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Academy and Historian Kevin Brownlow Present King Vidor’s Striking Silent Classic ‘The Crowd’ (VIDEO)

Academy and Historian Kevin Brownlow Present King Vidor's Striking Silent Classic 'The Crowd' (VIDEO)

Death did not come to silent movies on little cat feet.  He burst in singing on October 6, 1927 when
Warner Bros. released “The Jazz Singer.” 
The irony is that silent movies reached their artistic peak in 1928,
something that was strikingly demonstrated Tuesday night when the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Science and the Mary Pickford Foundation presented King
Vidor’s drama about one common man, “The Crowd.”

As funny as it is sad, “The Crowd” had the audience at the
half-filled Academy theatre laughing in all of the right places and none of the
wrong ones. And the acting, particularly
by Eleanor Boardman as the wife of a man fruitlessly trying to climb above the
crowd (“One of the Mob” was Vidor’s original title) has nothing in common with
the oversized gestures and dramatic poses that have made some silent films a
modern joke. Boardman, Vidor’s wife,
expresses everything from delight to despair with her eyes. As her husband endlessly hoping he will
become the “important” man his father promised he would be, James Murray, a
little known actor, is less certain and more awkward, as is John Sims. the
common man he plays. The score by Carl
Davis is almost uncannily right and helps to take away the need for words.

The silent film historian Kevin Brownlow who restored “The
Crowd” has called the movie one of ten “Essential” silent films. Interviewed by phone Tuesday afternoon, he
elaborated.  “It’s one of the few social
problem films made during the 1920s and certainly the best of the lot. You’re in the middle of a Depression that
hasn’t happened yet. What’s important is
not the message but the plight of the people and the characters.”

What is most impressive in “The Crowd” is what Brownlow
calls “its amazing use of expressionist techniques.”  He tells a story of Vidor at a European film
festival where Vittorio De Sica threw his arms around him and said: “The
Crowd!  That is why I made ‘The Bicycle
Thief.’”  He tells the story again in a Q
and A that follows the screening.

Images that have become clichés in American films began is
this one — the camera climbing up the exterior of a skyscraper and into a huge
room full of rows of clerks, eyes focused on numbing numbers. Billy Wilder stole that dehumanizing room for
“The Apartment.”  And the crowd — the
hordes of people oppressively walking, pushing, sunning on a beach, laughing
together at a vaudeville show — is almost as much a character as Mary and John

Today, when movie stars lift their skirts and pretend to pee
while sitting on toilets in mainstream films, it is hard to recapture the anger
felt by L.B. Mayer, the head of M-G-M, when a toilet was shown through an open bathroom door in
“The Crowd.”   Although “The Crowd” was
an M-G-M movie, Mayer was so incensed by “that toilet picture” he made sure the
film would not win Academy Awards in 1927-28, the Academy’s first year. “The
Crowd” was nominated for “Unique and Artistic Picture,” but that predecessor of
Best Picture went to “Sunrise,” a 20th Century Fox film.

A special award was
given “TO WARNER BROS. for producing “The Jazz Singer,” the pioneer outstanding
talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry.”

Both Kevin Brownlow, who introduced “The Crowd,” and Randy
Haberkamp, the Academy’s managing director of preservation who had students
from Hollywood and Fairfax high schools bused to “The Crowd,” are, in
Haberkamp’s words, “trying to convert you.” 
Basically, Haberkamp told the audience, the Roadrunner cartoons, “The
Life of Pi,” “Wall – E,” and Robert Redford’s new movie, “All Is Lost,” about a
solitary sailor dangerously adrift,are silent films.

It may not work.  Many
of the great silent films, including “The Crowd,” are not even on DVD, although
Vidor’s 1925 World War I movie, “The Big Parade,” was released on DVD and
BluRay a week ago by Criterion. But
another chance to convert an audience comes tomorrow night when the Academy and
the Pickford Foundation present Ernst Lubitsch’s  “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg,” a
Vienese romance in which a prince falls in love with a barmaid.   

Check out Indiewire’s Press Play blog’s “Three Reasons” video for “The Crowd,” in the spirit of the Criterion concept videos:      

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