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"I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished," said President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 in his second inaugural address. From that famous passage was born the title for ...One Third of a Nation..., one of the most unusual studio releases of 1939 and a striking cinematic emblem of the Depression era -- not just in its content, but in how it came to be made at all.
In 1935, as part of the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration was established by the federal government in order to help employ Americans. One WPA program, the Federal Theatre Project, was designed to get unemployed actors, writers and directors back to work. Among their theater projects were so-called "Living Newspapers," plays drawn from current events and social issues and based on newspaper articles of the day. The most commercially successful of these was ...One Third of a Nation... by Arthur Arent, which ran in New York for 237 performances and spread across the country. The play was essentially an appeal for housing legislation to relieve big-city slum conditions; it was set entirely in a New York tenement and used experimental techniques (common in FTP plays) including having the building itself "talk" in some scenes, a device that is used in the film.
In 1938, independent producer Harold Orlob bought the screen rights for $6000 and, with a little financing from Paramount, managed to turn it into a movie starring Sylvia Sidney and Leif Erickson, with shooting taking place at Astoria Studios on Long Island and some location work in the city. This was not a true studio-produced film, but Paramount did distribute the final product. (Orlob was a Broadway musical comedy producer and songwriter with credits stretching back to 1906; he also wrote the one song in this film.) So while ...One Third of a Nation... carries the Paramount logo and has recognizable stars, it does not have the slickness of a studio product and is quite rough around the edges stylistically. It looks and feels like the independent film it is.
The story, which was changed quite a bit for the screen by Oliver H.P. Garrett (his credits include Night Nurse , The Story of Temple Drake , Manhattan Melodrama  and The Hurricane ), concerns a young woman (Sylvia Sidney) desperate to escape the slums. Her little brother is crippled in a tenement fire, and the owner of the property turns out to be a rich playboy (Leif Erickson) who didn't even know he owned it; he had unknowingly inherited it as it passed down through generations of an old New York dynasty. From there ...One Third of a Nation... turns into a rich-boy/tenement-girl romance, a storyline that wasn't even in the original play.
Variety noted that the play had contained very little traditional plot altogether: "The cinematic transition seems to have almost wholly ditched the Federal Housing 'Living Newspaper' purpose of the stage version, emphasizing the boy-meets-girl premise against the shocking slum background." While the movie is certainly still concerned with exposing the filth and decay of the slums, the overt message of the play -- and its plea for federal help -- was greatly toned down for the screen. In fact, the original cut of the film was too radical and strongly socialist for Paramount's liking, and the studio forced some reshoots which held up release until 1939.
Sylvia Sidney made ...One Third of a Nation... between turns in You and Me (1938), directed by Fritz Lang, and the Humphrey Bogart circus picture The Wagons Roll at Night (1941). A native New Yorker, the actress was associated with famous New York-set films through her career, especially Street Scene (1931) and Dead End (1937), the latter such a similarly-themed picture that Paramount even referenced it in its ad copy for ...One Third of a Nation...: "The cry of a beautiful girl from the dead end of life...echoing in the gripping drama of the city's millions!"
There's another famous New York film artist in this film, too: 14-year-old Sidney Lumet, playing Sidney's kid brother Joey. Lumet would grow up to direct The Pawnbroker (1964), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976) and many other top-drawer films drenched in New York atmosphere. His father, Baruch Lumet, also appears here in the role of Mr. Rosen. ...One Third of a Nation... is one of only two features in which Lumet ever appeared; the other was a cameo in the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate.
Critics were mixed on ...One Third of a Nation..., with Variety lukewarm and The New Yorker calling it "a lecture... slip-shod... by no means worthy of the important problem it presents." The New York Times basically described it as a noble experiment, "an interestingly presented editorial for slum clearance.
"It is the building that dominates the picture, gives it terror, pity and despair," continued The Times. "It is more than a scabrous dwelling, pestilential, filthy and a breeder of crime; it becomes the very symbol of reaction, of greed, oppression and human misery. When it speaks, as it does in the film, it has the croaking voice of a miserly old man. Its destruction at the last is exhilarating beyond all reason.... It is not at all the film it should and could have been; but it is an effort, a step in a valuable direction. When that is true, a picture can be forgiven much."
According to information in a file at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, director Dudley Murphy staged the fires in ...One Third of a Nation... with the help of the New York Fire Department. "It was the first time that the Department had ever cooperated officially in the making of a film," he said. "Mayor La Guardia was greatly interested in the subject."
Producer: Harold Orlob
Director: Dudley Murphy
Screenplay: Oliver H.P. Garrett, based on the play by Arthur Arent, adaptation by Dudley Murphy
Cinematography: William Miller
Editing: W. Duncan Mansfield
Art Direction: Walter E. Keller
Music: Nathaniel Shilkret
Cast: Sylvia Sidney (Mary Rogers), Leif Erickson (Peter Cortlant), Myron McCormick (Sam Moon), Hiram Sherman (Donald Hinchley), Sidney Lumet (Joey Rogers), Muriel Hutchison (Ethel Cortlant).
by Jeremy Arnold