Street Scene (1931)

Passed   |    |  Drama, Romance

Street Scene (1931) Poster

Twenty-four hours elapse on the stoop of a Hell's Kitchen tenement as a microcosm of the American melting pot interacts with each other during a summer heatwave.


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9 December 2009 | st-shot
| West Side Stories
King Vidor's film adaptation of Edgar Rice's Pulitzer Prize winning play about the denizens of a tenement on New York's West Side is a gracefully crafted well paced story balanced by an abundance of humor and sadness. As lives intersect in front of the stoop we are presented a cross section of the great melting pot with accents and biases in place arguing politics, dispensing philosophy, bragging, fueling stereotypes ,gossiping and complaining about the heat.

In less skillful and ambitious hands Street Scene might have made for a more than passable filmed stage play by working in the confines of a studio sound stage but Vidor takes it to the streets in more than one scene giving the film a more gritty and realistic feel as well as using the expanse for symbolic purpose. He also eschews back projection by cleverly erecting a set off of an actual city street to provide realistic backdrop. His camera movement is breathtaking and powerful without being self indulgent as his signature crane shots unveil the neighborhood to establish time place and elevate drama. Working in a limited space he keeps things fresh and energized by changing angles and using natural transition by tracking characters into other conversations. His languorous but deliberate pace befitting a summer in the city heat wave that leads up to the stunningly edited climactic scene is perfectly measured for maximum effect. Max Steiner's score as well as the ambient music of children playing and singing in two separate scenes of dark irony seamlessly contribute to the films mood. While a general gloominess pervades and bigotries are ungoverned the stoop is the scene of great joy and humor much of it dark.

The cast of various ethnic types run from comic to ugly as they freely spout superstitions, bravado, rumor, bigotry and revolution. Some have dreams but most are filled with cynicism. Beulah Bondi as busy body Emma Jones is a sidewalk Cassandra with nothing good to say about anything or anyone. Sad eyed Sylvia Sidney gives a heartfelt performance as the daughter in the tragic Maurant family. Pulled from all sides she struggles to keep her family together while fending off the the seduction efforts of her boss who dangles a place of her own in front of her.

Street Scene is a microcosm in part of the immigrant experience in America during the first half of the last century and though some of the characterizations may be broad it retains an important historical significance. But it is King Vidor's master class( greatly assisted by the lensing of Barnes and Toland) in cinema grammar that awes and makes Street Scene a superb work of the early sound era.

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