A fire in a run-down tenement building injures young Joey Rogers. Wealthy passerby Peter Cortlant rushes the boy and his attractive older sister Mary to the hospital and pays the medical ... See full summary »
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A fire in a run-down tenement building injures young Joey Rogers. Wealthy passerby Peter Cortlant rushes the boy and his attractive older sister Mary to the hospital and pays the medical expenses for the poverty-stricken family. Only later does Peter learn that the firetrap tenement is one of his own vast real estate holdings. Faced with his own unwitting complicity in the deaths and injuries resultant from the fire and with his growing attachment to Mary, Peter decides to tear down his tenements and erect decent affordable housing. But his family is aghast at his plan and plots to wreck it. Written by
Jim Beaver <email@example.com>
A Courageous Depiction Of Life In The New York City Slums Of The 1930's
Let's acknowledge right off the top that the production qualities of this movie are very outdated (even by 1939 standards) and, at least in the version I saw, the sound quality was very poor. There were extended scenes in which I could make out barely any dialogue. Even acknowledging that, though, one has to give credit where credit is due. Those failings could (and probably should) result in a disastrous movie. Instead, "One Third Of A Nation" manages somehow to rise above those problems on the strength of a very good story and solid performances all round.
The movie provides a gritty and pathetic view of life in the New York City slums of the 1930's. The movie opens with a fire in one of the rundown tenement buildings that leaves a boy crippled after having to jump out a window to escape. There's complicity all round. The tenants don't complain about the conditions because they don't think anyone will respond; the authorities (as portrayed in a riveting, if brief, portrayal of a hearing into the causes of the fire) understand the problems but are powerless to do anything and largely pass the buck around to various agencies, and the wealthy live in uncaring ignorance, brilliantly portrayed in an icy cold performance by Muriel Huthinson as Ethel Cortland, whose brother Peter (Leif Erikson) owns the tenements through inheritance. As an example of how out of touch the rich are with the poor, Peter rushes to the fire at the start of the movie, basically seeing it as a show - he doesn't even know he's the owner. There's also a superb performance by Sylvia Sidney as Mary Rogers, the sister of the crippled boy, who becomes a crusader, trying to convince Cortland to tear down the old buildings and rebuild them.
I felt this was a very courageous movie, clearly and surprisingly approaching the issue from an overtly left-wing ideological perspective (unexpected from that era, in which there were great fears of the Depression-afflicted nation turning to communism). There are some graphic scenes (including one in which a burning man leaps off a building) and the last scene of the movie is appropriately ambiguous, leaving us wondering if Mary and Peter built a relationship in spite of their social differences. After a slow start (caused by the technical problems rather than the story) that made me rather hesitant I thought this turned into a superb movie. 8/10
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