After years of guest-hosting for Rush and Tucker, this weekend I'm guest-hosting for Kathy Shaidle. Our Saturday movie columnist is taking a night off and yours truly has been pressed into service. To be honest, I'm not sure I'm up for it. Yesterday Governor Chris Sununu (whom I saw down in Bedford for "Fox & Friends" only a few weeks ago) ordered the whole of New Hampshire to shelter in place - and after thirty-six hours or so I'm already stir-crazy. Social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine, house arrest, it's quarter to three, there's no one in the place but ...me.
So I find myself pining for crowd scenes. Thus herewith a Saturday-night movie medley with an ever shrinking cast - for, as the budget-conscious Lew Grade once asked re Jesus of Nazareth, "Do we have to have twelve disciples?"
Crowd-wise, this seems as good a place to start - King Vidor's eponymous masterpiece of 1928, He'd finished The Crowd in 1927, but Louis B Mayer disliked it and so didn't release it for a year - by which time a certain mammy singer had blown up an entire cinematic aesthetic. If he'd put a mammy in the crowd, it might have done better box office. But the opening - with its famous shot up the side of the skyscraper to the army of paper-shuffling clerks within - retains all its power:
One of the recent innovations of news bulletins this last week has quickly become a cliché: the arty shots of formerly perpetually crowded tourist spots - Times Square, the Trevi Fountain, the Champs-Élysées, Piccadilly Circus - now empty and abandoned. These are places that, other than at four in the morning, are meant to be filled. I wanna wake up in a city that resumes waking up. This is Oliver Stone's latterday equivalent to King Vidor, contrasting bleary earthbound New Yorkers with a soundtrack that soars to the stars:
If you're expecting me to drop in a battle scene from The Lord of the Rings or Avengers 37, sorry but no thanks. CGI has made crowd scenes easier, in the sense that, unlike D W Griffith with his massed Klansmen in Birth of a Nation or Stanley Kubrick and his revolting charioteers in Spartacus, a director can call up his cast of thousands with a simple click of the computer - as opposed to having to yell, like Michael Curtiz on Charge of the Light Brigade, "Bring on the empty horses!" To my mind, you can always sorta kinda tell: the crowd lacks the great jostling hurly-burly of actual humanity. But, on the other hand, during the present self-isolation, you can always CGI your own crowd into the living room just to jolly things up.
The great crowd scenes are, of course, essentially urban: the swollen tide of humanity coursing up the skyscrapered canyons of grid-plan cities. In the smaller burgs, to get the citizenry surging through the streets, you usually have to order out the full torches and pitchforks in pursuit of the weird misshapen barely comprehensible stranger who has come among them and is disturbingly different. In Mitteleuropa, that's usually poor old Frankenstein's monster. In my corner of New Hampshire, it's usually me. And round about this time on a Saturday night I could expect to look out the window and see the torch-bearing villagers advancing up the hill to complain that I'm playing my Judy Garland CDs too loud again. But, alas, under the Governor's new directive, even that harmless pleasure is forbidden:
Since we can no longer congregate outdoors, how about an indoors crowd scene? If the world survives the coronapocalypse and this year's Mark Steyn Cruise does indeed set sail, we might try and recreate this moment from A Night at the Opera with Conrad Black, Michele Bachmann et al. Just before the excerpt below, Groucho Marx is asked by the porter if he'd like him to put his trunk in the stateroom. He replies that maybe it would be easier to put the stateroom in the trunk:
That many people - even in a larger venue - is illegal now in much of the world. As I mentioned the other day, in Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere gatherings of more than two persons are verboten. And even twosomes are constrained in their movements. What's more, in the age of social distancing, you can never get close to someone you don't already know. So you can no longer hop aboard, say, the Twentieth Century Limited to Chicago, walk into a crowded dining car and find yourself seated opposite Eva Marie Saint:
The man who wrote that coolly smoldering dialogue was Ernest Lehman. Miss Saint was supposed to say "I never make love on an empty stomach", which gives the "You've already eaten"/"But you haven't" exchange a sly visual image. But the studio censor insisted "make love" be modified to "discuss love", which Lehman thought ridiculous. It in no way diminishes the incendiary power of the scene.
In an age of contagion, you can no longer meet a passing stranger in the dining car, and you can no longer cut in on another fellow's dance and change partners. The glowers from Ralph Bellamy at the hovering Astaire are most impressive:
"Change Partners" is the highlight of Irving Berlin's score for Carefree: I always loved (notwithstanding the somewhat lazy repetition of "tell") the line "I'll tell the waiter to tell him he's wanted on the telephone", an ingenious trick but one scuttled by the rise of cellular technology.
So no candlelit dining, no crowded dance floor... How about an evening in an intimate night club with a small floor show? Busby Berkeley conjures one such in this number from Gold Diggers of 1935 - even if, as the only customers, Wini Shaw and Dick Powell seem to be practising social distancing from the massed extras, at least until the tragic dénouement:
If you had to sum up what's been abolished this last fortnight in New York City, that lyric of Al Dubin's will serve: "the hip-hooray and ballyhoo" - all gone.
How about a trip to the club for a backrub? Ah, no. The health spas are all closed - and Sean Connery's three-girl special is now forbidden:
Are swingers' parties in suburban Connecticut still permitted? Possibly - but with only two car keys in the bowl:
Où sont les parties clés d'antan?
Is there anything that doesn't qualify as an illegal crowd gathering under today's confinement? I had a strange urge to visit a ladies' garden club ...until it occurred to me to wonder if, as with everything else, the Chinese Commies wouldn't be running the show:
So no dining, no dancing, no spa treatments or garden clubs... For the moment, one is definitely not a crowd. Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom has stated that tradespersons working alone, such as window cleaners, may continue to play their trade. Most of what I know about British window cleaners comes from the film below, where Robin Askwith is rarely alone for long:
It's all fun and games until the Chinese Commies take over that business like they took over the antibiotics. Here's George Formby with "Mr Wu(han)'s a Window Cleaner Now":
So no thousands of subway-riding commuters... no hundreds of torch-wielding villagers... no dozens of frenzied dancers... no quartets of Marx Brothers... no trios of geishas... In such a world, we must forsake human companionship to rediscover the joys of solitude in nature. If you're in the remote wilderness, take a stroll, discover a waterfall, admire its pristine translucent torrent over time-worn rocks ...and then resign yourself to the fact that it's never going to match a man-made waterfall - or woman-made:
Penultimate thought: When they show you how to social-distance yourself, doesn't it look oddly like the chaps walking down the corridor at the end of this film?
Final thought: I don't know what the precise opposite of social distancing is, but I suspect it looks something like this. We shall not see its like again:
~Mark will be back later this evening for Mark Steyn Club members with the latest episode in his serialization of Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year.
As we always say, membership in The Mark Steyn Club isn't for everybody, but it does support all our content, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Saturday movie dates. What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, it's a discussion group of lively people on the great questions of our time; it's also an audio Book of the Month Club, and a live music club, and a video poetry circle. More details here.