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Erich von Stroheim
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Peggy and her friend Millie are strolling down Broadway while Jimmy and Mac are trolling Broadway, and the four get together. Jimmy and Peggy get together in many romantic ways and Peggy soon finds that her expected baby needs a father. Since Jimmy is the father (to-be) she informs him, but Jimmy thinks she is lying. Written by
Les Adams <firstname.lastname@example.org>
This forgotten melodrama belongs to a special category: it's one of those movies with a behind-the-scenes story that's more interesting than the material that finally made it to the screen. Judged strictly in terms of content HELLO, SISTER! isn't all that bad nor is it especially memorable, either. It's little more than a Boy Meets Girl story in an urban setting, and aside from the occasional offbeat touch there's little to distinguish it from standard Hollywood product of the time. Considering the talent involved and what might have been it ranks as a disappointment, however, and also marks the ignominious end of a once great career.
The project began with a stage play by novelist Dawn Powell called "Walking Down Broadway." The play concerns two young women who come to New York from a small town and find it difficult to meet decent men. One of them, Madge, meets a guy. They fall in love, and she becomes pregnant. The lovers argue and break up. A woman friend helps Madge get an abortion, and she eventually reunites with her boyfriend. Powell couldn't interest anyone in staging her play but managed to sell it to Fox Films. ("Walking Down Broadway" finally received its belated premiere by the Mint Theatre Company of New York in 2005, forty years after Powell's death.) Even in the Pre-Code era the termination of a pregnancy was a taboo subject, but Powell's dialog was sharp and pungent, and the story of troubled romance in the big city held the potential for an effective screen drama.
Oddly enough, the first director associated with this project was none other than Erich Von Stroheim. Stroheim is not the first name that comes to mind for material of this nature: he was best known for his work from the silent era, worldly and sordid tales of aristocratic decadence, often set in Europe before the First World War. Powell's story was contemporary and concerned the struggles of young, middle-class, every day American types, more along the lines of King Vidor's THE CROWD than Stroheim's imperial spectacles. On the other hand Stroheim also made GREED, which concerned lower middle-class life in San Francisco. But he had not yet directed a talkie, and his position in Hollywood at this time was tenuous in the extreme. Stroheim was known for extravagance with budgets and bizarre behavior on the set. More to the point, perhaps, he hadn't had a hit to his credit since the mid-'20s, and was blamed for the collapse of QUEEN KELLY, an unfinished collaboration with Gloria Swanson that lost a fortune.
It's unclear whether Stroheim chose to adapt Powell's story or if the Fox front office assigned it to him, but once he set to work on it he did so with relish. While keeping the basic story-line of two small town women in the big city Stroheim made a number of changes. The central female character was renamed Peggy, and the role of her roommate (a chubby, giggling flirt in the play) was reworked as a neurotic spinster called Minnie for Stroheim's perennial favorite ZaSu Pitts. Newcomer Boots Mallory was cast as Peggy, while Jimmy, the young man who attracts her eye, was portrayed by Fox's up-and-coming leading man James Dunn. Mallory was a good choice, fresh and pretty yet not too glamorous, but Dunn's casting was ill-advised: he was in his 30s and appeared older, and it's hard to accept his Jimmy as inexperienced and naive. (Someone like Dick Powell would have been more appropriate.) Stroheim took the play's tomcat character Mac and turned him into a rotter who attempts to rape Peggy, and also concocted a sequence in which Minnie succumbs to despair and uses a gas oven to attempt suicide. The gas causes an explosion and fire that engulfs the women's apartment building, leading to an action-packed climax quite different (i.e. more "Hollywood") from the wistful conclusion of Powell's play.
Stroheim completed his work on the project in the fall of 1932, on schedule and within the allotted budget, but, as so often happened in his star-crossed career, trouble erupted almost immediately. Stroheim's film was gamy and raw, and worried Fox's top brass. At the same time a power struggle between the studio's executives resulted in the ascension of producer Sol Wurtzel, who favored lightweight escapist fare. Wurtzel and Stroheim despised each other, and it was Wurtzel who chose to bring in a new director and screenwriter and have much of the film re-shot. Stroheim's name was removed from the credits and most of his footage was discarded, while some of his scenes were inter-cut with material created by others. It is only this retitled hybrid version of the film which survives today.
Given its troubled history, the movie is exceptionally difficult to evaluate objectively. Unsurprisingly, the tone is inconsistent. Much of the material featuring Mallory, Dunn, and Pitts has the feel of a routine comedy-drama, while other sequences, such as Mac's attempted rape of Peggy, are startlingly intense. Even this sequence is undercut by the insertion of "comic relief" moments added after Stroheim's departure. Worse still, an actor named Will Stanton who specialized in playing drunks was written into the story in a recurring role. (It was the woefully unfunny Stanton who almost ruined Raoul Walsh's ME AND MY GAL, also made at Fox in 1932.) Minnie makes no attempt at suicide in the reworked version of the film; it is Stanton's supposedly funny drunk who causes the climactic fire. If that was intended as comic relief, it failed.
HELLO, SISTER! was released with little fanfare and quickly forgotten. Sadly, Erich Von Stroheim was never again entrusted with another directorial assignment. What survives of his work in this film suggests a vibrant if seamy slice-of-life saga that could have ranked with the most memorable dramas of the Pre-Code era. Instead, it's one more tragic case of What Might Have Been in a career that suffered more than its share of such calamities.
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