Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Roar of the Crowd: Urban Noise and Anti-Noise in Silent Cinema

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Roar of the Crowd: Urban Noise and Anti-Noise in Silent Cinema

Article excerpt

As Jonathan Sterne notes in his history of recorded sound, "In modern life sound becomes a problem: an object to be contemplated" (9). Once an undifferentiated aspect of the human environment, man-made sound, with increasing industrialization and urbanization, increased exponentially, detaching itself from the general ambience and becoming something to be noticed, inveighed against, and, ultimately, regulated. This essay examines how one film in particular, King Vidor's The Crowd, released in 1928, contemplates this problem with extraordinary creativity, seizing the opportunity presented by a particular constellation of technological, ideological, and stylistic norms unique to late silent cinema to critically represent the modern urban noisescape.

Vidor, whose career spanned more than forty years, is generally considered one of the most innovative Hollywood directors of the silent and early sound periods. Among his better-known films are the anti-war melodrama The Big Parade; Hallelujah!, a musical with an all-black cast; and The Fountainhead, an adaptation of Ayn Rand's novel. Vidor was nominated for Best Director at the first Academy Awards for his work on The Crowd, which has long been considered one of the masterpieces of American silent cinema. It is a film that rivals those of German directors Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau in scale and ambition. Vidor's use of street photography, expressionistic sets, and, above all, a more naturalistic acting style were all highly influential. The Crowd is a portrait of an "average" working-class couple, John and Mary, and their struggles to maintain a dignified existence against the anonymous and alienating forces of urban mass society. Among the many adversities they face, one in particular, the intrusiveness and destructiveness of urban noise, is my sole concern here. The scenes in Vidor's film that are analyzed below reflect many of the key concerns and strategies of the anti-noise movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the goals of which were to publicize problems associated with urban noise and to lobby for legislative remedies. The American silent cinema's engagement with anti-noise movements dates back to at least 1909 and D.W. Griffith's Schneider's Anti-Noise Crusade. What sets The Crowd apart is the way in which Vidor used then-current cinematic techniques, in particular editing, to create a critical picture of urban noise and its effects, something that would paradoxically become nearly impossible two or three years later, with the codification of Hollywood sound practices. This becomes apparent with the comparison of The Crowd to Vidor's next urban film, Street Scene, from 1931.

The late silent period (from roughly 1925 to 1928) was that unique moment when filmmakers like Vidor could create critical visual representations of urban noise using what, for lack of a standard term, I will call sound images, motion picture images of an object making sound or the effect of sound. Bracketing this narrow window of opportunity are series of technological, ideological, and aesthetic developments. Preceding The Crowd were changes in theatre design and exhibition practices, along with the progressive articulation of a highly developed visual narrative style, all of which made possible Vidor's sophisticated use of sound images in this film. Subsequent to this brief period, the widespread introduction of synchronized sound and the ideology and aesthetics of sound recording swiftly led to a rigid hierarchy of sounds that privileged the voice and limited any sound inessential to the narrative, especially those sounds considered background noise (Crafton 355). By comparing The Crowd with Schneider's Anti-Noise Crusade and Street Scene, in the context of contemporary debates about the deleterious effects of urban noise and, in the case of the latter film, the proper use of sound recording technologies in film, I argue that The Crowd represents a high point in the American cinema's engagement with the modern noisescape and that, more significantly, this high point could only have existed in the period immediately prior to the coming of the "talkies. …

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