39. The Crowd

The Crowd
March 3, 1928
MGM
Directed by King Vidor

Everyone wants to be special. In our modern age, we spend most of our time surrounded by media, and everyone we see is special. We are so saturated with media, so used to watching and listening to special people, that we believe that to really exist, we must be one of these special people. From childhood, many of us cannot envision a mode of living not based in being special. But the most extraordinary achievement is to learn how to be ordinary. To reach the point where the desire to be special can be dropped completely.

The endemic need to be special was already firmly in place by the time of The Crowd. As a child, our hero has no plan for his life other than that he wants to be special (“I’m going to be somebody big!”). He goes to New York to join the crowd, but this crowd exists only something for him to distinguish himself from, and be noticed by. In 1928 there were still fortunes to be won. This obsession continually trips him up, to the point where it’s embarrassing to watch him next to his patient and doting wife Mary.

Suddenly, he finds himself of step with the crowd. He only achieves his happy ending with the realization that he is already one with everyone else. The crowd means our fellow humans, who we commune with, to soothe bad times and celebrate good ones, and this connection of love and humanity than any degree of “specialness” one could measure. At the beginning, he points and laughs at the poor man on the street. At the end he is the poor man, but he’s still laughing.

The discovery of how to be ordinary was not one that came naturally to cinema, and it’s only now in 1928 that the task is taken up. In order for Hollywood to learn how to portray the ordinary, it had to go to New York. To the crowd. The only city bigger and newer than Berlin.

This mode of realism is most striking in the scenes in their humble New York apartment. Filmed in New York, in a real apartment, with a real bathroom, and a real toilet, and a real El train speeding by. For the first time in cinema’s history, we see the real problems of regular people. Just like us, they are trying to be special, and sometimes, a truly special person can learn the greatest secret of all: how to be ordinary.

 

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28. The Big Parade

The Big Parade vlcsnap-2015-12-27-15h15m58s192.pngNovember 5, 1925
MGM
Directed by King Vidor

The Big Parade is the second war movie in this story, following The Birth of a Nation, and is the only movie in the Silent Age as financially successful. Its budget of $380,000 cost MGM a third as much as Greed and a tenth as much as Ben-Hur, but outstripped both those movies in profit and proved the major triumph the movie factory needed. Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg had created something that, for an initial investment, would make money forever. No one could deny they were both geniuses.

The best scene in the movie is at the beginning of the second half. After spending the first half billeted in a French village and making life bearable for themselves, they are called to the front. After being transported by truck and strafed by enemy planes, they begin the real “big parade” – no proud march but a cautious tread through a forest with corpses on the ground, snipers in the trees, and machine gunners in remote trenches. As suspenseful as it is, the violence always happens at what seems to be an appropriate place and time. The shots and cuts are as even and rhythmic as the steps in a parade. There’s no sense of chaos, or even confusion. Slim dies only after executing a risky maneuver and in general acting like his life is already forfeit. Jim is wounded only after cursing the leaders and making the fateful decision to go after his friend.

As the first title reminds us, this was a movie made with the full support of the U.S. military. The footage filmed from airplanes with the land below in sparkling clarity must have inspired countless viewers to want to be a pilot. But this isn’t the militaristic propaganda of Top Gun. This is a movie about soldiers suffering and dying for a vague cause of “patriotism” that they obviously don’t understand.

But even as we see the senseless suffering, this is not really an anti-war film. War is hell, but there are opportunities for heroism. If not political heroism where one suffers for a country or cause, then at least where one can do good for his comrade. He can save his brother and even sacrifice for his brother. Actually, war provides the ideal situation for a man to show just how far he will go for his brothers. In his foxhole, Jim offers a cigarette to his German victim and refuses to kill him – focusing the entire conflict onto a relation between two humans. And at the end of the scene, it is the heroic action and sacrifice of Jim, Bull, and Slim that allows the Allies to advance through several lines, reproducing on a micro level the vital contribution of the United States to the end of the stalemate on the Western Front.

In The Big Parade, the individual is all. We see the war through the experience of the soldier, but we have no idea about the politics, or even the cause they are fighting for. We know it’s patriotism, sure, but why exactly are we fighting the Germans? Perhaps Mayer and Thalberg, whom we can’t deny are geniuses, saw no need to explain this to an audience only seven years into peacetime.

As of Christmas 1925, the all-powerful United States was in the middle of a fantastic boom period. Americans were content to follow President Calvin Coolidge without becoming too interested in politics. The major political dispute other than the six-year old Prohibition was the Scopes Monkey Trial, where the erstwhile tribune of the people William Jennings Bryan was reduced to a doddering fool defending the inerrancy of Bible stories against modern science. Aside from the booze question and the Bible question, Americans were politically disengaged. The Big Parade was a movie for a public that was ready to revisit the horrors of war and heroism war summons in men, but suspicious of the decadent Europe that had necessitated it, and not ready to think about the current events that might threaten its ugly return.