Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, “City Streets” was released during the first wave of classic gangster films in the early 1930′s. Along with “The Public Enemy,” “Scarface” and “Little Caesar,” this Paramount release helped fuel the depression era audience need for celluloid bootleggers, machine guns and dames. Paramount Pictures was not known for its gangster films at this time though Josef Von Sternberg did make the silent classic, “The Docks of New York” (1929), and “City Streets” started out as a loose remake of the 1928 William Wellman silent, “Ladies of the Mob,” a film believed to no longer have any copies in existence. Later on Paramount did make gangster films like “Dark City” (1950), “The Brotherhood” (1968) and most prominently, “The Godfather” trilogy.
One of the highlights making “City Streets” so interesting is that it is the only film where the lanky Gary Cooper portrays an underworld character and one who gets away with his crimes. It’s also part of the reason the film is so little known compared to its contemporaries. Once the Production Code came into existence, the Hayes Office refused to let this film be re-released for many decades. Unlike, “The Public Enemy” or “Little Caesar” where a few objectionable scenes could be snipped out, and were, you could not change the fact that the murderers in this film get away without any retribution, even Cooper’s character, known only as The Kid, does not pay for his sins. Subsequently, “City Streets” is rarely discussed when books about the great gangster films of the 1930′s are written. For example, neither “The BFI Companion to Crime” nor John McCarty’s “Bullets over Hollywood” mention the film, though McCarty does refer to it in his earlier book, “Hollywood Gangland.”
Along with Gary Cooper, the film stars the lovely Sylvia Sidney as Nan Cooley, a gangster’s daughter who falls in love with The Kid. When they first meet The Kid is a gentle naïve, though impish, young man working at a local carnival’s shooting gallery. He also happens to be pretty accurate at shooting guns. Their love affair gets off to a shaky start since Nan is ambivalent about her father’s (Guy Kibbee) career working for The Big Guy (Paul Lukas), the biggest bootlegger in town. The Kid wants no part of this life of crime.
Pop soon get his daughter caught up in a gangland slaying, the murder of a fellow hood named Blackie (Stanley Fields). Nan takes the rap, refusing to implicate her father in the crime, and is sent away to prison for two years. Sleazy Pop uses the opportunity to convince The Kid the cops framed Nan and get him join the mob thinking he could help get Nan released.
Nan’s ambivalent view on her father’s occupation changes while in prison and she’s horrified The Kid has now joined the ranks. She tries to persuade him to quit but he refuses. The Big Guy meanwhile has taken a keen liking to Nan and while Pop is willing to pimp his daughter out to the boss man, The Kid is not willing to share his girl. At a party, the Big Guy forces Nan to dance with him all night long, promising her she can have everything she wants, clothes, cars, jewelry, etc. if she stays with him. Upset, The Kid declares his claim to The Big Guy that Nan is his girl and he isn’t giving her up. This does not bode well with The Big Guy and The Kid’s career in the mob may be short lived…or not.
So how does this film compare to what are generally considered the top three gangster films of the early sound film era? Well, I won’t declare any great revelations, but it’s pretty damn good, certainly better than MGM’s contribution, “The Secret Six,” to the period’s underworld crime scene. It’s certainly the most artistic and elegantly photographed film thanks to the talents of cinematographer Lee Garmes. Director Rouben Mamoulian shoots the film at times like he was part of the French New Wave. One wonders if Godard, Truffaut and company had seen this film in their early days. While some of Mamoulian’s shots may seem a little pretentious the film has a poetic touch missing in most works from this period.
The entire cast is an attraction. As mentioned, it’s an unusual role for Gary Cooper and he manages to be both innocently charming and resilient. What’s impressive about Cooper’s performance is how he goes convincingly from a naive hayseed working at a carnival to a smooth tough, sophisticated gangster. Also in a change of pace are Guy Kibbee, as the sleazy Dad and killer willing to let his daughter get jail time for not squealing on him and Paul Lukas as the debonair but menacing bootlegger kingpin. Some may find Lukas an unsuitable choice as an American gangster but I thought it was a nice change of pace. Finally, and I saved her for last, is Sylvia Sidney, who is enormously appealing in what was only her second feature film (she was already a well known star on Broadway). As Nan, she is convincingly naive to think the mob will protect her from jail time. Clara Bow, who starred in “Ladies of the Mob,” was originally scheduled for this role, but due to several major personal problems, including a nervous breakdown, Ms. Sydney replaced her. Incidentally, Paramount film producer B. P. Shulberg was Sidney’s lover at the time and previously Shulberg had an affair with Ms. Bow. (1)
After the publication and success of his novel, “The Maltese Falcon,” in 1930 (2) Hollywood beckoned Dashiell Hammett to write something original for the movies. He came up with a short story that he turned into a film treatment called “The Kiss-off” (3) which was then adapted into a screenplay by Max Marcin and Oliver Garrett and retitled “City Streets.” As mentioned Lee Garmes atmospheric camera work adds a nice sophisticated stylish, moody feel to it all. Director Rouben Mamoulian adds first rate visual touches though he gets a bit heavy on symbolism. Note how most of the murders occur off-screen. For example, all we see of one victim is his hat floating in a river. Yet, there is some strong violence. At one point toward the end, in a nightclub scene, one of the Big Guy’s stooges shoves a fork into one unexpected victim’s hand. This was only Mamoulian’s second film (his first film was “Applause”) and his creative juices were flowing. His use of a voice over in one scene with Sylvia Sidney was the first time this technique had ever been done. It’s also been said Al Capone liked this film very much considering it an accurate portrayal of the gangster life.
(1) Clara Bow was well known for her wild love life and previously had an affair with Gary Cooper who was now involved in a love affair with Lupe Velez. Bow’s problem’s at this time involved a lawsuit she initiated against a former secretary named Daisy DeVoe who had stolen thousands of dollars worth of clothing and other items from Clara. While Bow won the lawsuit, she lost more than she gained. While on the stand DeVoe revealed much of Bow’s private life including affairs with Richard Arlen, Fredric March, Gilbert Roland, director Victor Fleming, Bela Lugosi and Cooper. She also repeated the previously disclosed sordid tales of Bow’s supposed drug use and her “entertaining” the USC football team, a story which seems to be more rooted in fiction than fact. Cooper was fearful at the time the court case and his name being prominently mentioned would overflow and be detrimental to his own career, but needless to say, it did not. Bow’s career however went into a tailspin from which it never recovered.
(2) Originally serialized in BLACK MASK in 1929.
(3) From what I can construct, the similarities between “Ladies of the Mob” and “City Streets” are minor except for the theme of a gangster’s daughter falling in love with a guy and attempting to keep him away from the underworld influence of her father. ”The Kiss-off,” Hammett’s original screen treatment, will be available this coming November in a newly published book called, “The Hunter and Other Stories.”
The Last Hero: A Biography of Gary Cooper – Larry Swindell
Coop: The Life and Legend of Gary Cooper – Stuart Kaminsky