powered by AFI
By the time she made Side Streets (1934), Ann Dvorak's fortunes at Warner Brothers had fallen sharply. Once a promising leading lady, following notable performances in Scarface (1932), The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932), and Three on a Match (1932), Ann angered studio heads by eloping with her Louvain co-star, British actor Leslie Fenton; the couple sailed off in July 1932 for a year-long European honeymoon that kept her from accepting the projects the studio had in mind for her (although considering the films they gave Bette Davis, their rising Queen of the Lot at this time, Dvorak really wasn't missing much). Upon her return, she found herself either cast in mediocre pictures or on suspension or in litigation to keep from making even worse films. Side Streets falls within this unfortunate period.
As mediocre pictures go, this romantic drama is not without a measure of interest. Unfortunately, Dvorak's role was relatively minor. In her previous title role in Housewife (1934), in which she was third billed, Dvorak had been the loyal spouse who has to compete with a sophisticated Bette Davis for the affections of husband George Brent. Here, she is consigned to the Other Woman role. The lead goes to Aline MacMahon, a Broadway star of the 1920s who had only been in movies a year. MacMahon plays Bertha Krasnoff, owner of a San Francisco fur shop who takes in a penniless, homeless sailor (Paul Kelly), first as her employee, then as her husband. It soon becomes clear, however, especially after Miss Dvorak shows up, that Bertha's hubby is a womanizer who only married her for her money. After a string of extra-marital affairs and childbirth traumas, the husband realizes Bertha is the woman for him after all.
It's a telling fact about Hollywood's attitudes toward women and marriage at the time that one of the working titles of the film was A Woman in Her Thirties, implying there is something out of the ordinary about a woman of that age (MacMahon was about 35 when she made this) who is not yet married, especially if she is not conventionally attractive. The notion is reinforced when Bertha's scheming niece Ilka, who has fallen for Bertha's husband, lays into her for being an ugly old woman who can't hold onto her younger man. In fact, MacMahon in the 1920s was lauded for her beauty, and her heavy-lidded, melancholy looks were inspirations for sculptors and photographers.
The other working title for the film was Fur Coats, the name of the short story by Ann Garrick and Ethel Hill on which the movie is based. Bertha's fur business gives rise to interesting subplots, as she bilks rich men and their mistresses for expensive coats, her way of condemning the marital infidelity that is ironically providing her with a tidy living and the means to keep a ne'er-do-well husband.
Even after breaking into movies, MacMahon continued her stage career well into her later life. Her leading lady period in films was short-lived, but she made strong impressions in supporting parts through the mid-1960s in such films as Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Babbitt (1934), Dragon Seed (1944, an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actress), and Diamond Head (1963). In her last feature role, she recreated her stage success as Aunt Hannah in All the Way Home (1963), based on James Agee's novel A Death in the Family. She continued to work on television, but retired in 1975 after the death of her husband, architect and planned-city pioneer Clarence S. Stein. She died in 1991 at the age of 92.
Ann Dvorak worked with director Alfred E. Green four times in all, previously in the aforementioned Housewife, which was also written by Side Streets scripter Manuel Seff. Green's film career stretched from 1916 to 1954 and included several biographical pictures: Disraeli (1929), The Jolson Story (1946), The Fabulous Dorseys (1947), and The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). He also directed Barbara Stanwyck in one of her best pre-code potboilers, Baby Face (1933) and Bette Davis in her first Oscar®-winning role, Dangerous (1935). After leaving pictures, he worked for a few years on television, notably on the series The Millionaire from 1955 to 1958.
Cinematographer Byron Haskin became a director later in his career (Treasure Island, 1950; The War of the Worlds, 1953). At this time, however, he was also an important part of the Warner Brothers special effects team, which won a Technical Achievement Award in 1939 for pioneering the development and first practical motion picture application of the triple head background projector. Haskin and sound engineer Nathan Levinson were co-nominated four times for special effects. Among Haskin's notable effects credits are A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), The Roaring Twenties (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940), High Sierra (1941), and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).
Side Streets earned mixed reviews and did nothing to help Dvorak's fading career at Warner Brothers. Mordaunt Hall, in an August 1934 review in the New York Times, gave MacMahon and Kelly credit for doing their best with thankless roles but only mentioned Dvorak off-handedly, erroneously crediting her with playing the part of Ilka.
Director: Alfred E. Green
Producer: Samuel Bischoff
Screenplay: Manuel Seff
Cinematography: Byron Haskin
Editing: Herbert Levy
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Original Music: Heinz Roemheld (uncredited)
Cast: Aline MacMahon (Bertha Krasnoff), Paul Kelly (Tim O'Hara), Ann Dvorak (Marguerite Gilbert), Dorothy Tree (Ilka), Helen Lowell (Tillie), Mayo Methot (Maizie Roach).
by Rob Nixon