Cinematographic Elements and The Mass in 'The Crowd' and 'Manhattan Transfer'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

28 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Preface

2. King Vidor’s “The Crowd”
2.1 Appearances and Depiction of the Mass
2.1.1 The Crowd Makes An Appearance
2.1.2 Character Analysis and Their Social Position
2.1.3 Vidor’s Crowd of New York
2.2 Cinematographic Aspects
2.2.1 Camera Moves
2.2.2 Perspectives
2.2.3 Street Scenes

3. John Dos Passos’ “Manhattan Transfer”
3.1 The ‘Manhattan Transfer’ of New York
3.2 Appearances and Depiction of the Mass
3.2.1 Situation of Appearances
3.2.2 Social Situations And A Character Analysis
3.2.3 The City of New York
3.3 Cinematographic Elements
3.3.1 Quick Cuts
3.3.2 Changing Focus
3.3.3 ‘Stage Directions’, Smells, Sounds And Colours
3.3.4 Symbols And Speed

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography


6. Attachment
6.1 Eduard Manet: Le Bar Aux Folies-Bergère ( 1881-82)
6.2 Paul Cézanne: Still L ife W ith Commode ( 1883-87)
6.3 Juan Gris: Guitar On A Table ( 1915)

1. Preface

The film The Crowd and the novel Manhattan Transfer are both products of the American 1920s, the Jazz Age. It was a time of great economic upswing, and money and success became very important. The society was in a state of flux as well, especially the women of the younger generation wanted to gain more independence. The Great War had not only changed the old conventions of young women, however. People moved into the big cities, harbouring great expectations and hope for a better life. New York was of course one of the cities to go to, not at last because it was considered the ‘capital’ of the Jazz spirit. This economic boom ended with the great Wall Street Crash in 1929.[1]

King Vidor, producer of The Crowd, was born on February 8th 1894 in Galveston, Texas. His family was of Hungarian origin, which mirrors itself in his not necessarily ordinary name. The Crowd came into the cinemas in 1928 and is one of Vidor’s “Late Silents”, as Durgnat and Simmon call them (Durgnat/Simmon, 4). Vidor has earned himself the label ‘epic poet’, “given to large, almost abstract expressions of a man’s role in nature and society” (Durgnat/Simmon, 9). One of this ‘abstract expressions’ we can find in The Crowd in the role of John Sims, of whom I will take a closer look at later.

About tree years earlier, John Dos Passos published his novel Manhattan Transfer. He was born in Chicago on January the 14th in 1896. After he graduated from Harvard College, he decided to serve in the United States Medical Corps during the end of World War I. In his novels One Man’s Initiation and Three Soldiers he processes the experiences and impressions from those yeas. He continues with an acute awareness of his senses in Manhattan Transfer, a novel full of detailed descriptions, of smells, sounds, and impressions, making the story so real one could forget it is fiction.

In the following, I will first show some of the aspects of mass and cinematography that can be found in The Crowd, and will then continue on to those found in Manhattan Transfer. Finally, the differences and the points the two works have in common will be summed up.

2. King Vidor’s “The Crowd”

2.1 Appearances and Depiction of the Mass

2.1.1 The Crowd Makes An Appearance

The situations in which the mass appears in The Crowd are various and mostly in direct relation to John Sims’ life or even with him in the crowd. As Vidor put it, “you have a hard time finding any scenes in The Crowd that Murray’s not in” (Dowd/Shepard, 82). This one statement also underlines the fact that, although John Sims constantly tries and dreams of being one of the bosses or at least somewhat above the mass, he is and will always be only one ordinary man out of “the seven million that believe New York depends on them” (Vidor, 0:07:04).

One scene in which Murray does not directly take part is the scene after his arrival in New York. The crowd is shown a few moments after a man who is standing next to Sims on the boat says “You’ve gotta be good in that town if you want to beat the crowd” (0:07:33). This is the one sentence that both represents the expectation Johnny’s father had of him and John’s expectation of his future life as well, and foreshadows the impossibility and John’s inability to achieve just that.

First, the view is focused on New York’s skyline. Then it switches to the crowd of people amidst the crowd of cars and vehicles in the valleys between the mass of skyscrapers and smaller buildings. Finally, it goes back to show us those from bird perspective, interrupted by one scene with a group of boats and ships probably somewhere near the Statue of Liberty. Vidor accomplishes to show within one and a half minute at least three different interpretations of what the word ‘crowd’ could mean. The crowd is everywhere; the city of New York is the perfect embodiment of ‘crowd’.

Another important crowd-scene is, of course, the ride by bus on the way to Coney Island. John is quite supercilious, partly probably because he wants to impress Mary, who in turn seems to give in to his game. John looks down on the crowded streets and says “Look at that crowd! The poor boobs …. all in the same rut!” (Vidor, 0:14:33). He apparently does not realize that he himself is no better, working in an insurance company together with hundreds of others and having the same routine every day. He likes to think of himself as being better than the others, but he actually is not. Bert, on the other side, is apparently longer in the city than John, and he knows that you do not get far in life with that attitude. So he attempts to bring John down and advises him to concentrate on his own life: “Cut out the high-hat, John! Do your stuff!” (Vidor, 0:14:41). John, however, brings up his arrogance another notch when he sees a clown amidst the mass of people doing advertising for a shoe shop. “The poor sap! And I bet his father thought he would be President!” (0:15:13). It is highly ironic that his own father also had similar high expectations of John, and that John also will fail to fulfil these and end up as a clown, juggling and doing advertising for a restaurant (1:25:57).

A funny scene in which the crowd’s ‘unity’ is ironically displayed is when John Sims is refreshing himself in the insurance company’s large restroom. About four different colleagues of him pass him by and say things like “Washin’ ‘em up, Sims?” (Vidor, 0:10:36) or “Chasin’ the dirt, Sims?” (Vidor, 0:10:51). John notices how alike everyone has become in his company. “You birds have been working here so long that you all talk alike!” (Vidor, 0:10:53). John notices the similarity between the members of the crowd, but with his statement he shows that he somehow still does not count himself to be one of them, although he also does everything just like the rest of them. He is not fully integrated yet, and given his future course of life, he somehow never really will be. He drops out before he can become completely assimilated, and has great trouble to get back in. When he comes back as a clown doing advertising, he still is alone for he works alone. He does not become one of the faceless members of the working crowd.

The next scene I want to mention and in which the crowd has a specific role is after the birth of John’s son. He comes into the hospital and promptly asks a nurse “Do you know where my wife is?” (Vidor, 0:52:27). This nurse probably had some twenty or more births on this day and as many mothers to take care of, and John comes in, behaves like he was the only one becoming a father and like it was a matter of course to know him and his family. However, as Lang writes, “the shots of all the other expectant fathers (…) lined up in the hallway, and the sea of beds in the maternity ward, remind the viewer that John’s experience is not unique but common to the crowd” (Lang, 124).

Finally, the two scenes in which the crowd has the most noticeable appearances are the two deaths of the film, the ones of John’s father and John’s daughter. Those scenes show the mass’ craving for sensations, they are always there when something terrible is happening. When John’s father dies, a crowd has already formed in front of his house, aroused by the arrival of the ambulance, and Johnny has to fight a way through (0:05:23). Later, when John’s daughter is being hit by a car, the crowd again is first to gather around the child, but the people just stay and stare, the reaction to call a doctor is, if it happens at all by hands of the crowd, pretty slow (Vidor, 1:04:13). The mass seems do get delight from such accidents, is always first to arrive at the place of action. However, it is a nuisance at best, it doesn’t offer any help at all. This is probably because everyone in the crowd seems to think that somebody else can do the work and get help, which in turn leads to no reaction at all. The crowd as an entity has no responsibility whatsoever.

2.1.2 Character Analysis and Their Social Position

The social life in The Crowd can be divided into three aspects; the upper level or the bosses, the normal (mass) workers, and the women. I will look at them by using three characters, Bert, John and Mary.

When watching the previously mentioned bus ride to Coney Island we can already see that John is a different type than his friend Bert. For one, Bert has already gained experience at living in New York and he surely knows more about how to survive there. He does not employ John’s initial arrogant attitude. Furthermore, if viewed in psychoanalytic terms, Bert has started his carrier with unluckier prospects than John, but achieves far more than John ever will. As Lang writes, “Bert is a subject who does not embody or possess the phallus”. This is resembled by his “boyish appearance, his obesity” and an apparently “’compensatory’ jollity” (Lang, 127). John in contrast is born with the overhanging prophecy that he will one day be someone “the world’s going to hear from” (Vidor, 0:03:39); he is good-looking, a nice guy and in general more the material of which important men are made of. However, Bert is the one who is “hanging around the bosses”, something that John does not want to do or something that he thinks he does not need to do in the first place: “Who couldn’t get someplace if they wanted to hang around the bosses?” (Vidor, 0:59:30). Bert is closer to John’s dream of becoming someone big because he does what he can to ascend the career latter. Bert oversteps the boundary between the ordinary working class and the level above.

John on the contrary conveys the impression that he just thinks everything will come to him without the slightest bit of work by himself. John is a dreamer, he is lax in making decisions and he does not see his own strengths, even if they should only be limited to being good at inventing slogans. Although he is constantly trying to become better, the important moments in which he could change something he seems to miss, as well as the strength of heart and modesty that could perhaps get him a new and fitting job. Instead, he seems to hold onto things he could have done, just like in that scene on the beach. “I’ve got big ideas! That slogan, A Carload Full of Coughs was mine! Only somebody sent it in first.” (Vidor, 0:59:48). He claims that he had the same idea, but the little difference is that the other person actually sent it in. Only after his wife Mary asks him “why [he doesn’t] mail one of those slogans in?” (Vidor, 1:01:51) he actually sends one in and promptly wins 500 Dollars. John fails to take his chance to do what he probably really had the talent to do, for even Vidor himself said:

“I would believe that he had some initiative if he quit his job and took a big gamble and was daring enough to say ‘I’m going into the advertising business,’ but he doesn’t do that. He just spends his money right away. He’s stuck with a routine.” (Dowd/Shepard, 83)

Slogans seem to wind themselves through John’s life like a red thread, yet he does not see that this could be is chance at having success. Many memorable events during the film are seemingly connected with advertising. First, the advertising clown whom he makes fun of near the beginning of The Crowd and later his similar job near the end form a kind of internal border; the one event destining John’s eventual drop-out of the crowd, the other his eventual re-entering. Furthermore, his “impulsive first-date marriage proposal is inspired by a subway ad card, ‘You Furnish the Girl, We Furnish the Home’” (Durgnat/Simmon, 83). Mary has a good soul and is a loving wife and responsible mother, and John is really quite lucky to get a girl like her. The next time we find advertising play an important role in his life is when he sends one of his slogans in and wins. This price marks both one of the highlights in the Sims family’s life and at the same time the most tragic point, for the price and the joy and overexcitement resulting from it are eventually responsible for the daughter’s death. Finally, we see John’s slogan in the program of the clown show at the end of the film. John has managed to re-enter the working crowd, his family life is more harmonious and he seems to laugh freely again for the first time in ages. It seems like this one slogan is the best achievement that John managed in his life, and that all he has lived for is the one handshake from a complete stranger acknowledging his ‘success’. The slogan is a mute reminder of what could perhaps have happened when John would have taken a little more risk in his life.

I think John always will only be someone from the ordinary working class, for without external help he does not have the strength and, as Vidor puts it, the daring and inventiveness to advance. But in the end he is at least happy with what he has, and he has lost his former arrogant attitude.



Excerpt out of 28 pages


Cinematographic Elements and The Mass in 'The Crowd' and 'Manhattan Transfer'
University of Bayreuth
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Cinematographic, Elements, Mass, Crowd, Manhattan, Transfer
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Nadine Wolf (Author), 2005, Cinematographic Elements and The Mass in 'The Crowd' and 'Manhattan Transfer', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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