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William A. Wellman
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In a hot summer afternoon in New York, Emma Jones gossips with other neighbors of her residential building about the affair of Mrs. Anna Maurrant and the milkman Steve Sankey. When the rude Mr. Frank Maurrant arrives, they change the subject. Meanwhile, their teenage daughter Rose Maurrant is sexually harassed by her boss Mr. Bert Easter; however, she likes her Jewish neighbor Sam that has a crush on her. On the next morning, Frank tells that is traveling to Stanford on business. Mrs. Maurrant meets the gentle Sankey in her apartment, but out of the blue Frank comes back home in an announced tragedy. Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
STREET SCENE (United Artists, 1931), produced by Samuel Goldwyn, directed by King Vidor, is a remarkable film in many ways. This screen adaptation to Elmer Rice's Pulitzer Prize winning 1929 stage play, realistically focuses on a group of people of different ethnic backgrounds who gather together on the front steps of their tenement brownstone apartment building on the west side of Manhattan during a summer heat wave in mid July.
The plot, set during a 24 hour period, takes a look on various residents before centering its attention on the Maurrant family. Anna Maurrant (Estelle Taylor), a housewife and mother, has become so bored with her present existence that she carries on an affair with a married man, Steve Sankey (Russell Hopton) while her stern and unsentimental husband, Frank (David Landau) heads off for work. This illicit affair is known by many, thanks to the neighborhood gossip, Emma Jones (Beulah Bondi). Regardless of their knowledge, Frank does have his suspicions, as does their grown daughter, Rose (Sylvia Sidney). Rose is a working girl loved by Sam Kaplan (William Collier Jr.), a Jewish law student living in the same building. Like Rose, Sam longs on moving away to a better life. Although he has strong ambitions, his weakness is being a coward, especially when constantly bullied by Vincent (Matt McHugh), a heavy-set "Momma's Boy." After about an hour or so of realistic dialog, the street scene, as the title indicates, occurs when Frank Maurrant returns home unexpectedly to find the shades of his bedroom window being pulled down.
Light on action, STREET SCENE moves along very swiftly through numerous camera angles. Aside from its plot development of numerous characters, every one of them, down to the last extra, makes his presence count. With the storyline being limited to only the front portion of the building, the inside of the apartment is never shown. Vidor does break away from his limitations in giving the avid movie viewer a eye-view of Manhattan of 1931, ranging from the elevated train, a glimpse of the Chrysler Building and other tenement buildings. The opening sequence, underscored by Alfred Newman's now classic "New York City Theme," is priceless, ranging from children cooling themselves off from the summer heat as they get splashed on with water from a hose connected to a fire hydrant; an alley cat licking a block of ice; a family dog stretched out on the sidewalk to cool off; and a brief look at those now antique fans. The second act of the story, which takes place the following morning, goes a bit further with local boys picking up stacks of newspapers to be delivered; and a man waking up from a good night's sleep on the fire escape, and heading back in his apartment carrying his pillow and sheets through his open window, among others. There is also a noted scene in which Willie (Lambert Rogers), the younger member of the Maurrant family, skating down the street, pausing, yelling up the window to his mother to throw him a dime to buy an ice cream cone. The dime is then wrapped in tissue paper and rubber band and tossed directly to him. Those who recall such childhood memories of New York will definitely relate to these little detailed scenes. Some things, though, never change, notably how a quiet street stirs up a huge crowd whenever an incident occurs as expertly depicted in this photo-play.
Seen in the supporting cast are Greta Grandtedt, Max Mantor, John Qualen, George Humbert, Allan Fox, and Marcia Mae Jones, recognizable in her small role as Mary Hildebrand, one of the neighborhood children. In fact, many of the supporting players appearing in STREET SCENE reprized their roles from the stage version, especially that of Beulah Bondi, making her screen debut. Always an excellent performer, her nasty character nearly steals the film. Sylvia Sidney, with few movie credits to her name at the time, and a native New Yorker, makes a lasting impression with her role as Rose.
STREET SCENE is an excellent theme in storytelling that never lets go of its audience. In spite of its age, it's still timely. One element that shows King Vidor's style of sending out his messages to his viewers without the use of dialog is the use of closeups and facial expressions on several people. They don't say anything, but what they're thinking is passed across its audience. These and many other scenes are what makes STREET SCENE so remarkable, even today. Instances such as those depicted are those that could happen anytime, anywhere, not only in New York, but a movie such as this cannot be remade today or ever without the same impact as it did back in 1931. It's a wonder why STREET SCENE did not earn a single Academy Award nomination.
STREET SCENE, available on video and DVD, had been distributed by numerous public domain companies using reissue prints that substitute Samuel Goldwyn's opening with Associate Artists Productions Presents. Other than its occasional TV showings that have turned up on local public broadcasting stations after the midnight hours, STREET SCENE, occasionally plays Turner Classic Movies. Contrary to its host Robert Osborne in saying in his analysis of STREET SCENE making its TCM premiere on the evening of June 30, 2002, at 8 p.m., someone at the program department failed to indicate to him of its earlier air-date, June 6, 2002, at 7:30 a.m. Regardless, thanks to TCM for ever presenting this rare find, due to it being one of the very few from the early 1930s, that can still be seen and appreciated over and over again. (****)
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