Street Scene (1931) King Vidor

    The film opens with the camera panning left to right across the skyline and rooftops of New York City settling down on a street in a lower class ethnic neighborhood of Manhattan, and one tenement building in particular. It is summer and it is excruciatingly hot, neighbors are sitting on the stoop of the building, kids are playing, cooling off with the help of a hose attached to an open fire hydrant. The adults all complaining about the unbearable heat, gossiping, arguing politics, tugging at the sweat soaked clothing clinging to their bodies.  The neighbors are a melting pot of accents, an American mosaic of Italians, Jews, Swedes and other nationalities all living in close quarters. They’re friendly, yet at times cautious toward each other forced by the circumstance, of looking for a better life in America, to live together.  

     Anna Maurrent (Estelle Taylor) is one of these people, a bored housewife married to Frank (David Landau) an alcoholic man, stern, seemingly beaten down by life. In a search for some excitement from her dreary existance, she is carrying on an affair with Steve (Russell Hopken), a bill collector and a married man. The neighbors all are aware of Anna’s indiscretion including noisy gossipy neighbor Emma Jones (Beulah Bondi).

    Anna and Frank have a grown daughter Rose, (Sylvia Sydney) who works at a Real Estate office. She is pursued by her boss who flatters her that she should pursue a stage career. He encourages her to move out of the neighborhood, telling her he is willing to set her up in a nice apartment. Of course, his motives are less than pure. He, like her mother’s lover, is also married. Rose resists his advances but does go out to dinner with him. Then there is Sam Kaplan, a young Jewish law student who lives in the building and has crush on the young Rose. Sam also happens to be a coward and is continually bullied by Vincent, Emma Jones son who spits out ethnic slurs and is always coming on to Rose. Sam, however is so in love with Rose that he is willing to give up his law studies and run away with Rose toward a better life.

    One afternoon Frank unexpectedly comes home early and notices the window shade is drawn in his apartment. Running upstairs, he finds Anna and her lover in the apartment and he shoots them dead.  The police soon capture Frank in a basement down the block. He apologizes to his daughter for the mess he has created as the police take him away. Tragedy has changed Rose’s life forever, for her, her young brother and everyone on the block.

    Director King Vidor has subtly opened up the stage bound play by using a variety of camera angles making you forget the entire story takes place outside the building. Vidor already known for such classics “The Crowd” and “The Big Parade” delivers a film that retains its social impact still after all these years. The only scene I found dated was Frank’s escape, right after the shooting. It is awkwardly structured and  poorly directed.    

    The characters are colorful and human. A wonderful scene involves an Italian man and a Swede, the janitor of the building, as they argue about who really discovered America, Columbus or Leif Erickson. The script is also filled with pre-code touches, illicit affairs, ethnic slurs, and sexual innuendo.

    New Yorkers will be nostalgically reminded of a life now long gone. One scene that rang a bell for me was when Rose’s kid brother yells up to his mother to throw a dime out the window for some ice cream. Anna who is two stories up wraps the dime in a napkin and tosses it out the window to the kid (many times my Mom and I enacted this scene in my own childhood). Tenants sitting outside on the stoop, on the hot summer days was also a common sight.

    Vidor ends the film with a reverse pan of his opening shot, the camera moving right to left from the streets of Manhattan up to the rooftops and across the New York skyline.  This opening and closing was a typical technique used by D.W. Griffith in some of his shorts (The Country Doctor). However, you can read more into this than Vidor emulating Griffith, I interpreted it to mean that the story is just one of  many in one neighborhood of many. It happened here but could happen anywhere.  

    The film is based on playwright Elmer Rice’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, which ran for more than 600 performances on Broadway. Beulah Bondi made her screen debut recreating her stage role in the film. Several other actors from the play also appear in the film. Rice was a prolific author, stage director and producer. Other works include “The Adding Machine” and “Counsellor-at-Law.”  Rice’s career extended close to 40 years as a playwright with more than 50 plays to his credit.

****

Tit for Tat (1935) Charley Rogers

    The comedy of Laurel & Hardy was at its best in the series of shorts they made before branching out in feature length films. Most of their features could not sustain the humor or the structure. Yes, there were exceptions like “Way Out West” and “Sons of the Desert”, however overall the shorts possess their best work. The 1935 “Tit for Tat” is one of Stan and Ollie’s best. It reflects their unique style of anarchistic comedy, which generally begins as a simple problem that escalates into a choreographed sequence of immature behavior compounded by deliberate malice and still more immature behavior, a tit for tat battle of the nitwits that ends in total destruction. That’s just what happens in this film, the only one of their works that references a previous film, in this case the 1934, “Them Thar Hills.” 

    Stan and Ollie open up an electric store right next to Charley Hall’s grocery store. Hall and his wife (Mae Busch) had a earlier run in with the boys in the previously mention 1934 short where an inebriated Stan and Ollie innocently get Mrs. Hall drunk to the disapproval of  Mr. Hall, leading to a tit for tat retaliation between the irate husband and the boys.

    With their new store ready to open, Stan and Ollie go next door to introduce themselves to their neighbor. To everyone’s displeasure, all remember each other. Mr. Hall plainly tells the boys he wants nothing to do with them. Back at their store, Ollie has climbed a ladder to screw in some light bulbs into their new outdoor sign. Stanley, mentally resistant to all around him, presses the up button on the outside elevator that Ollie happens to have his ladder on. As the ladder rises up, so does Ollie until he is forced to grab on to a window ledge that leads to the first story apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Hall next door. Ollie’s only recourse is to ask Mrs. Hall if he could come in through the window, which she graciously agrees too. Downstairs in the grocery store Mr. Hall watches as Ollie and Mrs. Hall come downstairs from his apartment. Unaware of how and why Ollie was upstairs, Mr. Hall accuses him of fooling around with his wife and tells him never to come back.

    Back in his own store Ollie is perturbed by Mr. Hall’s indecent accusation and goes back to the grocery store demanding an apology from Mr. Hall for accusing him of fooling around with his wife. Mr. Hall kicks the boys out of his store telling them not to return. Soon the retaliations begin; Stan and Ollie pour honey into Mr. Hall’s cash register. Mr. Hall goes to their store and destroys a group wrist watches putting them into a blender. The back and forth battle continues culminating with some hilarious creative uses of a crate of eggs and a bucket of lard.  

    While the tit for tat reprisals between the two store owners occupies all there attention, there is a running gag with a man who keeps entering Stan and Ollie’s store and walking out with an electrical appliance. They continuously see him leaving their store with another package under his arm and a greeting of “how do you do.” He does this again and again until the man finally backs up a truck and cleans out the entire store.

    While Laurel and Hardy humor may seem so simple, and they made it look so easy, the plots of their films are always well structured, the humor, building up to the next level of the joke flowing smoothly from the previous. Their characters were well defined, Stanley not very bright and Ollie only arguably a shade brighter bumble their way through every difficulty with bewilderment and frustration. “Tit for Tat” was well received by the public and by critics as well. The film was honored with a nomination for an Academy Award in the live short subject category.  They had previously won an Oscar for their three reel short, “The Music Box.”

The Strawberry Statement (1970) Stuart Hagmann

    By 1970, the film studios of Hollywood, or what was left of them, were trying to desperately connect with the hip and new power of the youth market that exploded on to the scene in the late sixties. Films like “The Graduate”, “Bonnie and Clyde” and  “Easy Rider” proved  if you made them, they will come…..maybe.  MGM, a studio that epitomized the essence of old Hollywood, purchased  James Simon Kunen’s best-selling non-fiction book, “The Strawberry Statement”, which detailed his personal experiences as a student at Columbia University during the April 1968 student protest and eventual takeover of University buildings.

    Playwright Israel Horovitz was hired to turn Knuen’s journalistic book into a screenplay. Among Horovitz works was the off-Broadway play, “The Indian Wants the Bronx” which opened in 1968 and starred two unknown actors by the name of Al Pacino and John Cazale. Pacino and Cazale won Obies for Best Actor and Best Supporting, respectively.   “The Strawberry Statement” was his first screenplay.

    Unlike the book, the film is set at a fictional University in San Francisco instead of Columbia in New York City. Most likely because, and this is an assumption on my part, Columbia did not want to  relive or re-ignite the 1968 uprising and refused to let the film be set on its campus. Subsituting San Francisco for New York was a good and reasonable choice.

    Our counterculture hero is Simon (Bruce Davison), an apathetic jock on the University’s rowing team. He only becomes involved in campus politics because of his attraction to Linda (Kim Darby) a cute girl who is supposedly an activist but other than spitting out a couple of lines about caring and causes seems  not to do much more than be  Simon’s girlfriend. Women in general are treated mostly as sexual objects and gofers for the men who are really doing the organizing.

    A group of students are protesting the Universities decision to build an ROTC center. The organizers call for the students to strike.  Simon seems to be only half-heartedly into the entire movement but that all changes in the last 15 minutes or so of the film when life becomes drastically more confrontational.

   The students are occupying the administration building. Outside the police and the National Guard, equipped with tear-gas, stand ready to close in. The students are sitting on the floor in a large circle chanting John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” as they prepare for the oncoming assault. The police and National Guard begin to move in, a full-scale riot breaks out with the police and National Guard beating on the students with nightsticks. Simon and Linda are caught in the middle of the riot. Separated, they are fighting for their lives as the film ends with a frozen shot of Simon trying to jump over the police who are reaching out to grab him.

    Whether one sympathizes are with the students or think they got what they deserved I’m sure depends on one’s point of view. (One posting on IMDB naively called the student protests “communist riots”). While many students were radicalizes by the times, or at least became more politically aware, many others did not participate in these demonstrations, they just wanted to go to school, get an education, get a job and probably avoid the draft and getting this asses shipped off to Vietnam.

    Looking at the film today, the students come off as naïve; the film itself is part satirical (thanks to Horovitz’s writing) and part Kent State. Were the shootings at Kent State where National Guardsman fired more than 60 rounds of ammunition killing four students and wounding nine others, influential to the filmmakers? It’s doubtful since the incident at Kent State happened on May 4th and the film was released in Mid-June of the same year. The timeline seems very tight. Clashes between the authorities and protesters already had a history i.e. the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention.    

    One of the highlights of the film is its magnificent soundtrack, that begins during the opening credits with the Joni Mitchell song, “The Circle Game” sung by Buffy Sainte-Marie. Other works include, “The Loner” and “Down by the River” by Neil Young, ‘Our House” and “Helpless” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “There’s Something in the Air” by Thunderclap Newman and as previously mentioned the students chanting  a powerful version of “Give Peace a Chance” just prior to the final confrontation with the police and National Guard.   

   Overall, the film is erratic; there are times when it conveys a realistic feel of the time and place, mostly through the music and art direction. A nice touch is a scene in Simon’s room where we hear an LP on his turntable playing   Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra”, a nod to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  Thanks to Horovitz there is some absurdist humor, though irrelevant to anything else going on in the film contributes to the personality of those times. That said, our counterculture hero Simon is not very radical, his interest in the movement has more to do with hooking up with Linda and hopefully getting laid than that of any higher political calling. His dedication to the movement is limited as we see when he sneaks out of the building, controlled by the students, to attend his  team’s rowing practice.   

    The cast includes Bud Cort and Bob Balaban as two of the students, James Coco, as a grocery store owner, who sympathize with the “revolutionaries”, though in he credits he is listed  as being one of  “The Establishment.”   The book’s author James Simon Knuen also has a small role as well as screenwriter Horovitz.

    For director Stuart Hagmann, this was his first feature film. His film career was mercifully short. With a commercial and TV background, his camera technique, is filled with zooms,  twirling upside down camera movements that he may have seen as hip but was then and now just plain annoying. His motto seems to be forget substance, just check out what I can do with this camera!

     During this period, Hollywood came out with a series of films about student unrest, most of which were dismal like “Getting Straight” and Stanley Kramer’s “RPM” in which student Ann-Margret was having an affair with Professor Anthony Quinn!  Some were more successful works like Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool” and Paul Williams little seen, “The Revolutionary.” 

    The title of this film, by the way, supposedly refers to a statement made by a Columbia administrator who said the opinions of the students on administrative manners meant no more than as if they said they like the taste of strawberries. The administrator has since stated that he was misquoted. Kunen also offered the statement that the title partially refers to the rock group, The Strawberry Alarm Clock.

    The copy of this film I watched was a severely edited TCM version; one of the few “R” rated post 1970’s films I have watched on TCM. I was appalled by the sloppy unnecessary editing; after all, the film was shown in the middle of the night, somewhere around 2:30AM. Anyone up at that late time should be old enough to make their own decisions about whether they want to watch an “R” rated film or not. There were obvious cuts for female nudity and a ridiculous fogging of Bruce Davison ass in a shower scene. Editing vulgarity resulted in a lot bull…that made Simon sound like a stuttering idiot in one particular scene. I know TCM has shown other films that contained nudity. When originally released, the film “Kramer vs. Kramer” has nude scenes, so  I now wonder how TCM handled this. I always thought TCM had the integrity to show films uncut but I guess I was wrong.

**1/2

Times Square of Yesteryear – Part 2

In Part 2 still more theatres that made Times Square a mecca for moviegoers.   

The New York  aka Globe Theater and the Big Apple 

As the Times Square district deteriorated, the theaters began to reflect the times. By the time the New York/Globe was renamed The Big Apple the theater was reduced to a porn house.

Rko Palace – 1962

The Roxy    – Called “The Cathedral of the Motion Picture”, The Roxy was THE theater on Broadway with a multi-tiered balconey and close to 6,000 seats!  

With the decline in movie attendance in the 1950’s The Roxy closed it doors in 1960.  Below is Gloria Swanson standing in the rubble of what was once The majestic Roxy Theater.

The Strand

 In the early 1950’s The Strand was renamed the Warner Theater and a few years later renamed the Warner Cinerama playing films like “Exodus” (see ad below). In 1963, the theater was equiped for 70MM films like “It’s A Mad, Mad , Mad, Mad World”, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “Camelot.” Another name change followed to the RKO Cinerama and then two screens were added turning the theater into a triplex with the names  the Penthouse and the  Orleans.  The theater closed and was demolished in 1987.

Criterion Theater

National Theater

Noir City Film Festival January 22-31

The 8th annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival starts on January 22nd at the Castro Theater. Films in the program includes:

Cry Danger (restored)

Walk a Crooked Mile

Armoured Car Robbery

Red Light

Pitfall

Niagara

Larceny

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Odd’s Against Tomorrow

Women’s Prison

He Ran All the Way

Pickup on South Street

Human Desire

A Place in the Sun

  ….and more!

Times Square of Yesteryear – Part 1

Once upon a time Times Square was not just the center of the theater district it was also the center for the great majestic movie palaces with magical names like The Roxy, The Strand, The Astor, The Capitol and The Rivoli, all with huge billboard advertising the latest cinematic spectacle.   Today there are no movie theaters on Times Square. All that is left are two cinemaplexes on 42nd street. Here is what it used to look like when movie theaters ruled.

Times  Square -1955 – that is the  Criterion Theater underneath the Pepsi sign.1955timessqnorthview

Times  Square 1958 – Loew’s State

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Times Square – 1962

Ben-Hur is playing at the Loew’s State. On the left at the Astor Theater is Inherit the Wind  

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Loew’s State

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Astor Theater 

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Astor and Victoria Theaters

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Victoria Theater

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Paramount Theater  – The Paramount was one of the premiere theaters of its time. Frank Sinatra had thousands of young bobby soxers screaming in the ailes in the 1940’s. parafrank

In 1956, Elvis Presley’s  first movie “Love Me Tender” premiered at the Paramount where a new generation of young girls were screaming.   paramount-theatre-love-me-tender-premierev168341

Rivoli Theater   – Roadshow engagements were common back then. Big attractions  like “West Side Story”  played for more than  one year. Two shows daily at 2pm and 8pm. 

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Loew’s Capitol

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Mayfair Theater  (Many theaters changed names over the year’s. The Mayfair became the Loew’s Mayfair and then The DeMille and eventually the Embassy 123 before closing its doors for good.   

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Visit My New Blog “Watching Shadows on the Wall”

 I know, I know, just what the world needs now another blog! So why am I starting this? Well, there have been times I wanted to write on other topics outside of the scope of Twenty Four Frames. Topics of interest like books, photography, music, cats, TV, movies (that do not fit into the framework of 24Frames) and any random thoughts that may spill out of my head. 

    I also wanted a place where I could catalog articles I found on the web on subjects, ideas I am interested in and may be of interest to others. In other words, I want a place for my stuff, as George Carlin would say. Everyone needs a place for there stuff. 

     Whatever I write about the postings will be  short, as most of my time will still be devoted to 24 Frames. There are already a couple of postings to get things started.  

    The blog’s title is “Watching Shadows on the Wall” ,  and if you haven’t guessed already, the title is a line from the John Lennon song, “Watching the Wheels.”