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Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Well do you?
I can't understand a word he's saying!
He's asking if you'll swear...
No, but I know all the words.
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SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1931), a Buster Keaton production directed by Jules White and Zion Meyers, offers comedian Buster Keaton a different type of comedy, that involving social issues. A sort of forerunner to what later developed into "The East Side Kids" comedy-drama series over at Monogram (1940-45) that featured the notable cast of Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and Gabriel Dell, all of whom originated as "The Dead End Kids" based on their characterizations from the 1935 Broadway drama and 1937 film based adaptation, DEAD END. SIDEWALKS doesn't focus completely on the youths by letting Keaton take second precedence, but on Keaton's character as one who offers his assistance in helping boys of the slums (labeled as "The East Side Kids" from a newspaper clipping) by steering them on the right direction of life, with humorous results. Reportedly labeled, even by Keaton himself, as his "worst movie," SIDEWALKS, according to sources, proved to be his most successful MGM comedy to date, something that even Keaton couldn't understand.
Opening from the skyline view of New York City with an off-screen vocalist singing "East Side, West Side," before camera sets precedence on the lower east side of Manhattan, the pattern is immediately set with the introduction with a group of kids, led by Clipper Kelly (Norman Phillips Jr.), playing baseball on the street. Poggle (Cliff Edwards), personal secretary to millionaire landlord, Homer Van Dine Harmon (Buster Keaton), arrives by limousine into the tenement district to collect rent money from the tenants, resulting to a riot. Returning to Homer's mansion with injuries and minus the money, Harmon decides to do the job himself, meeting with the same results. After Homer gets punched by a tough blonde named Margie (Anita Page) for grabbing hold of her brother, Clipper, trying to get away, he immediately falls in love with her (Homer: "do you believe in love at first site?"). Instead of pressing charges on the urchins in the courtroom, Homer, for the sake of Margie, and with Poggle's assistance, helps the tough youths by providing them the Harmony Hall Boys Club. Butch (Frank Rowan), a neighborhood mobster wanting to steer the boys to his level of crime, intends on having Harmon fail in his purpose by using Clipper in a series of robberies dressed as "The Blonde Bandit."
Definitely a far cry from Keaton's usual flare of creative comedy from the silent era, the is MGM's attempt in trying something more different than originality. Keaton is still the "stoneface," but under MGM regime, continues on being a prat-falling, lovesick bumbler. Unlike his previous MGM assignments, Keaton isn't called "Elmer," nor is he under the direction of Edward Sedgwick. Rather than having one director, SIDEWALKS has two. In some ways, it helps to a degree, succeeding more in areas of inserted comedy than plot. A pity the emphases wasn't on both that would have helped considerably. Regardless of its poor reputation and little known overview in Keaton's filmography, there's still some funny material worth noting: The courtroom scene with Homer on the witness stand with lines and situations repeated to perfection in the Three Stooges comedy short, DISORDER IN THE COURT (Columbia, 1936); a fixed wrestling match between Homer and "One-Round" Mulvaney (Syd Saylor) at the athletic club; Homer's proposal to Margie with the use of a phonograph record; and Homer's preparation of roast duck dinner with Margie and Clipper. The Harmon stage presentation of "The Duke and the Dancer" subtitled "Bad Habits Don't Pay" with Keaton in drag doesn't come off as well as it should, and neither does the final minutes resembling that of an "Our Gang" comedy for Hal Roach Studios come off with any hilarity.
The casting of Anita Page (Keaton's co-star in 1930s FREE AND EASY) as the tough talking slum girl isn't very convincing, though Norman Phillips Jr. as her troublesome teenage brother is as acceptable as Frank Rowan's silent era stereotypical gangster role. One of the major faults in SIDEWALKS is its poor editing, more noticeable where Margie disappears from view after leaving Harmon. Scenes where players get struck lightly on the jaw and immediately lying unconscious on the ground is something more of a head slapping/eye-rolling response from disbelief.
As with the MGM/Keaton comedies, SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK is an odd mix of comedy/drama, yet it somehow manages to become better than the others produced during that time. Rarely shown on broadcast television, this, along with DOUGHBOYS (1930) did turn up as recently as 1978 on a late night showing from WKBS TV, Channel 48, in Philadelphia. Distributed to home video in 1993, SIDEWALKS can be seen occasionally on Turner Classic Movies. (**)
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