7 June 2002 | bmacv
Unforgettable slice of life from infancy of sound era
King Vidor's Street Scene, from the infancy of the sound era, may be cinema's quintessential slice of life. Drawn from the 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Elmer Rice so many movies from the earliest 1930s were little more than filmed stage plays Street Scene surmounts the limitations of its time and its material to achieve the status of a minor milestone in movie history. It's dated, occasionally clumsy, but unforgettable.
Street Scene's microcosm is a brownstone in a Manhattan tenement block during a scorching heat wave. The residents, in their various comings and goings, loiter on its front stoop to catch a stray zephyr and exchange some gossip. The gossip-in-chief is Beulah Bondi, a dried-up streel griping that she doesn't have a `dry stitch' on her (Vidor permits himself a cheeky shot of her, shot from below and behind, when she furtively unsticks her house dress from her, well, person).
Incidental players include a henpecked young husband whose wife is about to go into labor; an elderly Jew spouting socialist rant; his son, a non-violent college man with a crush on a gentile girl; cheerful Italians and dour Scandinavians; pinched and bitter social workers; gasbags, mashers and inebriates.
After reviling the weather with immemorial cliches, the characters turn wickedly to their chief topic: the milkman's suspicious visits to a married woman upstairs. (Her daughter, the central character in the drama -- Sylvia Sidney -- makes a later entrance but will ring down the curtain.) Meanwhile, the characters carry on city life in a rough-and-tumble of casually aimed racist barbs, sanctimonious judgementalism, and general acceptance of the notion that one's neighbors' lives are the reality television of the day, to be viewed with gusto. The potent cocktail of slander and humidity will have fatal results.
Vidor employs his talents adroitly. The movie's first `act' stays stubbornly crouched on that stoop, but gradually Vidor opens up his stage in a series of tilts and pans so that the brownstone becomes but one cell in a bustling urban organism. (Technically, it's precocious, and the story's dramatic `climax' arrives in a montage that may elicit smiles but still remains impressive.) Surviving current attitudes about political correctness and convincing `realism' (that most elusive of artifices), Street Scene endures as haunting, human experiment among the finest of the first `talkies.'
Note: Rice's play was later to become the libretto to Kurt Weill's Broadway `opera' Street Scene.