Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Crowd (dir by King Vidor)

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.

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: Ruggles of Red Gap (dir by Leo McCarey)


After watching Barry Lyndon, I decided to continue to explore my DVR by watching another film that was shown as a part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar.

First released way back in 1935, Ruggles of Red Gap was nominated for best picture but it lost to Mutiny of the Bounty.  Interestingly enough, both Ruggles and Bounty featured the great Charles Laughton.  In Bounty, Laughton played a tyrannical villain, Capt. Bligh.  In Ruggles, however, Laughton is the film’s hero, a gentle and comedic butler named Marmaduke Ruggles who, after having his contract gambled away in a poker game, finds himself living in the frontier town of Red Gap, Washington.

It’s also interesting to note that Ruggles of Red Gap is one of the few best picture nominees to receive absolutely no other nominations.  To a certain extent, it’s understandable.  Ruggles of Red Gap was made at a time when the Academy had less categories but still nominated ten films for best picture.  As a film, Ruggles mostly serves as a showcase for Charles Laughton but, that year, he received his best actor nomination for his work in Mutiny.  (At that time, there were no supporting categories.  Had there been, it’s likely that Laughton could have received a lead actor nomination for Ruggles and a supporting nomination for Bounty.)  The next time that someone complains that Selma only received two nominations, you remind them that’s one more than Ruggles of Red Gap received.

As for the film itself … well, for a modern audience, the film’s deliberate pace takes some getting used to.  The film’s best moments occur at the start.  Ruggles wakes up one morning to discover that his boss (Roland Young) lost him in a poker game.  Ruggles spends the day meeting and attempting to get used to his new employer, a nouveau riche cowboy named Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles).  The joke here, of course, is that Ruggles is stereotypically reserved and British while Egbert is loud, brash, and American.  Ruggles lives his life by the rules of the class system.  Egbert comes from a world where there is no class and everyone is equal.  Ruggles refuses to call Egbert by his first name.  Egbert gets Ruggles drunk.  The scenes of Egbert and Ruggles in Europe are a lot of fun, largely because the two actors were obviously having a lot of fun playing off each other and Laughton clearly relished getting to play comedy as opposed to villainy.

The second half of the film features Ruggles settling into life in Red Gap, Washington.  The citizens of Red Gap are, of course, all honest and hard-working folks who don’t have the slightest hint of pretension.  (Red Gap may have been in Washington but it was obviously nowhere close to Seattle.)  They welcome Ruggles into the community but they also mistake him for being a colonel and soon, everyone is under the impression that Ruggles himself is a war hero.  It’s an odd subplot, one that doesn’t seem to really be necessary to make the film’s point.

And that point, by the way, is that America is a land where everyone is equal and where butlers have the same rights as their employers.  Ruggles goes from being somewhat horrified by his new surrounding to being a proud American, an entrepreneur who is now capable of being his own man.  And it may sound corny and I’m sure all of my cynical friends are rolling their eyes but you know what?  Charles Laughton pulled it off.  As uneven as the film may sometimes be, Laughton’s sincere performance holds it all together.  He’s the main reason to watch Ruggles of Red Gap.

How proud of an American does Ruggles become?  He’s enough of an American that he can even recite the Gettysburg address!  Watch below!