insulating mechanism that would help to keep the protagonist “pure”–like Longfellow Deeds’ tuba or Long John Willoughby’s “doohickey”. In Vidor, it is purely and simply naivety–the kind that has to be dispensed with. It’s not the world that needs Peter (like NYC needs Deeds)–it’s the other way around. This guy, basically, needs a life. It’s not that he must abandon his inner being for the inauthentic hustle of the metropolis (that’s a false, Capraesque distinction)–it’s that he needs to put his imagination into Port Real for badly needed repairs.

And that’s precisely what happens. Peter Lane–shanty-boat recluse–is laid low, not by the Holy Spirit, but by the irruption of a badly broken family into his home. In good epiphanic fashion, the big change is highlighted by a burst of light:

Said light is generated by a particularly vicious storm–which drives Lize Merdin and her young charge “Buddy” into Peter’s cubbyhole universe. The woman is near death–and the boy is starved (but quite affable). The old man does what he can to comfort them, settling Lize on a cot and heading out into the rain to trade his beloved clock for some crucial victuals!

At this point, we are introduced to the Widow Potter–who starts out seeming like Aunt March in Little Women, but is very quickly revealed to be more of a Marilla Cuthbert (that’s Anne of Green Gables, young adult fiction fans!) type. Gruff with a heart of gold. Even more intriguing–she’s kind of in love with our Peter (and wishes he’d grow up)…  When the middle-aged lady retires to her rocker and her knitting, Vidor hits us with a virtuoso move that takes us from “naturalism” to “lyricism” in the blink of an eye–as an image of Peter as domestic companion appears facing her:

Embodied goodwill has a way of  “rolling through all things” in The Jack-Knife Man–and this scene clues us in to the fact that the visionary world presented by the film emanates from more than one source. From here on out, it will be a (growing) team effort–with dreams folding into dreams in a snowballing avalanche of tender misprision.

Along the way, we meet another (far more extroverted) artist figure. The singing vagabond–“Booge”–who delights Buddy with his music and his footloose noncomformity:

This happy wanderer will be back–after a little jaunt to the hoosegow.

But first–to the Jack-Knife!

Our friend Peter takes up this charming habit as a direct result of being shaken out of his comfort zone by dire necessity… Lize dies the next morning–and young Buddy must be consoled! And so he gets a “veritable Noah’s Ark” of jack-knife carved animals to play with:

These creatures are not pure natives of Peter’s mind–they are NOT his gift to the world (as I have said, left to his own devices, Peter’s preference is for rusty old clocks–in Vidor, the hermit is not a “sage”, he is a robot). Rather, the animals are the issue of this man’s long-delayed plunge into the inter-subjective world. They do not represent a “going-forth” of the spirit. They are the emblems of a soul’s expansion. This point is definitely established later on, when “New York Clubwoman Marcia Montgomery” comes to town (dazzled by tales of the toys). She, of course, assumes that he was moved to create them by some inner artistic impulse–and Peter sets her straight: “I did them to please Buddy.” They had no prior existence in his mind. They were called forth by a particular person, in a particular situation.

Well, she responds, there are thousands of Buddys out there, each of whom might be comforted by his unique gifts (and again the friendly wraiths appear):

And, with that, we are off to the races!

–After a harrowing interlude caused by the malicious interference of the Dickensian bureaucrat Rasmer Briggles–who rounds up orphans at $20 a head and places them in the most uncongenial homes possible, the Widow Potter finds Buddy and adopts him (along with his long-lost sister Susie!)

–The Jack-Knife Man achieves a measure of celebrity (and makes enough money to shave and buy his OWN bread, every once in a while)–thanks in large part to the kind influence of Marcia Montgomery, played by the lustrous Florence Vidor (then married to the director):

–On a work camp, “Booge” learns that Buddy and Susie are actually HIS children (he had been married, unhappily, to Lize Merdin–in another life)

–A grown-up Peter Lane returns to the sticks in a marryin’ mood–much to the delight of the Widow Potter:

–and, in a boldly Victorian gambit of coincidence, “Booge” wanders back onto the scene just in time to witness the genesis of the happy home he himself was never able to provide for his children, or for Lizzie. Of course he leaps clear of this “happy ending juggernaut”–adding one more layer of visionary subjectivity wrapped in the prosaic trappings of the “real” (and stunningly anticipating a similar–even more potent–moment from Vidor’s 1937 film Stella Dallas):

Whose dream IS THIS, anyway?

I’ll leave you with that!

Next time: The Sky Pilot (1921)

Good night friends!


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