Monday, May 21, 2018

One Third of a Nation

Tomorrow morning TCM is running some Sylvia Sidney films, including one I've only briefly mentioned before, One Third of a Nation, at 9:15 AM.

Sidney plays Mary Rogers, who lives in a New York tenement with her kid brother Joey, played by a 14-year-old Sidney Lumet (yes, that Sidney Lumet who would go on to become a renowned director). When there's a fire in the building, rich benefactor Peter (Leif Erickson) happens to be there and offers to pay for Joey's medical bills. Peter and Mary fall in love.

There's a catch, however. Everybody in the tenements hate the slumlords who own the buildings and let them deteriorate the way they have. And it just so happens to be Peter's family that owns the building where Mary and Joey live. Boy is Mary going to be pissed when she finds this out. Mary and the other tenants want improvements to be made to the building, but can this happen before disaster befalls the people living there?

One Third of a Nation is hilariously awful propaganda. It was produced under auspices of the Federal Theater Project, a New Deal scheme that was instituted in no small part to produce propaganda favoring the ideas of the New Deal. (Even if this wasn't the express purpose, it doesn't take a genius to understand it was going to be taken over by people who wanted to use it to produce their own brand of propaganda.) Everything is the fault of the tenement owners, and all the problems are going to be resolved by destroying the buildings and building government housing projects that are going to be perfect. In fact, we've seen over the past 60 years how perfect government housing programs are. And never mind what's going to happen to the people while those projects are being built.

It's hard to judge the acting when the actors are being asked to spew agitprop, although honors have to go to young Sidney. (Sidney's father Baruch, a mainstay of the Yiddish theater, has a role as Mr. Rosen.) It's not Sidney's fault, though. His standout scene involves a fever dream in which the tenement talks to him, and shows him how tenement life has always been thus, and always will be unless the government takes over. It was the cinema's great gain that Sidney took up directing.

One Third of a Nation deserves to be seen once, for how awful the propaganda is. The movie did get a DVD release, although it's out of stock at Amazon and the TCM Shop. However, the DVD was put out by Alpha Video, and they still have it at their site,

No comments: