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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>
This marked the first time that the then 14-year-old Sidney Lumet worked on a film and his first of only four acting roles. He would not appear in another feature film until The Manchurian Candidate (2004) in an unrecognizable cameo appearance. See more »
ONE THIRD OF A NATION is an odd film to come out of Hollywood in 1939. For one thing, although it was produced by Paramount Pictures, it plays more like an independent production and was shot at a studio in New York and features ample location footage. It includes some pre-code touches, even though the Production Code had been instituted five years earlier, and offers some blatant politicizing as well, not surprising given its origins as a play produced under the auspices of the Federal Theatre Project. I've often wondered why such an interesting-sounding film had so little a critical reputation, but now, after seeing it, I understand why.
The plot, such as it is, involves the unlikely budding relationship between a tenement girl on the Lower East Side, Mary Rogers (Sylvia Sidney), and a rich boy who turns out to be a slumlord, Peter Cortlant (Leif Erickson, "courtesy of the Group Theatre," as the opening credits so helpfully inform us). A fire in the building leaves Joey, Mary's younger brother, seriously injured, and Peter's presence on the scene allows him to take the boy to a private hospital and pay for his care, much to Mary's dismay once she discovers that he owns the rat trap she lives in. In a serious continuity lapse, Peter's inspection of the building some days after the fire reveals absolutely no fire damage.
Everyone has a tendency to make speeches and this continues throughout the film, whether at a hearing into the fire at the District Attorney's office or in a casual conversation between a tenement couple or in Mary's and Peter's scenes together. The original play seems to have been written with the aim of effecting slum clearance and putting up safe new housing. Everybody seems to want the slums torn down, but no one seems to give any thought to where to house the people who'll be displaced while waiting for the new housing to go up. Mary has a de facto boyfriend named Sam, played by Myron McCormick, who's described as a "leftist" and makes cracks about capitalism throughout the film. Yet no one bothers to try to organize the tenants and push through legislative action to solve the problem. The solution, as presented by the film, seems to be to get the rich to have a change of heart, something easily achieved when you have a tenement girl as pretty and poised as Sylvia Sidney and a rich landlord as young and handsome and good-hearted as Leif Erickson.
There are occasional bursts of realism, including the depiction of squalor inside the tenement building and the remarkable scenes of the kids at play in the streets, not to mention the occasional shots of actual spots on New York's Lower East Side. Also, in a surprising violation of the Production Code, one neighbor, Myrtle, played by Iris Adrian, is quite clearly shown as a prostitute conducting business out of her own apartment. Also, during the fire scenes there are shocking moments of people falling from the building, including one where Joey falls several stories off a broken fire escape ladder and, later, during a second climactic fire, when a burning body is seen flying from the building, graphic bits that would surely have been removed had the film been shot on a Hollywood soundstage.
Interestingly, the young actor who plays Joey, Mary's brother, is none other than Sidney Lumet, who was all of 14 at the time. Lumet, of course, would direct his first Hollywood film 18 years later (TWELVE ANGRY MEN) and continue directing for at least the next 50 years. Also in the film is Lumet's actor father, Baruch Lumet, who appears as a distraught tenement occupant whose wife and children died in the fire. Both Lumets, I'm sorry to report, are guilty of overacting. One can't blame young Sidney, though, saddled as he is by scenes of the building "talking" to him at night and taunting him, including a jaw-dropping bit where the building "shows" little Joey a flashback to a 19th century cholera epidemic in the building.
The film was rather stiffly directed by Dudley Murphy, who also directed THE EMPEROR JONES (1933), with Paul Robeson, and ST. LOUIS BLUES (1929), with Bessie Smith. There's a theatrical bent to most of the performances that contrasts badly with the more naturalistic acting found two years earlier in a similarly-themed play-to-film adaptation, DEAD END (1937), which was much more interesting dramatically and much more cinematically directed (by William Wyler), and which also starred Sylvia Sidney.
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