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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>
ONE-THIRD OF A NATION (Paramount, 1939), directed by Dudley Murphy, with a title taken from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's second inaugural speech, is basically one of many Depression-era stories from that period. Taken out of context from the Federal Theatre play by Arthur Aren't, there's no doubt it was naturally inspired by Sidney Kingsley's 1935 stage play, "Dead End." Sylvia Sidney, who assumed the role of a hard working shop-girl in the 1937 screen adaptation of DEAD END, assumes similar chores this time around yet minus the initial support of both mobster and tough teenage hoodlum angles taking major part of the plot.
With the story set during the summer months in New York City's lower east side, the introduction starts off with slum kids cooling themselves by taking a dip into the East River or going through the water pressure splashing over them from a fire hydrant. Things get even hotter when a lighted cigarette left burning on clothing in the basement causes one of the tenement buildings to go ablaze. Passing through by car driven by his chauffeur is millionaire Peter Courtlandt (Leif Erickson) accompanied by his friend, Don Hinchley (Hiram Sherman), who both stop to witness a disaster. With tenants rushing into the street and firemen making every effort to keep the building from burning to the ground, youngster Joey Martin (Sidney Lumet) saves himself by exiting onto a fire escape that soon falls apart, plunging three stories below. As his older sister, Mary (Sylvia Sidney) pushes through the crowd to be by his side, Peter offers his assistance rushing both injured boy and Mary to the hospital in his car. Because her father is on relief and unable to pay for any hospital bills, Peter, against Mary's wishes for not wanting to accept charity, offers to help with the expenses. Later, while at his estate, Peter discovers from Arthur Mather (Percy Waram), his business manager, that he's just inherited ownership of that neglected tenement building that's been in the family for generations. With numerous attempts to tear down these "rat traps" with cockroaches by replacing them with more modern ones, his involvement with Mary proves to be one setback while the intrusion of his snobbish sister, Ethel (Muriel Hutchinson) for reasons of her own, becomes another.
Produced at the Astoria Studios in Queens, N.Y., ONE-THIRD OF A NATION offers viewers and film buffs alike the opportunity to watch several actors from the New York stage making rare screen appearances, notably Myron McCormick as Sam Moon, the man who hates millionaires but loves Mary; Charles Dingle and Edmonia Nolley (Mr. and Mrs. Rogers); Otto Hulitt (Assistant District Attorney); and Horace Sinclair (John, the Butler). The only familiar face aside from the leading players is Iris Adrian, playing a tough talking, prostitute-type character named Myrtle. With Sylvia Sidney heading the cast, the story naturally belongs to Paramount contract player, Leif Erickson, courtesy of the Group Theater. While each give commendable character study performances, the one who gathers the most attention is young Sidney Lumet, decades before becoming one of Hollywood's finest directors. Looking more like 12 than his then true age of 14, Lumet gives the most believable and natural performance of them all. As the crippled boy with leg in brace using a crutch as his main support, he's seen in cap, checker-vested shirt and baggy trousers throughout. One scene where he wants to play with the guys, but unable to do so because of his circumstance, is truly heart felt. A pity he never got to perform in further screen assignments because he's a natural, especially the way he converses with his sister (Sidney). The underscoring and nice singing to the tune, "That's How Dreams Should End" is one that places the film above its level.
With the exception of late night viewing on some public television station in the 1990s, ONE-THIRD OF A NATION is one that's been out of the television markets for quite some time. Although I initially viewed ONE-THIRD OF A NATION at a screening in New York City's Museum of Modern Art in 1979, I've forgotten much of it over the years, with the exception of harrowing scenes where Joey talks spitefully to the building he lives in and hates, only to have (on three separate occasions) the building talking back to him with that demon sounding voice with hideous laugh. Another thing I recall is the Paramount logo that introduces and closes the film, something currently missing in circulating prints. In its place is Excelsior Pictures as its distributor with new opening and closing titles. With this presentation used in circulating prints either on home video or DVD, it also the one used for its broadcast on Turner Classic Movies where it premiered September 29, 2011.
ONE-THIRD OF A NATION could be labeled as one handicapped by corny plot, and probably so. In fact, it's better than it sounds, especially with its timely theme relevant now than it was back then, at least one-third of it anyway. (***)
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