Movie Critique - Street Scene

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: A medley of gossip, adultery, sexual harassment, racial uneasiness and murder on one single hot summer day in New York is what you get out of this old classic, a hidden gem showcasing human lives removed from the rosy glasses and fantasy plots.

Street Scene is a 1931 pre-Code American drama film directed by King Vidor and produced by Samuel Goldwyn. The lead cast includes Estelle Taylor, David Landau, Sylvia Sidney, William Collier Jr. and Beulah Bondi. The film is set on one street in New York City and the story is set one hot summer day going from one evening until the following afternoon.

When I was writing about the 1941 film noir I Wake Up Screaming a few months ago, I found that one of the background music used in that film was the theme music from this film. As always when I find tidbits of other films in a film I make a note of them and if it catches my interest, I like to look for them. And so when TCM aired the film, I couldn’t stop myself from watching.

Adapted from the Pulitzer-winning 1929 play of the same name by Elmer Rice, he also provided screenplay for this film. The film was filmed entirely on one set built on the backlot of United Artists Studio depicting the single street, except for one scene in a taxi. The theme music was composed by Alfred Newman, which had been reused over and over in several movies, one of which I mentioned above.

The story revolves around Rose Maurrant (portrayed by Sylvia Sidney), her father Frank Maurrant (portrayed by David Landau), her mother Anna Maurrant (portrayed by Estelle Taylor) and Sam Kaplan, her love interest (portrayed by William Collier Jr.). In a span of one day Rose deals with sexual harassment, gossip of adultery, racial discrimination, exploits by social welfare office, births, a murder and her try to escape that life on that street, all the while affecting the people she comes in contact with in many ways.

The basic plotline reminded me of the 1937 American crime drama, Dead End. More on the fact that even that film was pictured on one street and goes through the morning to night of one single day and events occurring around the people residing on that street. So 6 years prior to Dead End, director Vidor used the same concept in this film. And ofcourse the central heroine is again Sylvia Sidney in both films. Six years later she did the same role again.

The original play had premiered in 1929 in New York City. Eight cast members from the play reprised their roles in the film as well -  Eleanor Wesselhoeft (portrayed as Marguerite "Greta" Fiorentino), Beulah Bondi (portrayed as Emma Jones), John Qualen (portrayed as Karl Olsen), Conway Washburne (portrayed as Danny Buchanan), T.H. Manning (portrayed as George Jones), George Humbert (portrayed as Filippo Fiorentino), Ann Kostant (portrayed as Shirley Kaplan) and Matt McHugh (portrayed as Vincent Jones).

The gossip on the footstep in the film turns hot when Steve Sankey walks by who is having an affair with Mrs. Anna Muarrant. The ladies suggest Sankey to make a Smear Cake, alluding to the fact that they are aware of the affair. However I couldn’t figure out was a Smear Cake was…I found tons of recipes for Smearcase Cake though…perhaps that is what it was?

Elmer Rice played with words brilliantly. At every turn of the scene, his characters speak that allude to the extra marital affair that everyone who lives on that street knows about and they take great pleasure in rubbing it on that family.

"You should make Smear Cake"
"Well, if you ask me, all that gassy stuff don’t do you a bit of good."
"Well, there ought to be a law against women going around stealing other women's husbands."
"Hello, Rose. How's the milkman?"
"You seem to have plenty of admirers, Miss Muarrant. But I guess you come by it natural."

The film clearly highlights the hypocrisy lying inside every person, how they can consider it a norm if something their family member does, but it is a taboo if someone else does. How they treat and mis-treat each other is also shown excellently within a few frames or just a few lines.

We see these very hypocritic people discussing everything from their life's problems to politics to racial uneasiness to injustice; and also helping each other out when in need. A very long hot summer day articulated brilliantly by the director with some excellent acting by the cast members.

Just as how a hot day would go on in a lazily manner, the cast members also have their own lives trotting along as if they don’t have a care for anything in their life. Yet, everyone's nose in in everyone's business, making it a rather juicy tale rather than a dry plot.

A medley of gossip, adultery, sexual harassment, racial uneasiness and murder on one single hot summer day in New York is what you get out of this old classic, a hidden gem showcasing human lives removed from the rosy glasses and fantasy plots. A drama of human relationships brutally shoved into the viewer's face. A must watch!

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. This was screen debut for three actors in the film - Beulah Bondi who portrayed the role of Emma Jones; Matt McHugh who portrayed the role of Vincent Jones; and John Qualen who portrayed the role of Karl Olsen.

b. The character Sam Kaplan quotes from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass - “Sail Forth- Steer for the deep waters only. Reckless O soul, exploring. I with thee and thou with me. For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared go. And we will risk the ship, ourselves, and all.”; with a slight change in one line.

c. David Landau reminded me of Jose Ferrer, specially for the role of Dr. Marshall Cahill in the Season 3 Episode 6, Mind Over Mayhem, of Columbo TV series.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. We see that Ms. Kaplan shutting the window down in this scene. However immediately after she is seen leaning from the window talking to the characters below without even hearing the opening of the window again. 

b. When the milkman arrives to deliver milk the next morning, shadow of the boom mike can be seen twice - once on the right of the stoop; and again after Sam comes out of the building.

c. This same man passes Steve Sanky twice, once in the first scene when we see it from Sanky's back; and immediately in the reverse angle scene the same man passes again.

d. If you look closely at the end of the street under the railway staircases, you can see painted background of the street that it extends beyond.


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