The Story (continued)
The Crowd (1928)
For one exhilarating moment, they rip open the presents together - a doll for their daughter, a dress for Mary, and a two-wheel scooter for their son. They call to their children from across the street to return home, waving the gifts at them through the upstairs window. Their short-lived boost toward happiness in life is quickly dashed as fate hits them with a hard blow. Without looking before crossing the street, the two children race back home. Mary calls for them to go back, but it's too late. Their little girl is unavoidably run over by a motor truck lorry in a tragic, random accident. Powerless to do anything, Mary and John witness the excruciating collision from their window. John battles his way through passers-by to get to the lifeless body of his mortally-injured young child, and screams: "For God sake get a doctor!" [In the midst of his grief during the street accident, he is literally surrounded by crowds of caring people.] He brings her limp shape upstairs and lays her on their bed. A bedside vigil is held by the extended family that evening.
To soothe his dying child, John puts his finger to his lips to quiet one of his brothers-in-law for disrespectfully chewing gum in the room, and toward his mother-in-law for crying noisily. In one of the film's most famous sequences, the crowd seems indifferent to the death of the child. The added turmoil of the crowded city streets outside the window now threatens the grief-stricken, despairing, hysterically-mad father and prevents his daughter's recovery. He vainly beseeches and cautions loud newspaper hawkers, hook-and-ladder fire engines, motorists, and mobs of pedestrians to keep still - he is like a salmon swimming upstream against the strong current of the hurrying, blinded crowds. With cruel insensitivity, a policeman shouts at him to return home:
Get inside! The world can't stop because your baby's sick!
The attending physician removes his stethoscope from the girl's chest. Mary slowly bends forward and collapses in tears. John learns of his child's death from the look on Mary's grieving, wailing face:
John: Mary! Mary!
Mary: Johnny! Our baby! Johnny! Johnny!
The Sims family is physically torn apart - Mary is revived with smelling salts by the women in a separate room; John fights the restraining arms of his brothers-in-law who thrust a stiff drink at him; his son calls out for his parents, while Mary begs for her husband: "John! John! Where are you?"
The next day, the small funeral cortege (in a long shot) consists of a plain white hearse followed by two slow-moving, forlorn automobiles through the busy city streets. A traffic policeman brusquely waves them through an intersection.
"MONTHS...ENDLESS MONTHS. The crowd laughs with you always...but it will cry with you for only a day."
Overtaken by the tragedy, John sinks into a deep, guilt-ridden depression and loses ambition at work, falling out of step with his daily life. His hair is disheveled and his clothing is torn and wrinkled. In the film's fresh treatment of his worsening condition and lack of concentration on his job's accounting figures/numbers, images of his daughter at play are super-imposed on his forehead. In his dead-end job among other faceless workers, his supervisor warns him:
Looks to me like you haven't got your mind on your work any more.
He reaches the breaking point, tosses away his pen and books, and throws over his desk - and gives up on his job:
To hell with this job! I'm through!
"Easy to quit a job...hard to explain to a wife who already is bearing so much...with such courage." Returning home after he has quit his job, he can't muster the courage to tell her. Mary - the perfect homemaker and supporter - cheerfully brings out a cake and shows him a table laden with food: "I've got everything ready for the company's picnic tomorrow...We'll have the best lunch on the boat...see if we don't!" As the ferry leaves the harbor for the Atlas Insurance Company's Fifteenth Annual Picnic, Mary supportively speaks on her husband's behalf to Bert - now a higher-up supervisor in the firm. Ever faithful, she also stands by John when he admits he hasn't a job anymore:
Mary: John is very happy in his present job...but his loyalty and ability should be recognized, Bert.
Bert (privately to John): You'd better tell Mary about your job.
Mary: What was the high-sign for?
John: It's not very good news to break to you, Mary. I quit my job yesterday. I didn't tell you before...'cause I don't know whether I've made a mistake or not.
Mary: Well, never mind their old job. There are plenty of better ones.
"Mary was right. There are plenty of other jobs...and John found no trouble in landing his fourth in one week." Unable to succeed in holding a job, he resorts to selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door:
You wouldn't like to buy one of these, would you?
The compromising experience is humiliating: "But it was always the same old story." Sinking lower, without hope, energy, or dreams, John fails at this job too:
John: I'm sick of selling vacuum cleaners.
Mary: Oh, did you sell some?
John: Mary, I didn't want to waste any more time on that job...so I quit. You see, Mary...there's no use trying to sell vacuums. Everybody has one.
Mary: Are you sure it's always everybody else...and not you?
"We do not know how big the crowd is, and what opposition it is...until we get out of step with it."
Now disenchanted and out of step, he is swept aside by the uncaring crowd. John waits patiently outside an employment office - he is passed over for a job which is given to a more hopeful and energetic man in the group - ironically, the lucky individual repeats what John said years earlier as he rode the ferry to New York to fulfill his dreams:
All I need is an opportunity.
To make ends meet for the family, Mary industriously hangs up a sign and becomes a dressmaker. John, however, is a tragic failure - unable to find himself and consequently swallowed up by the crowd. His brothers-in-law are angered by his heartless indolence and lack of drive and offer him employment, but he refuses. Mary also sharply confronts her lackluster, pathetically-weak husband, threatening to take her brothers' advice and abandon him:
Brothers (to John): Do you expect to take a vacation for the rest of your life? I suppose we'll have to get you a job...or you'll be starving on our hands.
Brothers (to Mary): On your account, Sis, we've decided to give him a job.
Mary: Johnny! My brothers are going to give you a job!
John: (No they're not.)
Mary: You mean you won't take it?
John: Don't you see, Mary...I can't take a charity job...I...I...I think I've got a line on something big.
Mary: (distraught) That's all you've been saying for months!
Brothers: If she was wise she'd quit you and come back home with us. You've never been anything but a big bag of wind...and that's all you ever will be! (The brothers leave.)
Mary: You bluff! You quitter! (She slaps him across the face and shuts the door on him.) I'd almost rather see you dead!
John reaches out toward the door, bends down for his coat and hat, feels his bruised jaw, and then walks down the street.
With his young son following along behind him in one of the film's most poignant scenes, John stands on a railroad bridge above the freight yards, contemplating suicide by leaping to his death below. But even on the brink of suicide, the frightened, timid man can't find enough courage to let himself go. His adoring, idolizing son, playing a game of ball with him, won't leave his father's side - not knowing that he's about to commit suicide. The young boy provides the fortitude for John to carry on with his sober life:
Son: Why don't you never play with me any more? I like to play with you. Doesn't Momma like you? I like you. When I grow up I wanta be just like you.
John: You still love me? You still believe in me, boy?
Son: Sure I do, Pop!
John: We can do it, boy! We'll show them!
Back in the city, John scrambles, with a redeemed change of heart, along with dozens of other men toward a "100 Men Wanted for City Work" sign which has just been posted. He tries to break into the line [although the film was made in the late 20's, it forecast the long job queues of the Depression Era]:
John: I've got to get a job! I've got a wife and kid!
Another man: So have lots of us!
Another job at the Atlantic Employment Agency, better suited to John's talents, is offered: "Who can juggle balls...to attract attention to a sign?" John raises his hand and volunteers to juggle and wear a clown's outfit and a sandwich-board sign on the streets of the city to advertise: "I AM ALWAYS HAPPY BECAUSE I EAT AT SCHNIEDER'S GRILL - 52 E. 14th St." - it is the same menial job that he once mocked from the top of a double-decker bus.
When he returns home with his son, his wife has packed and is being led away by her unsympathetic brothers. John tells Mary of his modest job and shows her the few coins he has earned. Mary's compassionate, sympathetic, unfaltering, caring and loving nature sets up an internal struggle:
John: I got a job today, Mary - - and I'm going back tomorrow - . It isn't much, Mary...but it's a start! I'll make good now...believe me.
Brothers: (to Mary) We'll be waiting for you outside.
John: Do you still feel you must go, Mary?
Mary: (I've got to go, John.)
John: Whatever you think, Mary...but I'll always love you and work to win you back.
Mary: I fixed your dinner. It's in the oven. I darned your socks and washed everything. They're in the bureau. I guess that's all. Good-bye, John. (She leaves and joins her brothers on the porch.) You don't understand...he has always depended so on me - and I've got to make sure he has everything he needs. (I've got to go back to him.) (She enters the house.) I came back to tell you that you can see Junior any evening you're lonesome.
John: Thank you, Mary. Do you think Junior and you could go to the show just for tonight? You see, I bought tickets when I thought everything was going to be all right.
He holds out three tickets for the variety theatre show, slowly winning back her affections. Then he gives her a conciliatory present that he also bought with his meager earnings - a small bunch of violets. She pins them on her dress:
They sure look pretty on you, Mary.
He winds up the gramophone to play a Victrola record: "THERE'S EVERYTHING NICE ABOUT YOU" by Johnny Marvin with his ukulele. They dance around the room to the disc - hearing the music from outdoors, the brothers heave Mary's bags onto the porch, give up on her, and depart. The couple spin around in each other's arms until dizziness sends them into spasms of laughter and they fall on the couch. Their son comes in and joins them during the reunion.
A close-up of them in their own house dissolves into a second close-up of the family celebrating in the theatre - they're still laughing as they watch a vaudeville show with two clowns on stage. Mary proudly notices John's winning slogan ad in the show's program for "SLEIGHT O' HAND - The Magic Cleaner," picturing a juggling clown in a wispy cloud above the city. They are caught up in the dreamy spell of escape from the city's doldrums, with hope, pure joy, and excitement.
In an audacious, pull-back overhead trolley shot, the camera pulls away from their row in the center, further and further until they are lost and disappear in the midst of a sea of laughing faces in the audience's crowd - indistinguishable from everyone else. They cannot escape the crowd, but now, they are protected by their love for each other and the anonymity of the surrounding masses. There's still hope that they can adjust to the painful experiences they have had, and enjoy a life together.
Also Worth Your Attention...
AMC Filmcritic's Review of The Crowd