Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Street Scene

TCM is honoring director King Vidor tonight with a night of his movies. One of these is Street Scene, which is airing at 10:45 PM.

I briefly mentioned Street Scene back in June 2012 as one of several movies in which she was helping look after young siblings. That's only partly the case here in Street Scene where she isn't the guardian, although she's Rose Maurrant, the eldest (and adult working-girl) daughter of Anna (Estelle Taylor) and Frank (David Landau). The Maurrants live in a New York City tenement together with several other families of various ethnicities, and Street Scene is the story of a day or so in the lives of these families. A very dramatic day, to be sure.

Rose, as I said, is a working girl, a secretary to Mr. Easter (Walter Miller), who is well enough off, and unhappily married enough, that he wants to set up Rose in a nice apartment somewhere, which of course also implies that he wants Rose as his mistress. Rose isn't having any of that, and besides, she's got other problems with her family. Dad's harsh, and always has been harsh. Worse, he wonders what his wife is doing while he's away at work. He's got good reason to wonder, as the building's gossip-in-chief, Emma (Beulah Bondi), passes on rumors about Anna to tenants in the building not named Frank Maurrant.

The other protagonist in the building for Rose to interact with is Sam Kaplan (William Collier). He's studying to be a lawyer, which means a way out of the slums. He's also in love with Rose, although she's always considered herself more of a best friend than somebody to love Sam. Besides, there are some problems for Sam loving Rose. First is that Sam needs to work on getting that law degree and his license to practice, and having Rose in tow would only make that more difficult. The other thing is that Sam is Jewish, which is just as big a problem for Sam's family as it might be for Rose's.

Street Scene goes on in this vein, playing itself almost as a slice-of-life piece in the Ah, Wilderness! mode. That is, until Frank comes home from work early one day and finds that those rumors we heard from Emma about Anna are in fact true, which drives Frank to bring about the dramatic climax of the story, which I won't mention here because it would give away the story.

Street Scene was originally a stage play, and that should be fairly obvious from the fact that the movie is largely shot that way. The front steps of the building, and the street around it, are the key parts of the setting, as well as characters talking out the windows. However, a well-conceived story goes a long way to cover up stage origins, and in Street Scene we have that in spades. I have no idea how much Street Scene resembles the reality of tenement life in the early stages of the Depression, and parts of it seem a bit too romanticized -- grinding poverty doesn't even look as good a movies from Poverty Row. But that doesn't detract from the movie either, since movies are generally not supposed to be 100% realistic anyway.

Amazon claims that there has been a DVD release, and other sites suggest that there are public-domain DVDs out there that have lousy prints. TCM says that you can't buy the DVD from the TCM shop, and to be honest, I don't remember the quality of the print that was shown last summer.

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