John Sims is born on the 4th of July--what an auspicious beginning for a man who will go on to become something important, maybe even President!
Once he learns his child is a son, he expresses his expectations on the boy's behalf; he tells the doctor, "There's a little man the world's going to hear from, Doctor."
In this scene, his father's dress also indicates his middle-class status: his suit and gold watch chain.
Young boys at leisure discuss what they will be when they grow up; compare this with the images of young boys that photographer Jacob Riis was popularizing during this same period--newsies and breaker boys who were filthy and overworked. In addition, this is a mixed-race group, although some humor is derived from racial stereotypes in the scene. For example, the African-American boy, nicknamed "Whitey," is a figure of fun: when he is on screen, the music backing turns to minstrel-style ragtime, he is quoted in dialect saying "I detend to be a preacher man," which is a reference to the assumption that most educated Blacks were primarily spiritual (see comparisons with the image of True Women as more spiritual than men). There are other stereotypic juxtapositions here: a milquetoast child with spectacles says, "I purpose to seek occupation as a cowboy."
Johnny Sims has big plans for himself, fostered by his father's expectations of him. He tells the boys, without irony, "My Dad says I'm goin' to be somebody big!"
Notice the public spectacle of the ambulance's arrival at the Sims house; the whole neighborhood turns out, making the second appearance of a crowd.
Learning that his father is in the ambulance, Johnny Sims joins the crowd, and then stands silhouetted against it as the shot looks down the stariway. Then, he makes the long terrible climb up the stairs in terror to learn what has become of his father.
On the boat that takes him to Manhattan, John Sims is juxtaposed against a man who hasn't quite made it. Compare their clothes: Sims is in a light-colored and unmarked suit with tie and straw hat; the downtrodden man slouches in a dingy suit without a tie, wearing a battered fedora. He tells Sims, "You've gotta be good in that town if you want to beat the crowd." Sims replies, "All I want is an opportunity."
With Sims's words, "All I want is an opportunity" still fresh in our minds, we see a somewhat sinister image of skyscrapers, rocking against the sky. Then Vidor inserts the now-famous tracking shot up the side of the building and into the cavernous office space where John Sims now works. Here is the crowd at work, and Sims is only one of them.
Sims's name on the nameplate on his desk is only slightly more important than the employee number given to him--137.
While others work around him he is dreaming--creating advertising campaigns and slogans for contests, a craze of the 1920s.
The rush at the end of the day to fix yourself up for a night on the town should recall some of the sex-appeal-based advertising that was so influential in this period which we addressed in the slide lecture.
Homosocial interaction between the men is very informal, filled with "Jazz Age" slang and play, including Bert's slap on Sims's behind.
Bert is a playboy who has been in the city longer than Sims has. There is an implication that he is taking advantage of the new mores of the sexual revolution and having a good time of it. He uses terms like "wrens" and "babies" to refer to the young women he has "dated up" for the night at Coney Island.
Sims is a bit of a "square," pleading that he needs to study to make something of himself rather than have fun like Bert.
What follows are many more shots of crowds of working people escaping from their offices at the end of the day, and of men picking up "career gals" as they come out of the office.
The "wrens"--Jane and Mary--appear as "New Women": working, independent, with bobbed hair and short dresses, wearing makeup and chewing gum, and dating men their families do not know. But Mary is a faux New Woman; she lives at home with her mother and brothers, and works because her father is dead. Even her "bobbed hair" is faux; it's merely tucked under her hat, which she indicates to John Sims by showing him how long it really is.
Notice the interaction between John and Mary--the openness between strangers, the joking together, and even touching--and compare it to the lovers' relationship we saw in The Birth of a Nation. This is "modern" courtship ritual, and will be illustrated in more detail when they get to Coney Island.
Bert watches Jane go up the steps to the bus and sees her sexually--he responds in a jokey manner, eyes boggling and gulping dramatically. John watches Mary in the same way, but reacts very differently; he still shows that he sees her sexually, but he responds with a respectful reserve. The audience is meant to see that John and Bert have very different sexual mores.
John (like Mary) is a snob. He derides "the crowd" as a bunch of "poor boobs" in the "same rut." He (like Mary) makes fun of the man on the street juggling and dressed as a clown, but Bert and Jane--who have been in the city longer and know that any job is a good job--do not find it funny. Jane even indicates that she things John is crazy. John laughs at the man and says, "And I bet his father thought he would be President!" This is both a recalling of John's father's ambitions for him, and a foreshadowing of John's comeuppance.
Bert, unlike John, has few romantic ideals. He says to Jane, "I give them one or two years," something with which Jane might agree but which should not be said out loud.
On the train, the porter circles long after everyone else has "Re-tired," wishing to be allowed to make up their bed so that he himself can go to bed.
Unable to delay any longer, Mary gives in and John asks the porter to set them up. Mary shows her terror at the prospect of her wedding night, and John shows his excitement and anticipation.
Mary slips off to prepare and fairly swoons with fear, although she comes to terms with it and smiles conspiratorily at her reflection as she thinks about being a married woman.
John gets ready and men tease him about his efforts until they realize that he is on his honeymoon. They notice he is carrying a copy of What a Young Husband Ought to Know, a sex and marriage manual very popular in the 1920s among "modern" young people. It also came in a version for young wives, What a Young Wife Ought to Know, and one for young parents. My grandmother had all three.
Note the accomodations made to the tinyness of their apartment--a murphy bed, a murphy kitchen that folds out, etc. This would have been very recognizable to the audience.
Note John's ambivalence about Mary's family (and their enmity toward him). Mary's family does not think that he is worthy of her; they find him crude and frivilous, and they believe that he drinks.
At Bert's apartment, John encounters real flappers/New Women. This sexual predator comes on strong to him with her own line--"Oh Gee, Baby, how'd the angels ever let you leave heaven?"--and sports heavy makeup, revelaing clothing, and real bobbed hair.
But learning that Mary is pregnant changes everything, in part because it proves that he is a man.
In October, the baby is delivered in a hospital with John absent while he works.
Notice that the shots of the hospital ward where Mary is sleeping after childbirth look very much like the office where John works--she is merely one among the crowd.
Mary has lost her patience waiting for John's "ship to come in."
Bert has gotten ahead while Sims is still dreaming about ads and contests.
The crowd that gathers around John and his daughter is an echo of the crowd that gathered at his father's death.
John is consumed with grief at his child's injury and asks everyone for silence, even the city streets, even the crowd itself.
When the child dies, Mary and John engage in paradigms of grief that are "modern"--the "priceless child" is a modern development, made possible by falling infant mortality rates. Further, both John and Mary reject the homosocial patterns of grieving that the families present try to impose upon them--the standers-by separate John and Mary from each other, but they resist.
[Real shot of traffic, including an officer telling the film crew to move along.]
John's grieving is seen by the crowd as outside the norm. His work suffers, and his bosses--one of whom is now Bert--have little sympathy for his "unmanly" display. He is shabby and unkempt, haunted by images of his child's death.
Desperate and lost, John quits his job.
"We do not know how big the crowd is, and what opposition it is...until we get out of step with it."
At the employment office, he loses out to another young man with a shiny face who says "All I want is an opportunity." Now, John Sims has come full circle, and he is now the downtrodden man he met on the boat when he first arrived in the city.
Mary's brother's "help" and in so doing point out that John is "out of step" with the crowd they represent.
John refuses their "charity job."
Sims thinks of throwing himself in front of a train but cannot.
Junior tells his father, "I like to play with you....I like you." Sims remembers his hope and his ambitions when he was young and "only wanted an opportunity." Junior tells him, "When I grow up I wanta be just like you."
Junior's faith in him rebuilds his hope.
What makes a man a man? His wife's support, and fatherhood.
Sims has come full circle. He is now that man he laughed at juggling balls.
Because he will do anything to keep her, John can keep Mary with him.
Mary points out that John's prize-winning ad for "Sleight-o-Hand" is in the program. He is proud.
Tracking shot in reverse from the family to the crowd (reverse of the tracking shot into the office, and the tracking shot into the birth ward). Once more, John is one among the crowd, but not alone anymore; he has his family, he has his dignity as a man, and he is happy right now.
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for History 339 (Themes in U.S. History, 1914-1945), The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Fall Semester 1997. Last modified: Tuesday 21 October 1997