Street Scene (1931)


One day in the lives of several tenants in a poor New York City neighborhood.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Producer Samuel Goldwyn’s Street Scene is a moving and often harrowing portrait of a disenfranchised community — this early sound movie still packs quite a wallop.

Elmer Rice adapted his award-winning Broadway play of the same name. The film preserves the play’s structure; the entire movie takes place in one large set, a street in front of a brownstone building. Except for one short sequence, the camera never leaves this gigantic set designed by Oscar-winning Art-Director Richard Day (The Grapes of Wrath and The Greatest Story Ever Told).

Street Scene was shot by two of my favorite cameramen, celebrated cinematographers Gregg Toland (Wuthering Heights and The Little Foxes) and George Barnes (Rebecca and Spellbound), in a rather dynamic manner. The simple yet ingenious camera set ups proved that a film can be interesting without going anywhere — we never go inside the apartments but the film is very cinematic.

Street Scene follows a group of city dwellers during a 24-hour period. Each character is given a specific purpose in the narrative and all the subplots are so well done that you immediately get immersed in the personal troubles of these ordinary people.

The story has a plethora of characters and I was pleasantly surprised to see that all characters are clearly drawn, down to the smallest ones. They all are believable characters with very relatable problems. The story eventually narrows its focus to a troubled family that will become a symbol of hopelessness.

It’s all done in the dowdiest possible manner. Director King Vidor (The Champ) keeps it real. Also, because it was made prior to the installation of The Hays Code, Street Scene deals with many social problems in a frank manner. In typical Pre-Code fashion, there is a candidness here that’s very appealing.

The cast is overloaded with talent. The film has an array of wonderful performances. From Sylvia Sidney’s (Fury) disillusioned working girl and William Collier’s (Little Caesar) timid college student to Beulah Bondi’s (It’s a Wonderful Life) malicious gossiper and Estelle Taylor’s (Cimarron) adulterous wife, they are all first-rate. Sidney is the nominal leading lady, but it’s really a great group effort.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Street Scene is very similar to another Samuel Goldwyn production, the 1937 classic Dead End (Sidney starred in both movies). The two films explore how disenfranchisement damages communities. But unlike Dead EndStreet Scene benefits from being made before the Motion Picture Production Code; it’s a hard-hitting drama with raw energy. Highly recommended! B&W, 86 minutes, Not Rated.

6 responses to “Street Scene (1931)

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