Way back when the Academy first started to hand out awards to honor the best films of the year, they actually gave out two awards for best picture. One of the awards was called Oustanding Production and it’s assumed by most Oscar historians that it was meant to go to the most “entertaining” film of the year. The other award was called Best Unique and Artistic Picture and it was meant to honor the type of films that might not make a huge amount of money at the box office but which did the most to move cinema forward as an art form.
As a result, when the very first Academy Awards were awarded at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on May 16th, 1929, a popular war film named Wings was named Outstanding Production while F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise was named Best Unique and Artistic Picture. Sunrise defeated two other nominees, a documentary called Chang and King Vidor’s The Crowd.
It’s long been rumored that, when the votes were first counted, The Crowd originally won Best Unique and Artist Picture but that Louis B. Mayer insisted that the award should go to Sunrise instead. The head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer reportedly disliked The Crowd, even though it was distributed by his own studio. Mayer felt that the film was too downbeat and he also resented that King Vidor had resisted Mayer’s demand that the film have a traditionally happy ending. It’s also been suggested that, since the Academy was largely Mayer’s idea, he felt that, if an MGM film won the initial reward, it would lead to his enemies claiming that Mayer had too much influence over the organization. That may or may not be true, no one can say for sure. What we can say for sure, however, is that both The Crowd and Sunrise continue to be recognized as classics of the silent era.
The Crowd tells the story of John Sims (James Muray), who goes to New York when he’s 21, convinced that he’s destined to be someone important. Sims gets a job at Atlas Insurance, where he’s one of many faceless office workers. He meets and, after one date, marries Mary (Eleanor Broadman). They live in a tiny apartment next to an elevated track. Over the next five years, they raise a family. They fight often. Occasionally, they beak up but they always get back together. Throughout it all, John struggles to prove himself as an individual, just to be continually reminded that he’s only a member of the faceless crowd.
It’s not a particularly happy film. John starts the film as a member of the crowd and he’s still a member of the crowd when it ends. If there is anything positive to be found in the film, it’s that John’s family loves him but, even taking that in to consideration, it’s obvious that he and Mary are going to spend their entire lives struggling and that the same fate probably awaits their children. Knowing that the film was made on the verge of the start of the Great Depression makes John’s story all the more poignant. If he thinks things are bad now, they’re about to get even worse.
Seen today, The Crowd is still a visually striking film. Influenced by German expressionism (particularly the work of Sunrise‘s director, F.W. Murnau), Vidor presents New York as being a menacing and frequently surreal world of towering skyscrapers and unfriendly faces. (Vidor even used the then-unheard of technique of using a hidden camera to capture actual documentary footage of star James Murray dealing with real New Yorkers.) The Crowd is probably best remembered for the shot where the camera pans up the length of a skyscraper, finally entering the building and showing us the anonymous office workers within. It’s a shot that perfectly captures the film’s theme of being lost and ignored in an impersonal world. It’s also a shot that’s been duplicated in a countless number of films. The Crowd may be 92 years old but its legacy lives on.
Sadly, things did not turn out well for James Murray, the former extra who Vidor cast in the lead role. The success of The Crowd did not translate into success for Murray. An alcoholic, Murray ended up living on Skid Row, where he once asked King Vidor for money and reacted with anger when Vidor offered him a role in a new film. In 1936, Murray was found floating in the Hudson River. He was 35 years old.
As for the Oscar for Best Unique and Artistic Motion Picture, it was only awarded once. Starting with the second Oscar ceremony, the Academy merged the two best film awards into one. Interestingly, the idea of giving out two Best Picture awards was briefly revived in 2018 but the response to the idea was so negative that it was quickly abandoned.