Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Best Screenplay Of 1927-28: King Vidor and John V.A. Weaver; titles by Joseph Farnham (The Crowd)

If you've been suffering the effects of our current economy, I wouldn't race right out to rent this story of a small town boy with big time dreams who moves to New York City and makes, well, not much of himself; but I will say that to have made this grim critique of the American Dream while the Twenties were still roaring along was fairly prescient of King Vidor and you might try tracking this one down whenever you get to feeling better.

If The Crowd is not quite the lasting work of art that Sunrise is, that may be in part because it has been copied so many times (and its copies copied) that its insights have gone a bit stale with repetition. Orson Welles took up a similar theme in The Magnificent Ambersons, added complexity, and deepened it, and Billy Wilder took it up again in The Apartment and put yet a different spin on it and created another lasting work of art. But you have to start somewhere and it's a touching if unsentimental story and very well acted, particularly by Eleanor Boardman as the long-suffering wife (is there any other kind?) of a husband whose practical skills as a breadwinner aren't nearly equal to his grandiose dreams.

The other great strength of the movie is its near doc- umentary feel as it describes a paycheck-to-paycheck existence in the New York City of the late 1920s. Vidor used a hidden camera and shot much of the film on location and this added authenticity and realism to the story.

Indeed, the fact that Vidor took his camera into the tiny bathroom of a cold-water flat and dared show his audience a working toilet is the one of the reasons Louis B. Mayer cited in making sure there were no awards for the writer-director come Oscar time. Vidor did however receive an Oscar nomination for direction and was nominated four more times in his career before receiving an honorary Oscar in 1979 "[f]or his incomparable achievements as a cinematic creator and innovator."

All of which begs the question: am I giving The Crowd a Katie for its screen- play or am really giving it an award for its cinematography and the audacity of its director's vision?

I'll be honest with you, even though I am a writer myself (yes, two novels, an agent and everything), it's a little difficult for me to access the quality of a screenplay, especially the screenplay for a silent movie. Yes, there are certain clues you can look for—the quality of the dialogue (or title cards in the case of a silent movie), whether the story hangs together, the insights into the human condition that might show up on the printed page—but the fact is, no matter what auteur theorists say (that the director is the sole author of a film), movies are such a collaborative effort, it's hard to say where one person's work leaves off and another's begins. When you assess a screenplay, you have to remember that actors improvise and breathe life into the characters, the director pushes them to emphasize different approaches, the film editor influences the story's pace and cohesion, the cinematographer and the score's composer affect mood. So by the end of the day, you wonder whose work are you handing an award to.

Here, the story's architecture is so sound, it's become the blueprint for any number of similar stories that followed it. The insight into the human condition is certainly chilling. And while the title cards read like hokey homilies that belong in a Hallmark greeting card, they underscore the protagonist's unrealistic view of the hard world. You can't ask much more than that out of a screenplay.

In any event, whatever it means, I am giving The Crowd a Katie and I am content to do so.

Which reminds me. King Vidor wasn't the only person who wrote this movie and he's not the only person getting a Katie for it.

Co-writer Joseph Farnham, one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, received the only Oscar ever awarded for "title writing," although that award was for a body of work rather than a specific film. In addition to The Crowd, he wrote the titles for thirty-one movies in 1927 and 1928, including another Katie nominee, Laugh, Clown, Laugh. His best work was the play The Big Parade which Vidor adapted into one of the best movies of the Silent Era. Farnham died two years after winning the Oscar, making him the first Oscar-winner to do so—and the first Katie winner to die as well. Hmm, the Curse of the Katie? That's another thing we'll have to keep track of.

And as for John V.A. Weaver, the final member of this trio of Katie award winners, all I can tell you is that he was a Southern-born Broadway playwright who went west to write for the movies and died in 1938 at the age of 45. His best screenplay aside from The Crowd was probably his adaptation of The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, the last movie he ever worked on.

In 1998, The Library of Congress selected The Crowd as one of the first twenty-five movies to be preserved in the National Film Registry.

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