Friday, October 7, 2011

Street Scene (1931)

Let's play "guess which tenant they don't like"!

It’s summer, and the occupants of a tenement spill out onto the sidewalk in order to escape the heat. Conversation waxes and wanes, and everyone has their troubles…until one tenant’s problems envelop them all in a world of intrigue and, ultimately, violence.

I think the first thing that struck me about this picture was how modern it was, while simultaneously being a perfect snapshot of early 30s working-class New York. Every immigrant group was represented: Irish, Jewish, Italian, Swedish, each with their own quirks and stereotypes. The film is adapted from a play by Elmer Rice, and even though it retains some stageyness, it never feels static, thanks to the wonderful direction of King Vidor, In many ways, this film reminded me of a grittier, more jaded version of The Crowd, which he also directed.

Sylvia Sidney plays Rose, the oldest daughter of a couple on the rocks; Mom (Estelle Taylor) cheats with the milk money collector and Dad (David Landau) drinks too much. William Collier Jr plays Sam, the son of the Jewish family, raised by a long-winded Socialist father and a sister who tries to break him of his lifelong love for Rose. Both children are desperate to get out of the tenement but aren’t quite sure how…then Fate intervenes, and we aren’t quite sure for the better.

Beulah Bondi owns this picture with her portrayal of Emma Jones, the “mayor” of the apartment building and an informal narrator of sorts; it’s through her gossip that we learn the background of the folks living in the building, their heartaches and foibles.

This film was restored by the Library of Congress – the print can be a little scratchy at times but believe me, you will not even notice it. A gripping story with fine performances by all, and a slice-of-life ending that will keep you guessing.

(Something interesting I found out while Googling for pictures: Rice's play was also adapted into an opera/musical in 1946, with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Langston Hughes.  Catherine Zeta-Jones performed in a 1989 production.)
I give this one:


KimWilson said...

I don't know if you can get more jaded that Vidor's The Crowd! Will have to keep an eye out for this, as I am a big fan of King Vidor.

Flapper Flickers + Silent Stanzas said...

Definitely, Kim!

You can feel the bitter disillusionment of the early 30s just settling over the entire film. It's more than worth searching out.

Caftan Woman said...

Alfred Newman's "Street Scene" theme became iconic - not a word I use lightly.

Sometimes Hollywood gets it right, as in having Beulah Bondi repeat her stage role.