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Just a few years before King Vidor thought up the concept for his 1928 silent classic The Crowd, he was at Universal pictures working diligently as a company clerk by day and secretly writing comedies at night to submit to the studio under the pseudonym Charles K. Wallis. Because Universal employees weren't allowed to submit original work to the studio, Vidor was fired from his clerk position when he revealed the true identity of the mysterious Charles K. Wallis. After his termination, Universal quickly hired Vidor as a comedy writer, but that job was short-lived. A few days after Vidor took the comedy writing position, Universal stopped making comedies. Vidor would eventually break into directing starting with a series of short dramatic films that highlighted the work of Salt Lake City Judge Willis Brown, and later a Christian Science film called The Turn in the Road (1919) which was financed by nine doctors. Vidor fine-tuned his craft over the next few years directing films at his own studio, Vidor Village. Unfortunately, his studio wasn't as financially successful as he had planned and was closed down in 1922, just two years after it opened. Vidor then went to work for the newly formed Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studio where he developed a close working relationship with studio mogul Irving Thalberg. It was at MGM where his status would go from small-time contract director to renowned screen artist. Vidor enjoyed his first major success with The Big Parade, an epic drama about a doughboy's life-changing experiences in the First World War which grossed more than $18 million in 1926.
Two years after The Big Parade, Vidor directed novice actor James Murray in The Crowd, a realistic film about an ordinary man trying his best to survive the defeats and setbacks he encounters while trying to make a life for himself and his wife in the bustling metropolis of New York. Vidor wanted an actor who was the perfect embodiment of a working class citizen and Murray was the real deal; a guy who had worked his way cross country to California as a dishwasher, coal-shoveler, and boxcar rider. The director first spotted Murray, who was working as an extra at MGM, near the studio casting office and arranged a meeting with him. But Murray didn't think Vidor was really a director and didn't show up for the interview. Vidor hunted him down anyway with the studio's help and eventually convinced the actor that he could play the part. In his biography, A Tree is a Tree, Vidor recalled that "when I showed the test to Irving Thalberg, we both agreed that James Murray, Hollywood extra, was one of the best natural actors we had ever had the good luck to encounter."
The making of The Crowd presented Vidor with some major technical challenges. For the famous scene where the camera travels up the side of a skyscraper, through a window and into a sprawling office space with rows of workers, Vidor started his sequence at the entrance to the Equitable Life Insurance Building in New York City during lunchtime. In his autobiography, he added, "the camera started its upward swing and when the screen was filled with nothing but windows, we managed an imperceptible dissolve to a scale model in the studio. This miniature was placed flat on the floor with the camera rolling horizontally over it...As the camera moved close to the window another smooth dissolve was made to the interior scene of the immense office. The desks occupied a complete, bare stage and the illusion was accomplished by using the stage walls and floor, without constructing a special set. To move the camera down to Murray, an overhead wire trolley was rigged with a moving camera platform slung beneath it. The counterbalanced camera crane or boom had not yet been designed and built, but the results we achieved were identical with those of today."
In his quest for authenticity, Vidor insisted on real locations whenever possible, stating, "For scenes of the sidewalks of New York, we designed a pushcart perambulator carrying what appeared to be inoffensive packing boxes. Inside the hollowed-out boxes there was room for one small-sized cameraman and one silent camera. We pushed this contraption from the Bowery to Times Square and no one ever detected our subterfuge."
Upon completion, The Crowd proved to be so uncompromising and unsentimental in its approach that MGM mogul Irving Thalberg held up its release for a year. Although it was eventually released to international critical acclaim, The Crowd hit too close to home to be a success with mainstream audiences who wanted to escape their everyday problems at the movies. As for James Murray, his career went into a quick decline due to chronic alcoholism and he became a skid row bum. Vidor encountered him panhandling on Hollywood Boulevard several years later and offered him work in his upcoming film, Our Daily Bread (1934), but the actor refused his help, snarling "Just because I stop you on the street and try to borrow a buck, you think you can tell me what to do. As far as I am concerned, you know what you can do with your lousy part." In 1936, Murray's body was found in the Hudson River and it's never been verified whether he was a suicide or an accidental drowning. Vidor was so haunted by his death that he tried to raise money for a film called The Actor in 1979, which was based on Murray's tragic life but the project never materialized.
Director: King Vidor
Producer: Irving Thalberg
Screenplay: King Vidor, John V. A. Weaver
Cinematography: Henry Sharp
Editing: Hugh Wynn
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, A. Arnold Gillespie
Cast: Eleanor Boardman (Mary), James Murray (John), Bert Roach (Bert), Estelle Clark (Jane), Daniel G. Tomlinson (Jim), Dell Henderson (Dick), Lucy Beaumont (Mother).
by Rod Hollimon