Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style Analysis of The Crowd: Stylistic Blueprint for Cinematic Expression and Production of Silent Films

Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style Analysis of The Crowd:  Stylistic Blueprint for Cinematic Expression and Production of Silent Films
The stylistic norms fundamental to classical Hollywood silent filmmaking experienced significant growth and development between 1917 to 1928. By the end of this inaugural period of the motion picture industry, the Hollywood production style of silent films had several classical norms that reached a desired condition. These styles of motion picture production became standard and authoritative rather than new or experimental. In fact, they constituted a normal pattern of distinctive features of cinematic expression and production of silent films. As a result, the culmination of these standard stylistic elements were demonstrated in the landmark movie, “The Crowd,” at the end of the silent film era in 1928. 

            The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the classical Hollywood style of silent films through 1928.  My thesis is that movies produced in Hollywood during this classical era formulated several fundamental stylistic norms.  This thesis statement is based on the following two premises: 
            (1)  Early, classical, silent films included elements of story causality and motivation (i.e., the relation of cause and effect), the use of credits/expository titles, montage sequencing, dissolves and the use of time, depth cues and the use of space, as well as camera dollies and movement. 
            (2)  The famous landmark movie, “The Crowd” (MGM, 1928)” played a significant role in defining the time-honored forms and styles characteristic of the classical, Hollywood, silent film era. 

Classical Silent Film Narration
            Stylistic norms characteristic of the silent film period included the elements of story causality and motivation.  In addition, the use of credits/expository titles were central to cinematic filmmaking in the late teens through the early 1920s.  In addition, montage sequencing, dissolves and depth cues, as well as camera dollies and movement became standard norms for the classical Hollywood mode of film production in the silent era.  All of these stylistic elements worked together in helping to establish the traditional forms and approaches to filmmaking in the late 1920s.

Story Causality and Motivation
            Film critic and author, David Bordwell, states that “emphasis must be laid upon causality and the action and reaction of the human will” (Bordwell, 1985, p. 13).  Consistent with the relationship between cause and effect, he emphasizes that “characters are individualized with particular traits, tics, or tags” (Bordwell, 1985, p. 14).  Characters portrayed on screen have ambitions and they formulate plans to take concrete steps of action to achieve these objectives or solve a problem (Bordwell, 1985, p. 16-17).  “Making personal character traits and goals the causes of actions… [led] to a dramatic form fairly specific to Hollywood” (Bordwell, 1985, p. 16).  As a result, many Hollywood films exhibited stories that were founded upon romance and love.  Character traits were given to male and female story characters that were “appropriate to their roles in romance” (Bordwell, 1985, p. 16).  Therefore, the goal of many characters in classical Hollywood films was based on the ambition of winning the love of a man or a woman in the story.  “The goal oriented hero, incarnated in Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and William S. Hart, was quickly identified as a distinguishing trait of the American cinema” (Bordwell, 1985, p. 16).  

Credits Sequence/Expository Titles
            Early classical film narration included use of “the credits sequence to initiate the film’s narration” (Bordwell, 1985, p. 25).  The credits were “highly self-conscious… [and] explicitly addressed to the audience” (Bordwell, 1985, p. 26).  In the silent period, many films portrayed credit sequences against black backgrounds or a standardized design or picture/painting (Bordwell, 1985, p. 26).  Many credits and expository titles were oftentimes used to introduce characters, as well.  Then, by the 1920s, credit sequences began to appear over moving images.  “Between 1917 and 1921, one-fifth to one-third of a film’s inter-titles would be expository; after 1921, expository titles constituted less than a fifth of the total” (Bordwell, 1985, p. 28).  Coupled with the credit sequences/expository titles was the use of musical accompaniment.  

Montage Sequencing
            Early classical film also used montage sequencing by incorporating a relatively rapid succession of different shots in a movie.  Montage sequencing was commonly referred to as shot-assembling and became a fundamental production style.  It not only had the advantage of costing less to shoot each scene, the montage style also offered narrational value to classical Hollywood cinema.  Accompanying every line of dialogue that posed questions in the film, the montage sequence would provide the mechanism for answering them.  As a result, much of classical cinema used the montage sequence because it served as the basic constructional activity of a film.  Bordwell quotes one screenplay manual as follows:  “In the beginning of the motion picture, we don’t know anything.  During the course of the story, information is accumulated, until at the end we know everything” (Bordwell, 1985, p. 39).  This quote accurately describes the contributions of montage sequencing to classical Hollywood film style through its contributions of shot and scene.  

Dissolves and the Use of Time
            Regarding the use of time in the classical silent film, the dissolve was referred to as “the most common indication of duration… [and] serves the purpose of smoothly advancing the story” (Bordwell, 1985, p. 46-47).  The dissolve shifted shots in the motion picture film by having one shot fade out while the next one would appear behind it and then grow clearer as the first one progressively got dimmer.  This stylistic norm turned out to be a “superb way to soften spatial, graphic, and even temporal discontinuities… [and allowed bridging] over from one situation to another without a jarring break of action and without need for explanatory matter” (Bordwell, 1985, p. 47).  

Depth Cues and the Use of Space
            Depth cues and the use of space were also fundamental to Hollywood filmmaking style during the silent motion picture era.  In his discussion of the use of space in classical film, Bordwell states that “space is created in planes through various depth cues” (Bordwell, 1985, p. 52).  In black and white filming, the set designers would purposely paint sets in different colors in order to create planes of depth.  “More dense and concentrated textures were reserved for the figures in the foreground… [and] lighting [was] particularly important in establishing depth” (Bordwell, 1985, p. 52).  

Camera Dollies and  Movement
            Camera dollies and movement became classical norms for Hollywood’s silent films.  A director would use a camera dolly to get the effect of movement (Bordwell, 1985, p. 53).  The dolly is a small truck that has wheels that roll on dolly tracks.  The dolly carries the camera and sometimes even members of the film crew and/or director.  The dolly provides movement of the camera towards or away from the object that it is pointed at.  This movement is known as the dolly up or dolly back.  Use of the camera dolly became a standard production practice for silent films by the late 1920s. 

Landmark Movie of the Late 1920s
            One particular silent movie stands out as an culminating expression of the stylistic norms fundamental to Hollywood silent films in the late 1920s.  This film is entitled, “The Crowd (MGM, 1928).”  This film plays a significant role in defining the combination of distinctive features and artistic expression of cinema in the silent classical era.  Taken together, this film possess the customary manner, framework, and composition of style distinctive of this foundational period of classical silent cinema.

“The Crowd”:  A Film Analysis
            “The Crowd” was produced in 1928 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios.  The film was directed by “King Vidor, the greatest of American silent filmmakers” (Cinema Paradiso, 2004).   This black & white, silent film drama starred Eleanor Boardman as Mary Sims and James Murray as John Sims.  The movie is a “somber parable about an anonymous Everyman lost among the urban-industrial masses” (Schatz, 1988, p. 36).  The story was set during the Jazz Age (around 1900) where a newly married couple experienced many difficult circumstances during their married life.  The husband, John, is a clerk for an insurance company.  The movie plot is based his belief “since childhood that he would become somebody important” (Film Indexes Online, 2004).  The film was considered by many to be a social commentary on the economic troubles experienced by American young couples amidst the challenges of their daily lives.  “The film is an incredible blend of [film] styles… [which] serves to underscore the film’s innovative qualities” (Magill’s Survey of Cinema, 1995).  

Story Causality and Motivation
            Consistent with the stylistic norm of story causality and motivation, the film begins with a passionate romance between Mary and John which ends up in a rather quick engagement and marriage.  However, after they get married, John starts to get bored with his white collar job at the insurance company and has aspirations of being someone great one day.  He tells Mary that he will obtain this dream one day in the future “when my ship comes in.”  

Credits Sequence/Expository Titles
            The film has an opening title that provides the necessary narration to place the story during a 4th of July celebration in an anonymous town in the year 1900.  This title sequence was unambiguously and implicitly addressed to the motion picture viewing audience.  The expository title states: “The nation on holiday!  Fireworks!  Parades!  Picnics!  Celebrating America’s 124th birthday! – but what was a little thing like the Declaration of Independence compared to the great event happening in the Sims household?” (The Greatest Films Website, 2004).  

Montage Sequencing
            Montage sequencing was used to depict Mary and John as everyday people in “the crowd” of a large metropolitan area.  This was demonstrated through the shot-assembly of Mary and John as they experienced very common human struggles to include financial stress as well as the unexpected death of their daughter.  The film does a magnificent job in constructing a series of shots and scenes portraying John and his sensational search for fame and fortune.  While waiting for his opportunity to arrive where he hopes to be someone great, his is thrown into a large, uncaring society with magnificent skyscrapers that is bred with the hustle and bustle of life amidst large crowds of people and street traffic.  

Dissolves and the Use of Time
            At the conclusion of the movie, the camera shoots a close-up of Mary and John in their own home and dissolves into another close-up of them enjoying themselves in a theater.  The dissolve advances the story in smooth by shifting the shot from the home environment to the theater surroundings.  As the home shot fades out, the theater shot grows progressively clearer until the home picture is completely disappears.  With the use of the dissolve, the time lapse between one environment to another was seamless and precluded any temporal discontinuity (Greatest Films Website, 2004).  

Depth Cues and the Use of Space
            With respect to depth cues and the use of space, a notable scene was where the camera goes through a window and enters a huge room that is filled with hundreds of identical desks and office workers all arranged in neat rows one after the other.  This classical film style took advantage of the multitude of identical desks as sterile objects and associated a psychological meaning to them.  To emphasize the cold, impersonal environment amidst the crowded room, the camera focused on John’s desk where there was a sign that read, “John Sims #137.”  He was only one of hundreds of workers in “the crowd” doing the same mundane paperwork each day — day in and day out — always waiting for the bell to ring at 5:00 pm so he could depart from work.  Depth cues were also integrated into the film by excellent lighting techniques and the use of shadows.  

Camera Dollies and Movement
            At the conclusion of “The Crowd,” the camera shows a large theater audience (to include Mary and John) laughing at a vaudeville act with two clowns on stage.  As Mary observes John’s winning slogan advertisement in the vaudeville show’s program for “Sleight O’ Hand — the Magic Cleaner,” both of them are depicted as happy and joyful in spite of their trials in a crowded city.  At that point in time, the camera dollies back smoothly and continues to show Mary and John becoming smaller on screen amidst a sea of other people and faces in the crowd.  The film narration depicted here leaves Mary and John unable to “escape the crowd, but now, they are protected by their love for each other and the anonymity of the surrounding masses” (Greatest Films Website, 2004).  

            The stylistic norms intrinsic to Hollywood’s classical silent films experienced a large amount of maturity between 1917 to 1928.  At the end of this era, the Hollywood production style incorporated several standard patterns of cinematic style.   Early, classical, silent films included elements of story causality and motivation, the use of credits/expository titles, montage sequencing, dissolves and the use of time, depth cues and the use of space, as well as camera dollies and movement.  They constituted a stylistic blueprint for production of silent films.  These elements of style were demonstrated through the landmark motion picture “The Crowd” produced by MGM in 1928.  

Works Cited

Bordwell, David.  (1985).  “The Classical Hollywood Style, 1917-1960.”  The Classical Hollywood Cinema:  Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960.  Bordwell, David; Staiger, Janet; and Thompson, Kristin, Eds.  New York:  Columbia University Press.

Film Indexes Online.  (2004).  “The Crowd.”  Retrieved on October 23, 2004, from

Greatest Films Website.  (2004).  “The Crowd.”  Retrieved on October 21, 2004, from

Magill’s Survey of Cinema.  (June 15, 1995).  “The Crowd.”  Retrieved on October 21, 2004, from
Schatz, Thomas.  (1988).  The Genius of the System:  Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era.  New York, New York:  Henry Holt and Company.

Schnickel, Richard.  (June 1, 1999).  “Cinema Paradiso.”  The Wilson Quarterly.  Retrieved on October 23, 2004, from

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