Early in King Vidor’s renowned silent film The Crowd, a 21-year-old man named “Johnny Sims” is sailing into lower-Manhattan on a ferry. He and another passenger lean over the railing to admire the skyline. In 1928, New York City didn’t have any glass towers. The World Trade Center had not yet come and gone, but lower-Manhattan, especially from the water, was still an awe-inspiring site. In the film, you can still see the Singer Building, a great old skyscraper that was torn down to make room for One Liberty Plaza in the 1960s. Johnny, like many other young men, has come to make his fortunate in the big city. His fellow passenger is less naive.
Passenger: You’ve gotta be good in that town if you want to beat the crowd.
Johnny: Maybe…but all I want is an opportunity.
In the next sequence, by far the most famous part of the film, we immediately recognize how influential The Crowd has been, having been “sampled” by Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, and even Ridley Scott for the wildly overrated Blade Runner. The camera no longer follows the perspective of one man. Rather, we see New York City from what, for lack of a better term, could be called a “God’s Eye Perspective.” It begins on 45th Street, hovering above the great crush of people at Times Square. It shifts to Wall Street, then lower Broadway. After flying over the docks, the “El,” and swooping in for a shot of crowds of people oozing out of the subway, it comes to rest on 120 Broadway, the Equitable Building, a massive 40-story pile of concrete, darkness and shadow looming over what is now Zuccotti Park. The camera rotates, and pans upwards, climbing the gigantic structure, which is subtly replaced by a model, giving the illusion that the movie’s Equitable Building is even more gigantic than the real Equitable building, and zooms through a window to reveal row after row of men working at row after row of desks. Orson Welles often gets credit for having invented the image in The Trial, but clearly it should go to King Vidor for The Crowd. After the camera pans down one row of desks, we finally learned what happened to Johnny Sims. He’s a faceless office worker at a dead end job watching the clock, waiting for it to turn 5 so he can go home, study, and elevate himself above the mass. The irony of course, is that he doesn’t quite realize that he’s already part of the mass, something that the camera has just demonstrated with grandiose power.
For anybody who camped out at Occupy Wall Street in 2011, the Equitable Building will be a familiar sight. The story will be even more familiar. Bankers and cops used to taunt people at Occupy Wall Street with “get a job you hippies.” Johnny Sims, who was played by the novice actor James Murray, already has a job. Little good that will do him in the end. Soon, Johnny has a girlfriend, then a wife, then an apartment near the El, and two children. Mary, Johnny’s wife, is played by King Vidor’s wife Eleanor Boardman. Tall, beautiful, intelligent, endlessly patient with her husband’s inability to climb out of his dead end clerical job, she’s just about as perfect as perfect can get, far too good for a passive loser like Johnny. Her parents and her two bothers think the same way. Why did she marry such a chump? We agree. Even though Vidor had no idea about what was coming in 1929, Johnny’s trajectory is inevitably downward. The honeymoon over, they begin to squabble. More accurately, Johnny lashes out at Mary at every conceivable opportunity while she suffers in silence. After their little girl is killed by a careless truck driver — it’s a horrifying scene and probably the film’s best image of the suffocating “crowd” after the early pan over the Equitable Building — Johnny loses his will to live. Even as Mary soldiers on, Johnny’s work ethic deteriorates. He quits his job. She encourages him. There are better jobs out there, she says. But even in 1928, you didn’t just quit one job than move up to a better one. Who hires the unemployed? He tries selling vacuum cleans. He fails. Mary’s brothers offer him a place at their firm. He won’t take “charity.” He tries getting day labor, but there are already so many unemployed men, he doesn’t stand a chance. Eventually he finds himself leaning over a set of railroad tracks watching a passing train, the image deftly echoing the early scene where he leans over the railing of the ferry, young and full of dreams. Now he’s contemplating suicide. The only thing that saves him is his little boy.
Son: Why don’t you never play with me any more? I like to play with you. Doesn’t Momma like you? I like you. When I grow up I wanta be just like you.
John: You still love me? You still believe in me, boy?
Son: Sure I do, Pop!
John: We can do it, boy! We’ll show them!
Earlier in the film, on their first date, Johnny and Mary had taken a ride on a double decker bus along lower Broadway. Johnny was still young and confident. Mary, in turn, thought she had landed a good catch. Johnny was handsome, charming, and employed. Like any young, good looking couple in Manhattan, they felt superior to the people around them, “the crowd.” They look down on a human advertisement, a man dressed in a clown suit, walking along the sidewalk, juggling three balls to call attention to a sandwich board.
“MAKE YOUR FEET HAPPY – Buy Your Shoes at Brockton’s.”
“The poor sap!” Johnny scoffs, “and I bet his father thought he would be president!” Now, as an unemployed, unhappily-married man who quit his job only because he knew he’d eventually get fired, Johnny is the “poor sap.” Knowing his little boy loves him, however, saves him. He’s finally a better man than he was at 21. He will take any job he can get, and, in a crushingly ironic stroke of narrative genius, the only job he’s offered is the same job he had mocked years before. Johnny, who’s always loved to perform in front of crowd — a recurring image throughout the movie has been him thoughtlessly strumming on a ukulele while his wife did the housework – accepts. What’s more, even though he’s miserably paid, and quite literally has to walk around all day dressed up like a clown – that’s what capitalism does to workers – he’s actually good at it. His transformation comes just in time. His wife is about to leave him forever. She almost does. In the end, however, they stay together. Johnny convinces his wife not to go back home with her two brothers. In the very last scene, which bookends the great panning shot up the Equitable Building, Johnny and Mary sit at a movie theater. They laugh. They’re happy. The camera pans back, revealing row after row of laughing movie goers. They’re all happy. Johnny, at long last, has accepted being part of the crowd.
Is it a genuinely happy ending? I suppose it beats Johnny’s killing himself in front of his little boy, but Vidor is begging the question. Having convincingly shown us how a working-class marriage will inevitably be torn apart by debt, dead end jobs, and the pressure of capitalism as it manifests itself in “the crowd,” he’s now telling us that the family is a refuge from America capitalism. The ending of “The Crowd” becomes even more problematic when we realize what’s coming in 1929. Johnny and Mary, laughing in the movie theater, hoping to keep their family together through hard work and persistence, are more doomed than they know they are, more doomed than even Vidor knew they were in 1928. “Get a job,” the banker and the cop say. In 1930, you might just as soon have jumped in front of a train.
In 1944, King Vidor, John Wayne, Ward Bond, and a group of right-wing actors and directors would go on to form the proto-McCarthyite Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. That makes it all the more astonishing that in 1934, Vidor would make Our Daily Bread, the openly communist sequel to The Crowd. Indeed, while my knowledge of Soviet movies is limited, I might also hazard to guess that, as communist propaganda, Our Daily Bread ranks pretty high.
When Our Daily Bread opens, John and Mary Sims are still married — there’s no sign of their little boy — and still struggling financially. Mary Sims, not incidentally, is now played by Karen Morley. Eleanor Boardman had not been able to make the transition from silent film to the “talkies.” John Sims is played by Tom Keene. Vidor had offered the part to James Murray but Murray, having been unable to secure acting roles after The Crowd, and now drinking heavily, took offence. In an eerie parallel to his character in The Crowd, he considered Vidor’s offer “charity.” In an even more eerie parallel, he committed suicide two years later at the age of 35. About to be evicted from their apartment, Mary invites her uncle over for dinner, hoping he will either give Johnny a job, or lend them money. The uncle comes up with a better idea. He owns a piece of property in up-state New York. It’s vacant. He can’t sell it. Why don’t the couple “go back to the land,” move in, and start a farm? John and Mary take him up on his offer, but they know nothing about farming. Help comes in the form of Chris Larsen, a Swedish immigrant played by the great character actor John Qualen, who would go onto play “Muley” in John Ford’s transcendent Grapes of Wrath. Chris teaches John and Mary how to farm. He also teaches them how to catch and cook rabbit, how to “live off the land”.
If Our Daily Bread stopped there, it would be little more than a pastoral. But Johnny comes up with a better idea. If two people can make money farming, why not 10? If capitalism has failed them, why not communism? So Johnny and Mary recruit a group of down on their luck victims of The Great Depression. Vidor is smart enough to realize that even under communism, some people who would be valuable in a better world just won’t fit into this one. Johnny and Mary reject a concert violinist. He doesn’t have the skills, but they accept a menacing ex-con who knows how to drive a tractor. Soon, Johnny no is longer the loser he was in The Crowd, but a forceful, commanding leader of a socialist cooperative. The ex-con, redeemed by his practicality turns out to be a stroke of luck. Wanted on felony charges, he has a young woman disguise herself as Mary and turn him in for the 500 dollar reward, a noble act of self-sacrifice that allows the Sims to buy critical supplies they need to keep the cooperative going.
Our Daily Bread ends on a note of triumph. The Sims cooperative, fearing they will lose their crops because of a drought, get together and dig an irrigation ditch to a reservoir two miles away, bringing the needed water. But it’s an earlier scene that makes Our Daily Bread genuinely radical, and probably the reason the studios rejected their proposal. Vidor funded the movie with his own money. It’s one of the first “independent” films in American cinema. Mary’s uncle had lied to the young couple. He didn’t have equity in the farm at all. It was already in foreclosure. He only made the offer because he was sure they would fail and wanted to brush them off. The sheriff comes to auction off the land. Buyers arrive. But before anybody can put in a bid, they’re surrounded by the farm’s workers, and it’s strongly implied hat anybody bids too high will probably be killed. The potential buyers leave, and the Sheriff is forced to sell the farm back to the Sims for a little under two dollars. A private farm, once a gift from a dishonest capitalist, is now a genuine collective. Land, having fallen into the hands of the banks, is taken back by force. No wonder Ben Urwand, in a badly argued book called The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler tried to smear King Vidor as a favorite of Hitler.
As pure cinema, Vidor’s sequel to The Crowd is flawed. As a statement about the Great Depression, and indeed, about 2008’s Great Recession, Our Daily Bread is as radical in 2015 as it was in 1934, an “Occupy” movie 80 years before its time. I half expected the NYPD to break down my door and confiscate my computer while I was watching it.