“It’s not the heat…it’s the humidity.”
Elmer Rice’s play “Street Scene,” dealing with the intertwined lives of the inhabitants of a New York tenement building, opened in New York on January 10, 1929. It became one of the most popular plays of the 1928-29 Broadway season and subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize. Film rights were acquired by Samuel Goldwyn, apparently for about $150,000, and King Vidor was engaged to direct. The resulting production appeared in 1931 and was later considered to have been one of the year’s better films, including being one of Film Daily’s top ten.
Image Entertainment has now brought Street Scene to DVD under license from Video-Cinema Films, Inc.
Outside a New York tenement building on a hot summer’s evening, residents come and go, many subject to the idle speculation of several of the building’s gossips. The main subject of discussion is an affair that Anna Marraunt, one of the residents, is carrying on with the married milk collector Steve Sankey. Her husband Frank, a cheerless and cold individual, has his suspicions but no definite proof. Their daughter Rose is aware of the whisperings and tries to mediate between her mother and father.
Rose is also the object of Sam Kaplan’s affections. Sam is a young student whose sister Shirley is determined to see him go to law school. Despite Sam’s desire that he and Rose go away together to get married, Rose resists partly due to the entreaties of Sam’s sister and partly due to her own desire to make headway in life on her own terms.
Frank Marraunt leaves for an out-of-town business trip, providing an opportunity for Anna and her lover to meet in the Marraunt apartment. But Frank returns unexpectedly and catches the two together in a confrontation that will change everyone’s lives.
In the almost 70 years that have passed since Street Scene was made, we’ve seen the story’s various characters countless times in films and television shows that have used New York’s East Side as a basis. We’ve seen the sharp-tongued gossiping neighbor, the slow philosophical Swede, the happy Italian, the straitlaced social worker, the brassy and easy young woman, the attractive demure daughter, the all-night drinker, the fresh-faced innocent young man, et cetera, et cetera. They’re stereotypes now, but when Street Scene was made, the characters still had freshness, and amazingly that freshness still communicates itself to us. Much of that is due to the high caliber of the source material and an highly talented cast, a few of whose faces are familiar but none of whom were or ever really became stars.
Best known is Sylvia Sidney playing Rose in what is an exceedingly natural and unmannered fashion. She is totally believable at a time when many of her contemporaries still tended to emote rather than act, belying their silent film origins in some cases. With her dark, sad-looking eyes reflecting her character’s internal anguish, she lets the script’s words speak for themselves rather than embellish them with exaggerated gestures and dramatics. Sidney had already tasted success in Rouben Mamoulien’s City Streets (1931, Paramount) with Gary Cooper and Josef von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy (1931, Paramount) and would later appear notably in 1937’s You Only Live Once (UA, with Henry Fonda) and Dead End (Goldwyn, with Humphrey Bogart), but her film career after the 1930s had few highlights.
Interestingly, Estelle Taylor brought much the same sort of look and approach to Anna Marraunt as Sidney did to daughter Rose. So, although the age difference that one might expect between a mother and daughter was not too realistically portrayed (the actresses were only about 10 years apart in age), the family similarity of appearance and mannerism was. Although she was only in her early thirties at the time Street Scene was made, Taylor’s film career was virtually over. She had appeared in a number of silent films including The Ten Commandments (1923, Paramount) and Don Juan (1926, WB), but she never really caught on as a sound actress.
Beulah Bondi was ideal as the tenement’s chief gossiper, Emma Jones. She was a character actress who specialized in either cantankerous or kindly older women for three decades, simply by knitting or unknitting her eyebrows. In 1931, at age 39, Street Scene was her first film, as she reprised her role from the stage play. She was not alone in this, however, as seven others did likewise, including: Matt McHugh, Eleanor Wesselhoeft, T.H. Manning, Conway Washburn, John M. Qualen, Anna Constant, and George Humbert. Of these others, only John Qualen really managed to make himself a familiar face and name in later films.
Even if you didn’t know Street Scene had originated as a play, you soon realize it from the static nature of the film. There’s just the one set — a New York street block with a large tenement building in its middle. Most of the story unfolds in front of the building although it widens to encompass the whole block once the confrontation between Frank Marraunt and his wife and her lover has occurred. Director King Vidor and cinematographer George Barnes (Academy Award for 1940s Rebecca), however, go to great lengths to add dimension and scope to the story’s setting through interesting and effective camera angles and camera movement using tracking and boom shots. The most memorable camera angle is the shot from pavement level behind Emma Jones as she tugs at her sticky underwear through her dress while looking up at one of the tenement’s upper windows. The shot that opens the second act as we see all the different ways that people start their days is very nicely done (it seems to be a combined tracking and panning shot), but most impressive is the boom work that leads Rose from the elevated to her home as she realizes that something horrible may have happened to her mother. In a modern interview, Vidor claimed that even though credited, it was in fact not George Barnes who was responsible for the camerawork, but rather renowned cinematographer Gregg Toland. This may be true as Toland worked frequently on Samuel Goldwyn-produced films.
Image Entertainment’s DVD of Street Scene, indexed with 11 chapter selections, shows the film’s age. There are numerous instances of speckling and scratching, particularly noticeable during the establishing shots of the New York skyline and rooftops. Once focused on the tenement building, the image is less cluttered with the debris of age and one can enjoy the film without appreciable distraction from the source material’s defects. The overall look is a little soft, but shadow detail is generally well rendered. It’s unlikely that this film will ever look any better than it does here. The sound of course is mono, clear enough but with some background hiss. Alfred Newman’s occasional music still sounds pretty good.
This is another of Image’s barebones presentations. There is no supplementary material whatsoever. I’m not sure what the conditions are under which Image is licensed to present this film. Presumably, all they’ve been given by the copyright holder is the film itself, with no supplementary material. Surely it would be easy enough to add some information on people like King Vidor or Sylvia Sidney, or some production notes even if they have to be cribbed from the AFI catalogue.
Despite the barebones nature of the disc, I’m really glad to have Street Scene on DVD. The film is a pre-Production Code piece that is quite gritty in its presentation of life in the tenements, at least in terms of the range of characters, the realism of their speech (even a swear word or two) and garb, the matter-of-fact use of racial and prejudicial slurs, even the way they seemed to think nothing of throwing garbage into the street. It’s a short, but entertaining film — well acted, interestingly mounted — and presented on disc in a transfer than probably does as well at delivering the basic film as is possible without some major source-material restoration. Recommended.