TCM Pick for June: Pre-Code
My TCM pre-Code pick of the month is the aptly named Street Scene (1931), starring Sylvia Sidney. Its name is apt because all of the film’s action takes place on a single street, focusing primarily on the tenants of a single apartment building. Next to Strange Interlude (airing on TCM late in the month), which allows the audience to hear the characters’ thoughts, Street Scene is just about the most unique pre-Code I’ve seen. You can catch it on TCM on June 22nd.
The film doesn’t really have a plot – it offers a peek inside a New York City neighborhood, during one hot summer night and into the next day. We meet a motley blend of personages, including gossipy busybody Emma Jones (Beulah Bondi), adulterous housewife Anna Maurrant (Estelle Taylor) and her perpetually ill-tempered husband (David Landau), and the Maurrant’s daughter, Rose (Sylvia Sidney), who is sought after by her married boss and the Jewish college boy who lives in her building. These and many other characters provide a fascinating slice of life, depicting everything from marital infidelity to benevolence, alcoholism to racial bigotry, not to mention a collection of mashers, poets, loafers, musicians, anarchists, working girls, and panhandlers. Street Scene has ’em all.
You won’t find many gratuitous sightings of ladies in their undies, but Street Scene does offer a rather racy exchange between Emma Jones’ daughter, Mae (Greta Grandstedt), and her boyfriend (or, at least, her man for the evening). Lasting only about two minutes, this scene begins when we see Mae come strutting jauntily down the street, her tight sweater clearly showing us that she’s not wearing a bra. Stopping on her front stoop, she engages in a bit of banter with the beau, mostly involving her unenthusiastic response to the kiss he plants on her, and her refusal to partake in “any more of that rotten gin.” She changes her mind quickly enough, though, when the boyfriend helps himself to the liquor: “Hey!” Mae objects. “What’re you doing – emptying the flask?” She then snatches the flask from him and turns it up, actually stomping on his foot when he tries to take it back. Suddenly, Mae is boisterously, amorously tipsy: “Kiss me, kid!” she says, flinging her arms wide and allowing herself to be led off to a nearby apartment for some unnamed pleasures. And before she disappears into the darkness with her companion, Mae stops to deliver another passionate kiss: “Sweet papa!” she exclaims.
“Say – you seem to think I oughta hang out a flag every time some bozo decides to wipe off his mouth on me.” Mae Jones (Greta Grandstedt)
- The movie was directed by King Vidor, who helmed his first feature in 1913. He also directed Stella Dallas, The Citadel, and Duel in the Sun.
- Except for one scene which takes place inside a taxi, Vidor shot the entire film on a single set depicting half a city block of house fronts.
- Street Scene marked Beulah Bondi’s film debut. She was 43 years old. It was also the debut of John Qualen, one of those actors whose name you might not know, but whose face is very familiar. He went on to appear in such classics as His Girl Friday (he played Earl Williams, the man convicted of murder and slated for hanging), Nothing Sacred, Casablanca, and The Grapes of Wrath.
- Street Scene was based on a play that opened on Broadway in January 1929 and played for 601 performances. Eight performers in the play were also seen in the movie, including Bondi and Qualen. Written by Elmer Rice, the play won the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for best drama.
- The film’s best-known performer, Sylvia Sidney, was born Sophia Kosow in the Bronx, New York. She was married for less than a year to Bennett Cerf, one of the founders of the Random House publishing company. Cerf, who was known for his compilations of quotations and jokes, once quipped, “One should never legalize a hot romance.” Sidney was later married, from 1938 to 1946, to character actor Luther Adler, with whom she had a son, Jacob.
- The film’s art director, Richard Day, also designed the sets for Dead End (1937), starring Humphrey Bogart and Claire Trevor, and On the Waterfront (1954).
- The role of Vincent Jones, Emma’s son, was played by Matt McHugh – the brother of popular 1930s performer Frank McHugh.
- The adulterous housewife was played by Estelle Taylor. Some of her other films were Cimarron (1931), where she played opposite Richard Dix as the devious Dixie Lee, and Call Her Savage (1933), where she was seen as Clara Bow’s mother. Taylor – who was married for five years to heavyweight championship box Jack Dempsey – was a close friend of actress Lupe Velez, and was the last person to see Velez before her 1944 suicide.
- My favorite scene in the film featured an actress by the name of Greta Granstedt (spelled “Grandstedt” in the credits). At the age of 14, Greta shot and critically wounded her 16-year-old boyfriend because he’d taken another girl to a church social. The boy later recovered and it was ruled that the shooting was not premeditated, but Greta was ordered by a San Jose judge to leave her hometown of Mountain View, California, and never return.
Street Scene is definitely worth your time – the more I see it, the more I love it! Don’t miss it on TCM June 22nd. You only owe it to yourself.