TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Seven — Sylvia Sidney

The saddest eyes in Hollywood.

I was introduced to Sylvia Sidney in the 1980s, in television programs like Ryan’s Hope and Starsky and Hutch, and Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered her classic movies… and what a discovery! She was known, for a time, as the actress with the “saddest eyes in Hollywood,” and she was seen in a spate of films where those sad eyes came in handy, as she was usually facing some sort of hardship or tragedy. Still, she was appreciated and recognized for her outstanding acting talent; of her impact, author James Baldwin once said, “She was the only American film actress who reminded me of reality.”


In her youth.

Sylvia Sidney was born Sophia Kosow in the Bronx, New York, on August 8, 1910. Her father was born in Russia and her mother was a native of Romania; they divorced shortly after their daughter’s birth. Her mother later remarried, and the future actress was adopted by her father, Sigmund Sidney. In an effort to combat her shyness and a developing stammer, Sidney’s parents encouraged her to take up acting, and she decided at an early age that she wanted to be an actress. When she was 15 years old, she enrolled in the Theater Guild’s School for Acting, where she trained with director Rouben Mamoulian and famed thespians Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

Sidney got her first big break when one of her school productions, held in a Broadway theater, was attended by a New York Times critic, who raved about her performance. A short time later, at the age of 16, she made her professional debut in The Challenge of Youth at the Poli’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and she debuted on Broadway just a year later, in The Squall.

After appearances in several other stage productions, Sidney caught the attention of a Hollywood talent scout and was seen for the first time on the big screen in the 1929 feature Thru Different Eyes, starring Edmund Lowe and Warner Baxter.


  • In one of the plays Sidney was in before starting her screen career, her co-stars were fellow future screen stars Kay Francis, Chester Morris, and Robert Montgomery.

    Sidney and her second husband, Luther Adler, in Jane Eyre.

  • Sidney signed a contract with Paramount after studio exec B.P. Schulberg saw her in a Broadway play. Sidney went on to have an affair with the very married Schulberg; years later, his son, screenwriter Budd Schulberg wrote a memoir in which he recalled going to Sidney’s house and demanding that his father come home.
  • Sidney was married three times; her first husband was Bennett Cerf, co-founder of the Random House publishing company who later gained widespread popularity as a panelist on the What’s My Line? game show. Her second husband was actor Luther Adler, part of the famed Adler acting family.
  • Sidney continued to act up until the year before her death. One of her last roles was in the Tim Burton-directed sci-fi comedy Mars Attacks (1996).
  • In 1936, Sidney starred in Sabotage, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Her experience with the famed director wasn’t a positive one, however. She later said that Hitchcock taught her “to be a puppet and not be creative.”


Don’t miss Street Scene.

Since my two favorite Sylvia Sidney films – Merrily, We Go to Hell (1932) and Jennie Gerhardt (1933) – aren’t airing on Sidney Day, selecting my recommendation was a breeze: Street Scene (1931). Most of the action in the film takes place on a single street in New York – hence, the name – looking at the lives, loves, and losses of the various residents there. Sidney is Rose Maurrant, who is sought after by her married boss and the Jewish college boy who lives in her building, and whose unhappy mother is having an affair. It’s a fascinating film, weaving together all of the different personalities and storylines in a most riveting manner.

If you’re a fan of pre-Code, you’re not going to want to miss this one.

And join me tomorrow for Day 8 of Summer Under the Stars!

~ by shadowsandsatin on August 7, 2020.

7 Responses to “TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Seven — Sylvia Sidney”

  1. Street Scene is thrilling. Vidor makes it a true film but I still get the feeling of watching the original Pulitzer play.

    In 1947 Anne Jeffreys starred on Broadway as Rose in a musical version of Street Scene with the songs by Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes.

    The above information leads to my choice for Sylvia Sidney day. If you haven’t yet seen You and Me, 1938 this Fritz Lang crime/romance/melodrama/Runyonesque tale with songs by Kurt Weill will be a treat.

  2. This film doesn’t enter the conversation often, but I adored her as the croaky-voiced receptionist in the afterlife in Beetlejuice.

  3. Just a little FYI: Jimmy Cagney loved her; she was the only actor who could converse with him in Yiddish.

  4. […] Day 7: Sylvia Sidney […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: