There is a scene early on in King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) in which the main character John Sims (James Murray) makes fun of a street vendor wearing a foolish suit. At the time, John is on a double date where he meets Mary (Eleanor Boardman), the woman he will propose to by the end of the evening. Perched high on the double-decker bus gliding through the bustling urban juggle of New York City, John is inflated with bravado and the certainty that the city is the place where his dreams will come to fruition, unlike the hapless salesman below. As divined by his father, success is John’s birthright: he’s going to “be somebody.”
John and Mary wade with good faith into the teeming waters of city life. The everyman qualities of the Sims family is offset by the dynamism of Vidor’s compositions, like the soaring crane shots which capture the towering skyscrapers to the expansive crowd landscapes which render John and Mary only a clutter of atoms in the massive organism of the city. John may be just one man among endless rows of desks at his Manhattan advertising job, but that has not deterred him from his belief that he is entitled to a life of grandeur. Expectations of domestic bliss are thwarted by financial troubles and tensions between John and his wife’s mother and brothers, though this is followed by happy news of pregnancy. After Mary gives birth to a son and daughter, fortune strikes again when John finally submits one of his many slogan ideas and wins a $500 cash prize.
This zenith of happiness then plummets into the Sims’ greatest despair yet: while running across the street to see the gifts their parents have bought them, the Sims’ young daughter is hit by a car. Crushed by this loss, John’s performance suffers at work, while Mary struggles to support the family. Haunted by visions of the collision and faced with reprimands from his boss, John quits his job.
While John is prepared to blame anyone but himself for these tragedies, Mary’s tearful face betrays a different culprit. The main antagonist of The Crowd is not the boss who refuses to promote John, the brothers who don’t think he’s good enough for their sister Mary, nor the errant driver who hits the Sims’ daughter — it’s the looming myth of the American dream. The crowd — John among them — have made this myth their only lifeboat. There is not enough room for all, but they still cling desperately to its sides. A lucky few might crowd-surf through good fortune, but it is just as easy to be trampled by the mob’s might. The crowd is united not only by their forced proximity in the tiny island of Manhattan, but also by their unifying faith that the promise-land of white picket-fenced success is in arm’s reach. There is no evidence to suggest that Sims will ever make it big or that he’s destined for greatness, yet his unerring faith that the American dream is a mere finger’s length away is all that keeps him afloat. It is also why he’s drowning.
Mary is always one step ahead, keeping one eye trained on the family — a counter to John’s single-minded obsession with personal glory. Later in the film, he even pridefully turns down a job with Mary’s brother because he can’t accept charity, at the direct expense of his family’s future. He seesaws on the balancing scales between his dignity and his family’s survival, and chooses dignity. When faced with his wife and son’s abandonment, John must weigh the worth of his own pride. Family wins this fight: he chooses the street vendor job he once mocked in order to provide for his wife and son, trading his dreams of the crown for the ludicrous costume of the court jester, juggling street side, his ambitions guttered.
John drifts from the crowd, but he is no force of resistance: he is very much in the sway of the current, always trying to swim back and join the others. The Sims find a flimsy happiness in the end: John buys the family tickets to a show, and they give themselves over to laughter. Despite their financial fragility, they find solace in one another and the anonymity of the crowd. It is a deeply ambivalent ending, torn between traditional happiness and something more cynically pragmatic. The Sims blithely approach a cliff of economic despair — if everyone’s jumping, so are they.