I saw East Side, West Side as part of a festival at the Museum of Modern Art devoted to movies set on New York's waterfront. Extensive location shooting is certainly the main reason to see this film. From the opening shot of the harbor looking towards lower Manhattan, through scenes set in the streets of the Lower East Side and on the Brooklyn Bridge, this is one of the best chances you'll get to see New York in its 1920s glory. The plot is an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink melodrama: two shipwrecks, a subway tunnel cave-in, mysteries of parentage, the fate worse than death--it's all in there, but the movie zips along so briskly and is so fresh, robust and vigorous that it never bogs down, and you laugh with it, not at it.
George O'Brien (of Sunrise fame) is a fairly primitive actor, but he's a likable presence as well as an extraordinary physical specimen. In a way, the primitive quality is appropriate. Our hero was raised on a brick-carrying barge traveling New York harbor, where we first see him in the beautiful opening shots that look over his shoulder at the Oz-like skyline. When the barge sinks and he is washed ashore on the Lower East Side, he is almost a Tarzan figure, a naive stranger to civilization. He is found cowering in a basement and taken in by a kindly Jewish family. Their spunky daughter takes an immediate liking to him, and there is a very funny scene in which she shows him the bathroom, where her undergarments are hanging in plain view, and keeps popping in with one more thing to say as he's getting undressed. Pretty soon he's helping out in the family's second-hand clothing store ("He's not a customer, Pop, give him something that fits," the daughter says when they dress up their castaway) and she's climbing ladders and getting her legs in his face. This idyll is interrupted when he becomes the protégé of a wealthy Upper West Side architect, who just might be the father he never knew, and who also has an attractive young ward....
It's too bad East Side, West Side is so hard to find. In the pristine print I saw, with live music, I really felt transported back in time. I saw it paired with Raoul Walsh's Regeneration, which also captures the vibrant flavor of the Lower East Side with its crowded tenements, street brawls and bustling markets. While Regeneration focuses on criminals and stages the sinking of the General Slocum, East Side, West Side features the construction of skyscrapers and the subway system and presents the city at a prosperous, optimistic, expansive moment in its history.
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