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.


19 comments on “Street Scene (1931) King Vidor

  1. R.D. Finch says:

    John, I saw this on TCM a couple of months ago and like you found it quite impressive. Although clearly based on a play, it was still surprisingly cinematic, especially for such an early sound film, a point that came through clearly in your excellent post. You could sure tell that Vidor had a lot of experience as a silent director and wasn’t about to let the stagy concept and dialogue interfere with his cinematic way of telling a story. Sylvia Sydney was just luminous as the main character (it’s a mystery to me why she didn’t become a bigger star), and Bondi was memorable as the crabby neighbor. Wasn’t the Swede you mentioned John Qualen, later a favorite of John Ford and the condemned killer in “His Girl Friday”? The cinematographer was George Barnes, who worked on some Hitchcock films and made the striking-looking “Force of Evil.”


    • John Greco says:

      John Qualen had quite a career. STREET SCENE was his first film and he worked again with Vidor in OUR DAILY BREAD a few years later. And yes, that was him in THE SEARCHERS and in HIS GIRL FRIDAY.
      He also appeared in ELMER GANTRY and TWO ROAD TOGETHER, among others. Qualan actually had a long career as a character actor and later in his career did a lot of TV up until the 1970’s I believe.


  2. Gary says:

    For Bondi fans, “Make Way For Tomorrow,” one of her greatest performances, and one of the greatest films that has never appeared on video (except in Europe) is being released by Criterion on DVD in about a month.
    Miracles do happen


  3. R.D. Finch says:

    I should have mentioned that the biggest surprise to me was how frankly anti-Semitism was dealt with in the movie.


  4. John, the thing that caught my attention immediately was Alfred Newman’s music. I’ve heard that theme many times before, though they all came later in movie history. While this was a Goldwyn film the tune must have been Newman’s own property, or bought by Twentieth Century Fox, since you usually hear it over Fox films. As for the film itself, one of the things that impressed me was the casual handling of Sam’s father being some sort of socialist or communist. It’s nothing that needs to be repudiated, but nothing necessarily to be taken seriously, either.


    • John Greco says:

      this film was impressive on many levels, the politics, the handling of the sexual themes and anti-semitism . If the film was made a few years later none of this would have appeared and what we would have gotten would have certainly been a watered down version.


  5. […] Few writers online are as prolific as my very good friend John Greco, and few ar as passionate bout what they write and what they post.  Whether it’s insightful reviews or poster displays John is always engaging and ultra-informed and he possesses a wealth of experience.  His latest is on a King Vidor feature: […]


  6. Judy says:

    This sounds fascinating, John – I can’t get enough of these early 1930s movies and this sounds like a very good one. I liked Sylvia Sidney in ‘Blood on the Sun’, though that isn’t a very good film, and would be interested to see her in this.


  7. Sam Juliano says:

    Yes, Samuel Wilson’s mention here of Alfred Newman’s score (when the composer was reaching the peak of his powers) is warranted. But the star of course is Vidor himself, whose socially-conscious films dating back to the silent era (his LA BOHEME and WILD ORANGES were just announced as new releases by Warner Archives, and I’ll soon be diving in) as you note, was most celebrated with THE CROWD and THE BIG PARADE, his two irrefutable masterpieces.
    Of course the pre-code touches here are delightful, and that mention of Bondi and the upcoming Criterion release of MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW is cause for celebration.
    Typically terrific review, with the fascinating contexts.


    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Sam, That is good news about the Warner Achive releases and Newman’s score in an important part of the films success.


  8. Dave says:

    Haven’t seen this one, John, but then again I haven’t seen much Vidor in general… it was only a few week ago that I finally watched The Crowd for the first time (it was outstanding). This is an excellent piece, though, and the great discussion that it’s kicked off has me interested. I’ll keep my eyes open on TCM.


  9. Bill Solly says:

    I agree with your correspondents, it’s an amazing movie – strangely belittled by critics. Alfred Newman’s classic music for Manhattan makes its debut (I noticed one of the blogs mistakes it for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue!), and what is overlooked in every review I’ve seen is the use of Chopin’s poignant Prelude (Op 28, no 4) – when the little girl comes for her violin lesson & gets trapped in the house with the other witnesses – as a prelude to the murders.


    • John Greco says:

      Bill, thanks very much for you input here and especially for noting the use of Choplin. Appreciate and please stop by again!


  10. Enjoyed your post, John — as always! I was glad for the opportunity to see this film — I’d had it in my collection for a while, but the copy wasn’t that great and I never made the effort to watch more than the first few minutes. Once I made it through, I was much impressed. The most powerful scene to me was the murder scene, where the bill collector tries to escape out of the window and is yanked back into the room. It’s really something — I watched it over and over.


  11. John Greco says:

    Thanks again. i love the whole idea of seeing tennement life. having grown up in NYC,I remember how on hot summer nights people would gather outside the front of the building generally gabbing and gossiping.This film brings that flavor out perfectly.


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