When I received a review copy of fellow Facebook pal and Examiner co-staffer Jordan R. Young’s newest book, KING VIDOR’S THE CROWD: THE MAKING OF A SILENT CLASSIC, I expected it to be a well-written, exhaustively researched and consistently entertaining tome. What I didn’t expect was to be awed by the gargantuan amount of information packed into the 132-page volume; just the sidebars of behind-the-scenes facts blew me away. And I’m not the only one. Kevin Brownlow, who penned the introduction (and, to movie buffs, needs none), himself was astounded by CROWD details, many that he was unaware of.
Now, for novices to the classics (and, especially, to silent cinema), we’re talking about director Vidor’s 1928 masterpiece, a precursor “kitchen-sink” epic about an average couple’s struggles in the real world. Probably the most atypical movie to come out of Golden Era MGM, THE CROWD goes beyond early neo-realism, as it also (almost impossibly) beautifully melds its stark verisimilitude with the Hollywood motion-picture art form at its peak.
The genesis of the picture began during production of Vidor’s The Big Parade, in 1924. Vidor discussed the idea with his leading man John Gilbert, who was immediately enthralled (and came up with an early working title The March of Life).
By the time THE CROWD was ready for the cameras, Gilbert, who was at one point pegged to star, was knocked off the list. The reason: while female lead Eleanor Boardman (then Vidor’s wife) was a fairly well-known name, Gilbert had become the epitome of the Hollywood superstar – way too big for the average Joe. Vidor’s selection of average Joe James Murray was both inspired and tragic, considering the subsequent fate of the actor, who briefly shot to thesp fame because of his role in the picture.
Louis B. Mayer, not surprisingly, hated the project, referring to it as “the toilet picture.” Irving Thalberg, as was his wont, came to the rescue, and reassured Vidor that the movie would get made. It’s good to do one for the Art, he explained, meaning studio prestige. While this may be partially true, often too much altruism has been angelically bestowed upon the famed producer. The Big Parade was a mammoth hit for Metro, and Thalberg knew how important Vidor was to MGM. The thought of losing him because of a relatively inexpensive project was ludicrous. More relevantly, guilt may have played a factor in his greenlighting THE CROWD; Thalberg, Mayer and the MGM suits had earlier cheated Vidor out of his percentage of the WWI epic (a move that Vidor accepted with a half-hearted glee, reasoning that, creatively, the swindle was the best thing that could have happened to his career).
So how does Jordan R. Young know so much about this movie? Aside from THE CROWD being his favorite silent pic, Young, in the 1970s, had the foresight to seek out both Vidor and Boardman, who provided reams of interview documentation, anecdotes and pertinent never-before-discussed shooting incidents all crucial to obtaining CROWD control. Decades later, when Young sifted through his notes, he realized that there was actually enough for a book. He was right.
Aside from breaking the movie down scene by scene, Young unearths some amazing facts involving casting suggestions, excised scenes, deleted characters (and/or characters whose roles changed drastically from shooting to editing), production problems, alternate endings, promotion, distribution and exhibition. It’s fascinating stuff, to put it mildly. The book is also lavishly illustrated with stills, rarely-seen production shots, pressbook clippings, poster and ad art, frame blow-ups and more. It’s the best possible result of a labor of love.
I must say that I am a bit prejudiced as well. One of my most prized possessions is an old laserdisc double-feature, put out by MGM/UA, comprising THE CROWD and Seastrom’s The Wind. Unquestionably THE CROWD is one of King Vidor’s best movies – a classic that underlines that oft-applied cinematic tag “gets better with each viewing.” The movie contains perhaps my favorite title card of all time, a verbal declaration of Murray’s disenchantment of the path his life has taken: “Marriage isn’t a word, it’s a sentence!”
Not too long ago, I reviewed Warner Bros. spectacular Blu-Ray special edition of The Big Parade. My cyber mailbox was subsequently flooded with emails from delighted collectors who thanked me for the recommendation. So I guess quite a few were sold. What I’m getting at is that THE CROWD would make a splendid B-D follow-up release, and one that, should it come to fruition, would be greatly enhanced by Mr. Young’s scholarly participation.
KING VIDOR’S THE CROWD: THE MAKING OF A SILENT CLASSIC. ISBN# 9780940410503. Past Times Publishing Co. $17.99 (also available as an eBook: $8.99).