The Crowd is a true piece of urban Americana, setting the standard when it comes to your average everyday American. King Vidor’s film lacks big-name star power and plays on a universal story similar to Murnau’s Sunrise. Our protagonist is Johnny Sims, who was fittingly born on the 4th of July. He’s the quintessential stand-in for anyone who has ever pursued the American Dream. He faces the death of his father at an early age and grows up getting lost in the masses of New York. With wall to wall skyscrapers towering above and a hopping city life, it’s easy to disappear.
This film is not Metropolis, but it is about a metropolis with the same behemoth sets swimming over the top with extras. In fact, at his job Johnny looks like the original C.C. Baxter from The Apartment. He’s a cog in the giant mass of a humanity, a little stop in the ever churning conveyor belt. Like Baxter, Sims becomes smitten with Mary, a lovely girl he meets on a double date with his joking colleague Bert. A lively night at a carnival and going through the tunnel of love cements their relationship. Soon they are married and heading off to the perfect honeymoon destination: Niagara Falls. This is where the love story is at its peak, riding on a wave of euphoria, since these two are loved and in love. They feel indestructible, and there’s no one in the world that they would rather be with.
But as per usual, life happens to get in the way of love. Johnny isn’t too fond of Mary’s brothers and her mother, and the feelings are mutual. They just don’t see eye to eye, and they are skeptical of his prospects as a breadwinner. Matters are made worse during a tiff where Mary threatens to leave, and Sims does little to object. Their house is slowly falling apart, although they keep it together momentarily, since she announces her pregnancy. That is the thin thread that binds them together.
Following their baby boy, comes a little girl, and finally the raise that Johnny has been hoping for, but it’s not much. Things continue to be difficult as Johnny still waits for his ship to come in. His wife is annoyed with him and the meager prospects ahead. We are reminded that it’s not the big things but often the little ones that cause the most damage. Like little biting remarks that cut to the quick. And yet somehow, Johnny and Mary hang onto their romance.
In one scene she gazes down from the windowsill at him on the street below and they make up after a row. It’s rather reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, reflecting that they still care about each other. But matters are not helped by the fact that Johnny seems pretty useless. On a beach holiday Mary struggles to get everything right, and despite her best efforts, it all turns out wrong.
Only a few years before Johnny laughed out loud at a man forced to humiliate himself carrying signs masquerading as a clown. How embarrassing! And yet a desperate Johnny winds up with a similar lot. It doesn’t help that personal tragedy strikes his family where they are most vulnerable. In its day it was actually considered obscene (for featuring a toilet), and it was far from a success due to a downbeat ending. This is a Pre-Depression world, and yet life is still far from easy. And that allows The Crowd to stand the test of time fairly resiliently, because it’s still possible to relate with its patriotism, its tragedy, and its resolute optimism.