Cinema of Mediocrity - The Representation of 1920s Mass Culture in King Vidor's The Crowd

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2005 24 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. The Rise of Modern Mass Society

3. The New Middle Class and the Changing Face of the American Dream

4. Mainstream Trends in the American Cinema of the 1920s

5. The Crowd as a Mirror of Lower Middle Class Life

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

What is it that cinema-goers anticipate when flocking weekday nights to the Cinemaxxes and Cinestars throughout the world? And what expected the audiences of the 1920s during the heyday of the silent film area, when 100 million people a week were drawn to the movie palaces in America? Bare amusement? Weekend enjoyment? Or rather artistically challenging avant-garde films with politically provocative messages?

What we mostly expect of the movies, is to satisfy a longing for something new and extraordinary. Still today and also at the beginning of the classic Hollywood era, movies have been attractive in that they have offered an alternative reality to that of actual ordinary life; be it through romance, action, exotic scenarios or mere entertainment. Especially in the 1920, with the establishment of Hollywood, movie-going became an enormously popular form of modern mass entertainment.

King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), however, is a rare exception. Its main interest is not the unknown or exotic, it does not function as an alternative reality. In contrast to the mainstream Hollywood productions of the 1920s, the film concentrates on ‘normality’ and plainness. Thus, what The Crowd offers is a stylized and satirized portrayal of the everyday lives of exactly the audiences who where watching the film. In doing so, the film does not charm or arouse passionate feelings. On the contrary, it functions as a mirror and leaves the spectators frustrated about the meaninglessness of modern life and their own ambitions for success and consumption.

With its depiction of everyday middle class life and its critique of modern mass culture, The Crowd also challenges reductionist perspectives of the ‘roaring twenties’ as a permanent orgy, of wild flappers and frenzied Jazz parties, as is still prevalent in popular discourse today. The alternative view it offers, is that of a decade characterized by rising corporate power, the pressure to adjust and the powerlessness of the individual against an increasing standardization in the work and leisure sphere.

Thus, in this paper I will examine, how the The Crowd differs from the mainstream Hollywood productions of the time and in what way Vidor’s film can be interpreted as a critique of 1920s mass culture.

First, I will have a look at the general societal climate of the decade and show how the twenties marked the establishment of a mass consumer culture in the United States. Then I will examine, how this trend was intertwined with a changing perception of the American Dream towards a focus on leisure and consumption. Finally, I will give a short overview over the mainstream trends in the cinema of the 1920s, in order to contrast them with The Crowd’s leitmotif of mediocrity.

2. The Rise of Modern Mass Society

According to Dumenil, The Crowd with its grim social realism can be considered a realistic representation of urban middle class life in 1920s America. With its quasi-documentary character - some of the footage was secretly shot in the public - it reveals a lot about everyday conventions and distractions in the twenties to the 21st century viewer: from the disciplined work environment of an open-plan office, over blind dates coming closer in Coney Island’s ‘Tunnel of Love’ to the picnics on the crowded beaches of Long Island and the modest housing conditions of lower middle class couples.

Such characteristics of a modernized society reflect the transformations that already took place with the beginning of the industrialization, but took on a very special note after World War I with the establishment of mass production industries.

The Crowd provides excellent testimony to the emergence of America as a consumer culture. It not only highlights the way in which people turned to leisure and consumption to find satisfaction in life, but also suggests one important causal factor: the degradation of work and the erosion of individual autonomy in a mass, corporate culture. The twenties are a critical period for these transformations, for the decade embodies much of what constitutes consumer culture. (Dumenil, 57)

However it is also important to keep in mind that The Crowd, as one extraordinary film of the silent era, can only convey a biased and one-sides view of its period. Written as a depiction of the urban dweller’s daily routine, it is also extremely stylized and concentrates mainly on its protagonist’s life-world. Its perspective is that of the upward-oriented city man, who is predominantly white and belongs to a new type of middle class, which began to establish with the rise of service-oriented white collar jobs.

Other aspects of 1920s city life are consequently left out by Vidor, such as the perspective of new arriving European immigrants or the Afro-American community. In order to gain a deeper understanding of the period, it is however necessary to look at the 1920s as a decade of contrasts. Ethnic and cultural diversity on the one hand were facing an increasingly nationalized society and standardized mass culture on the other.

In his 1970s examination of the Plastic Age, Robert Sklar describes the 1920s as an entirely new era that followed the catastrophe of World War I and was wiped out with the Great Depression. He refers mainly to the new generation of intellectuals like Dreiser, Mencken, Hemingway, Eliot or Dos Passos who challenged the genteel middle-class values prevailing during the war.

Dumenil however, in The Modern Temper (1995) sees the twenties not so much as a counter-reaction to the pressures of war, but stresses ‘that many of the changes so evident in the 1920s predated the war’’ (ibid. 3). She criticizes the old historians’ view, supported by Sklar, of war as the main reason for transforming American culture in the following decade. For Dumenil, the social forces connected with the ongoing process of modernization are the chief reason for the transformations which became obvious in the 1920s. Therefor, the decade must be seen as a reinforcement of earlier modernizing trends. The three chief modernizing forces in the United States, according to Dumenil, were: industrialization, urbanization and massive immigration (4).

As a consequence of these developments, new forms of social life evolved, which in part replaced traditional social patterns. Especially in the cities, where immigrants, migrants from the country and different ethnic communities gathered, a pluralism of lifestyles existed parallel to one other. And in contrast to the ‘’intimate nature of smaller communities’’ (ibid. 4), impersonal relationships made life in the city more anonymous, but also more individualistic and for some people freer. Women, for example, had begun to enter the work force during the war period and started campaigns for the female suffrage, which slowly contributed to a changing image of female identity. The new fashion of the flappers contributed to the idea of the ‘’roaring twenties’’ and the ‘’New Negro’’ movement indicated a new perception of black identity.

‘’While there is some truth to these images [of the liberation form traditional norms], especially among the urban, white, prosperous middle and upper classes - they overshadow the average Americans who led far more quiet lives and ignore those excluded from the prosperity of the times’’ (ibid. 8). For on the other hand, the twenties established a trend toward a nationwide standardization and homogenization in two ways: through politics and the economy.

President Harding had proclaimed a ‘’return to normalcy’’ during his term of office (1921-23). Along with the two other presidents of the period, Coolidge (1923-29) and Hoover (1929-33), his government stood for political conservatism with a belief in material progress and a self-regulating economy. This commitment to ‘‘business/government cooperation ... led to almost unbridled corporate power’’ (ibid. 7). The strong trust in capitalism to sustain American democracy and peace, however, also nourished fears of a capital-labor conflict, which had already been expressed in the Red Scare of 1919. Consequently labor unions were weakened and class consciousness dramatically dissolved (cf. Ross, Working Class Hollywood 180). Furthermore, massive immigration and migration to the cities had helped to increase

native white Protestants’ anxious concern that the cities and the culture itself risked being dominated by immigrants and African Americans. For their part, more than ever before, African Americans and other minorities were challenging the status quo, and were demanding a pluralistic vision of American identity that would accord them cultural influence and political power. (Dumenil 11)

Under Harding a number of laws were passed which restricted immigration, and Prohibition can also be seen as an attempt of the old middle class - though useless - to control immigrants’ ‘‘immorality’’. Hence, the 1920s must also be seen as a time of enormous social tensions between old and new values, which led to racism, the ‘’Red Scare’’ and nationalistic narrow-mindedness. But what specifically distinguishes the decade from earlier ones, is the establishment of a mass consumer culture, which changed the way people interacted and organized their everyday lives.

After World War I and recovering from a short period of post war depression, the United States had become the world’s largest economy and were facing a decade of unprecedented prosperity until the Stock Market Crash in 1929. Already during the war, as Sklar points out, the preconditions for standardized mass production had been set: ‘The War Industries Board, a federal agency coordinating war production, gave orders to standardize and simplify thousands of products, not only military goods but also consumer items containing materials essential for the war. The impact of the Board’s policy helped fundamentally to alter the nature of the American productive system’ (Plastic Age 15f).

The most famous figure for the establishment of rationalized mass production is Henry Ford with the invention of the conveyor belt and the introduction of the Model T. Highly effective division of labor and the possibility of installment financing made cars one of the chief consumer products. ‘’By the end of the twenties’’, Dumenil points out, ‘’more than 20 percent of Americans owned a car’’ (77). Other industries followed Ford’s example and led to an increasing availability of affordable consumer products, such as radios, refrigerators and vacuum cleaners, transforming everyday life in making people more mobile and leisure-oriented.

This novel availability of consumer products throughout the country and throughout the classes is significant, since it gave people a sense of a ‘quasi-democratization’ through consumption. With mass culture, it seemed, visible class distinctions were vanishing and aspirations for social mobility were encouraged. Even though it was mainly the urban white middle class, which was able to participate in the consumption of the new leisure goods, ‘mass production and mass distribution transformed the daily life of nearly every person in America’ (Sklar, Plastic Age 16).

Especially the mass media were successful in replacing outdated values and norms by forming a common ground for national orientation, which went beyond the war propaganda of the former period. In a similar way as today we are confronted with a globalization through communication, it was then possible for Americans all over the continent to listen to the same information on the radio and identify with the same sports or movie stars simultaneously.

Therefor it can be argued, that corporate capitalism and the mass media in the US contributed significantly to forming a new national identity through consumption or at least through the wish to participate in the dream of upward mobility. A by-product of these standardizing and nationalizing phenomena was however also an increasing pressure for conformity. ‘’Cooperation’’ and ‘’playing as a member of the team’’ were already popular slogans for a successful business life (cf. Sklar, Plastic Age 21).

3. The New Middle Class and the Changing Face of the American Dream

The first scene that introduces the grown-up John Sims, shows him on a ferry approaching the skyline of Manhattan. A suitcase under his arm, with his name ‘’John Sims’’ written on it, the ambitious protagonist is facing the metropolis. An older passenger however warns him of the dangers of city life:

Passenger: You've gotta be good in that town if you want to beat the crowd.
Johnny: Maybe...but all I want is an opportunity

is John’s eager answer. Obviously his world view has been shaped by a firm belief in the myth of the American Dream, that he, who tries hard enough, will in the end be rewarded by success.

The 1920s with their atmosphere of economic growth and abundance must be imagined as a time that made the dream of the rags-to-riches fairy tale seem realistic for almost anybody. The social changes described in the previous chapter had also a deep impact on the perception of the American Dream and on the way that Americans saw a chance to participate in material wealth and success.

A totally new social type, it has been argued, which made people more concerned with their own personality and self-realization came to the rise during the first half of the 20th century (cf. Riesman). During the twenties, this process gradually challenged an older self-image, which had rather depended on traditional norms and behavioral patterns, such as class affiliation or identification with one’s familiar background or profession.

This ‘’individualization’’ can be seen as a direct consequence of the processes of modernization: work, through rationalization and standardization, was becoming less meaningful for identification and the relative prosperity made it possible to devote oneself to the offers of the consumption and entertainment industry (cf. Dumenil 86). The dedication to consumer goods was also supported by a transformation of the concept of the American Dream from the former ethos of labor to a new ethos of economic success and consumption.

In his analysis of The American Dream in the Great Depression (1977), Charles R. Hearn gives a detailed description of this shift. The ‘’myth of success’’, has been intertwined with American culture from its very beginnings with the Puritan settlers, as he argues, and stresses values such as ‘’hard work, perseverance and honesty’’ as distinctive American qualities (ibid. 4). Referring to Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Hearn indicates that ‘’material success was not an end in itself for the New England Puritans [since] the pursuit of worldly success was given religious sanction by the Puritan doctrine of the secular calling [...] Nevertheless material success and even accumulation of wealth were assumed to be an effective means of serving God and a clear sign of His favor’’ (ibid. 5).

Essential to the conception of the American Dream has been the idea of a democratization of material success and a triumph over a rigid class system through hard work. Hearn describes Benjamin Franklin, who grew up in a modest Puritan background, as the first notable example of the ‘’self-made man’’, so central to the American myth of success. Franklin spoke up for a humble, well-ordered life leading to moral growth and material wealth. As a role model he



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Cinema Mediocrity Representation Mass Culture King Vidor Crowd Literature



Title: Cinema of Mediocrity - The Representation of 1920s Mass Culture in King Vidor's The Crowd