Classic Film Review: “Street Scene” (1931), a snapshot of city life and theatrical realism

I avoid checking out early sound films as a rule. The bulky cameras and sound gear make for static productions. The acting is of a more theatrical “classical” pre-“Method” era and seems as stagebound as the blocking and camera work.

The film of Elmer Rice’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Street Scene” might be a case in point. But King Vidor’s film of this single (almost) set movie leans into those handicaps and makes a fascinating time capsule for Depression Era America, the state of American drama, pre-Production Code cinema and the motion picture just as it was evolving into the talking motion picture.

It’s a chatty character study parked firmly on the stoop of a New York Hell’s Kitchen brownstone, a “Hot enough for you?” summer tale of infidelity, gossip and a melting pot that more or less melted together so long as nobody got their backs up about xenophobia, Italian flattery of Mussolini and the one Jewish family could turn a deaf ear to anti-Semitic slurs and a bullying goon.

The acting varies from subtle to ham on the hoof. Legendary stage and screen character actress Beulah Bondi stands up for acting’s old school, milking her tone-deaf, judgmental and hypocritical busybody Mrs. Jones for all that she’s worth.

“What them foreigners don’t know about bringin’ up a baby would fill a book.”

Characters can seem like caricatures — such as Mrs. Jones’ mob goon son (T.H. Manning) and bottle blonde floozie of a daughter (Greta Granstedt).

But what stands out is the subtle turn by Sylvia Sidney as Rose, a sexually-harassed office worker fending off her boss’s advances, enjoying the company of the sensitive Jewish neighbor Sam (William Collier Jr.), but struggling to keep the peace between her lonely and possibly-straying mother (Estelle Taylor) and her bluff and abusive stage hand husband (David Landau).

Rice’s snapshot of tenement life is straight-up melodrama, with the various “types” behaving mostly according to type, and an ending preordained based on the what we learn about the characters in the opening act. His single-set show has characters calling out of windows, climbing through windows, harassing and sticking up for each other, passing around ice cream cones one moment, judging the next.

Vidor, with director of photography George Barnes (and uncredited assistant from future “Citizen Kane” wizard Gregg Toland), only manages a few visual flourishes in an opening sequence (crane shots) that might have been filmed silently and looped later, insofar as that process was developed at the time.

“Street Scene” is famously “pre-Code” although the only surviving print of it is apparently “approved,” as in tidied up according to Production Code standards. It’s still jarring to hear long-abandoned slurs dropped with the casual ease of regular use.

As dated as it obviously is, there’s a timeless quality to the work that makes it a cultural touchstone, the movie anyone making a New York City period piece today consults and references when recreating the “street scenes” of a “Godfather,” “Do the Right Thing” or what have you. What everybody observes about neighborhood life, Rice observed and recorded first almost 100 years ago.

The fact that the play was later made into an opera by Kurt Weill seems almost redundant. Rice’s dialogue, performed in solos or duets, is the music of the ’20s (the play premiered in 1929), so imitated its like every New York Depression movie since has been a sing-along.

Rating: unrated

Cast: Sylvia Sidney, Estelle Taylor, Beulah Bondi, David Landau, William Collier Jr., Russell Hopton, George Humbert, Greta Granstedt, Max Montor and John Qualen

Credits: Directed by King Vidor, scripted by Elmer Rice, adapted from his play. A Samuel Goldwyn release.

Running time: 1:28

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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