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In a career and life marked by numerous highs and lows, Sidewalks of New York (1931) represents one of the most ironic for Buster Keaton--both a commercial success and one of the most dismal points in his filmography. It was a project Keaton despised and made very begrudgingly under his unhappy early sound-era contract to MGM, yet it was his most financially successful release up to that point. That result was not a pleasant prospect for Keaton. Not only did it outperform his far superior silent films (The Navigator, 1924, The General, 1926, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), etc.) at the box office, it also meant that MGM, with whom he had been at odds for a few years over the lackluster projects they developed for him, would feel justified in further ignoring his artistic ideas and standards.
In his autobiography, Keaton noted how the studio sent him away to dry out from his increasingly worsening alcoholism, compounded by his career woes and a miserable marriage. When he returned, feeling physically fit and ready to work, he was presented with this "dog of a comedy," a rather apt description if only because the directors, Zion Myers and Jules White, were known for their profitable series of comic shorts starring "talking" canines. The story cast Keaton as the owner of an apartment building who falls for one of his residents. In order to win her, he sets up an athletic club for her troubled younger brother and his friends to keep them off the streets and away from a life of crime. Keaton wasn't opposed to the idea of the story, just the inferior quality of the script, which had been worked on by at least five different writers (four of them credited).
When he got nowhere pleading his case to producer Lawrence Weingarten, Keaton went over his head to MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, who had frequently championed the actor in the past. This time, however, Thalberg only told him, "Larry [Weingarten] likes it. Everybody else in the studio likes the story. You are the only one who doesn't." Keaton gave up and did the picture, later blaming himself for acquiescing so quickly to the studio's demands and allowing himself to play in pictures that were so wrong for him. "I knew before the camera was put up for the first scene that it was practically impossible to get a good picture. ... Absolutely impossible."
Keaton later insisted that at the preview of Sidewalks of New York there was not one giggle. Yet the picture grossed $885,000, with a net profit of nearly $200,000. This apparent success has been explained by Keaton biographer Tom Dardis as a triumph of the distribution system set up by the studio's parent company, Loew's Inc. Quite likely sensing this was not either Keaton's or MGM's finest hour, the company opened it not at New York's prestigious Capital Theater, where most of Keaton's prior releases premiered, but quietly uptown at a neighborhood cinema in Washington Heights to avoid major reviews and hopefully attract Keaton's longtime fans, who were still showing up with expectations of his former glory. It also did well in Europe, where Keaton's popularity still continued, boosted by foreign audiences' curiosity about the star's sound pictures and his ability to shoot his films in multiple languages. But this time, even the manager of MGM's Paris distribution office remarked in a cable to studio head Louis B. Mayer that he hoped MGM would take greater care with Keaton's next project as this one was "very weak."
The good ticket sales for Sidewalks of New York did nothing to cheer the ever-more defeated Keaton, who had gone from total creative control over his pictures to working with a couple of directors who "alternated telling me how to walk, how to talk, how to stand, where to fall.... I was Trilby with two Svengalis." The outcome was so dissatisfying all around, the studio reunited him with Edward Sedgwick, co-director of his last two silent features, The Cameraman (1928) and Spite Marriage (1929), and director of his first sound film, Free and Easy (1930). They worked together on his next three pictures, but the combination of studio mismanagement of his talents and Keaton's drinking had put the nail in the coffin, and those three were his last at MGM. He would not work at the studio again until a supporting role in the Judy Garland musical In the Good Old Summertime (1949), following nearly two decades in shorts, occasional small roles at other studios, and appearances in releases from Poverty Row studios and minor independents.
Whatever the shortcomings of Sidewalks of New York, it is worth a look, particularly by fans of Buster Keaton who may know his silent greats but have never experienced his early sound pictures. It also stars Anita Page, a popular ingenue who appeared in one of the studio's first musicals, The Broadway Melody (1929), and played second-fiddle to Joan Crawford in a series of films about the romantic foibles of modern young women. It also features Cliff Edwards, also known as "Ukulele Ike," a popular vaudeville entertainer who made a successful transition to movies in the early talkies, thanks to his high, melodious voice, which he leant to the first rendition of "Singin' in the Rain" in The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929). Audiences may recognize him most as the voice behind Jiminy Cricket in the Disney animated feature Pinocchio (1940), warbling the Oscar®-winning tune "When You Wish Upon a Star."
Directors: Zion Myers, Jules White
Producer: Lawrence Weingarten
Screenplay: George Landy and Paul Girard Smith (story), Robert E. Hopkins and Eric Hatch (dialogue), and Willard Mack (uncredited)
Cinematography: Leonard Smith
Editing: Charles Hochberg
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Domenico Savino (uncredited)
Cast: Buster Keaton (Harmon), Anita Page (Margie), Cliff Edwards (Poggle), Frank Rowan (Butch), Norman Phillips, Jr. (Clipper).
by Rob Nixon