Truth at 24 Frames Per Second

By Steve Sedlak

We’ve been watching a lot of silent films in the film history class I am currently enrolled in. Highlights in class screenings include “Cat Boxing” and the far less palatable “Birth of a Nation” which together somewhat embody how folks in the 21st century feel about these early cinematic gems. They’re over-the-top and funny, or racist and painful. But I wish cinephiles could see the silver screen’s good side, the one that doesn’t get spoofed on TV.”The Crowd” (1928), however, is a film that I would feel comfortable with showing to any silent film-dismissing movie lover. While I can’t personally agree with people who don’t like the crazy antics of Chaplin, it’s okay to not like Douglas Fairbanks (he’s kind of a tool anyway) and the more melodramatic flicks of the period. But what “The Crowd” takes up as its subject matter is something that I never associated with this period of film history. The film dives into the grittily realistic world of the urban poor, of broken American dreams, and of the laughter and tears that constitute the gap between idealism and actuality. That a film with such a dark subject was ever made by a Hollywood director surprised me. But not many more of these movies were to come. After the Depression hit, there weren’t many people in the audience looking to see how crappy it was to be at the mercy of the “Invisible Hand.”

“The Crowd” has a simple plot: John Sims is an American man (born on the fourth of July) who has big American dreams. He heads for New York City to make the most out of his “opportunity,” which must be sitting there, somewhere, waiting for him. He ends up at an accounting firm and his friend introduces him to a lovely young lady who soon becomes his wife. They live a happy life at first, but external and economic pressures (the birth of a child, chiding in-laws) start to take their toll on the small family. From here, the film unravels the American dream into a stark portrayal of reality en masse. Even the death of a family member is not enough to stop the Crowd from clambering into the evening streets of the city.

My favorite aspect of the film was its graphic composition. At the end of a virtuosic city sequence, the camera tracks upwards on a model of an imposing skyscraper, pops through a window and moves above an ocean of accountants at work from a long high-angle shot. This is by far the most famous scene in the film.

This motif of parallel lines and geometric shapes comes back again and again. It is there in the office, of course, but also in the lines of children standing on sidewalks, in the lines of people waiting for work and newborn babies, even in the lines of soaring skyscrapers and railroad tracks. However, the moments of the film where individualism seems to be reaffirmed are when these lines are least obvious or done away with in favor of organic shapes and textures. When the couple is on their honeymoon to Niagara Falls, shapes become round, loveable and misty. The heterosexual love expressed here is of course a one-on-one, private and individual affair.

When the couple has its first child, the maternity ward where the mother and father are reunited with the baby is a triangular room with the door at one end. The camera follows the father into the room and towards a bed lined up against one of the walls. As he moves through the room, the oppressive lines formed by the bedsteads open up until he reaches his wife on the other side of the room. Here again individuality is reaffirmed by a breaking down of these straight lines (even though this time it is facilitated by a larger geometric shape, the triangle). Sometimes the implementation of this motif breaks down the overall realism that the film seems to be aiming for, but it is entirely worth it.

Nevertheless, the motif of the straight line is present in the film, constantly reminding viewers that the protagonists are actually not individuals in command of their own fate (like many Hollywood films would like to have audiences think), but are instead at the mercy of socioeconomic forces outside their control. All they can do is hold on to things like love and family which are often at the mercy of these same exact external forces.

Overall this was a sad movie for me, but touching and bizarrely life-affirming. A final shot shows the family at a show, laughing as members of the Crowd. The camera cranes away and reveals how huge this laughing mass is, as if to catch the attention of the real life viewers watching the film that the diegetic audience is in. They too are the Crowd, engaging in the Crowdiest of entertainments.