Modern Man, The American Dream and “The Crowd”
“The Crowd,” (USA, 1928, 98 minutes) directed by King Vidor is a timeless silent film that explores the pursuit of the American Dream in the early twentieth century. “The Crowd” begins on July 4th, 1900, which is noted as the 124th birthday of America as well as the birthday of the main character, “John Sims.” The landscape of America is changing in this era – white-collar work is on the rise, diverse ethnic groups are beginning to co-mingle and more people are moving into urban environments and starting families. “The Crowd” has two central and matrimonially bonded characters. The male lead, “John” is played by actor, James Murray and the other main character, “Mary” is played by the King Vidor’s wife. These characters are a believable representation of a young married couple living in New York City. “John” represents a white-collar family man whose plight in the film still resonates with the patriarchal modern men of today.
In the simplest terms, “The Crowd” is a film about the American Dream at the turn of the century. This is the same American Dream that the majority of modern men within the face-less masses of today’s “crowd” hold as the primary pursuit of life. I too still believe in “the dream” and bought into early when I was growing up and then later in life when I entered the job market. The dream is simple – work your way up the corporate ladder, start a family, buy a home and eventually lift yourself out of the doldrums of the middle-class. Like “John,” the modern man aims at making a life that matters, becoming someone great, starting a family and capturing success worthy enough to be inscribed on an epitaph at the end of your days.
As a young boy, “John” was compared to President Lincoln and Washington for practicing poetry, piano and singing. But later in life when John assumes his place, identified as employee #137 in a huge accounting firm, he struggles to find greatness in the routine of relentless mediocrity. His pursuit for a life that matters is complicated by the day-to-day stresses of living. “John” must endure the mind numbing monotony of his dead-end desk job, the dwindling love and passion with his wife, the responsibilities of childcare, and the cramped and noisy living environment of his urban apartment.
There is also the challenge of the constant judgment from his in-laws, who see “John” as nothing more than a lackey. And if that wasn’t hard enough, the dreaded and unexpected loss of his youngest child plummets him into a spiral of depression that results in the termination of his job and the deep disruption of his mental stability. Exemplifying the impersonal nature of the city and “the crowd’s” inability for authentic compassion, a police officer yells back at John during his pleas of help, “The world can’t stop because your baby is sick.”
Within the film there are many situations and emotions that resonate with my own. In fact, I believe that most modern men could watch this film and understand exactly what John is going through. As John gets older, the young businessman’s reality of endless servitude begins emerging. He starts questioning his place in the company, his place in the world and fantasizes about having a career based around the thing he loves most.
I can relate to how “John” struggles with the added pressure of family life. “John” and his wife “Mary” are so committed to their children that they have little time for each other – to love each other openly and engage in bright and passionate affection free of the frustrations of the daily routine. There are other scenes in the film with which I have a direct one to one relationship – playing at the beach with my family, enduring the tiring early morning routines, living in a home environment that is too crowded and noisy, committing endless hours to your children, and having very limited alone time with your spouse.
“The Crowd” teases the idea that if you celebrate individuality, find your dream and go against the crowd, the process of swimming upstream when everyone is swimming down, there will be a more fulfilling life in the end. There is a place in this world that rewards individuals based on their unique talents, a world that celebrates and supports individuality. The movie doesn’t offer any answers, it simply states, “We do not know how big the crowd is, and what opposition it is…until we get out of step with it.”
“The Crowd” is a metaphor for the struggle that the modern man finds in the life choices he makes, such as his career path, his choice to start a family, or the sacrifice of our passions for the stability of a monthly paycheck. These are immense life questions that “The Crowd” raises and it shows that neither option is good. Stepping in line with “the crowd” doesn’t reward and neither does following your dream.
I remind myself that my efforts may never really amount to much in the grand scheme, however what this life will amount to is giving hope, inspiration and guidance to my two sons. I may always be one person in the world, but to one person I will be the world. This is the relief I have when watching “The Crowd’s” grueling tale and considering my own American Dream. There is a great possibility that you can do what you love, inspire younger generations, live your dream and not get swallowed up by the machine. This is the modern man’s hope and if successful, his victory.
In John’s case, if it’s juggling on the street in a clown outfit for less than a dollar a day, or if it’s crunching numbers in an accounting office, there is a purpose and destiny for all of us and there is a way to find happiness. After all these years, “The Crowd” is still timeless in the sense that it points to the modern struggle inherent in the American Dream. It calls out the reoccurring struggle to find our identity and align our passions with a sustainable career. It forces us to consider the lingering questions of following society versus going against the grain.
I believe that “The Crowd” has happy ending. Although “John,” “Mary” and their son are seen laughing away in a blissful moment of escape, it also marks a new beginning. This moment is a new chapter for their life together. There is the chance that the man who inquires about John’s advertising slogan may offer him a job doing the thing that he loves. It could be that this is just another peak in the cyclical nature of human suffering and joy, but the idealist in me wants to believe that “John” and “Mary” are finally on the road to a successful and healthy marriage. A marriage blessed by good fortune. A healthy marriage that is stronger today because it has endured the death of a child, the loss of a career, a near divorce and the defining challenges of being part of “the crowd.”
by Ian Evenstar