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In 1931, Hollywood was on the brink of collapse. The coming of sound and the stock market crash had put the film capital in a perilous state, and most studios were experiencing severe financial difficulties. Conventional wisdom dictated a return to old-fashioned entertainment, but independent producer Samuel Goldwyn was never one to bow to the dictates of the marketplace. Instead, he decided to take a stab at prestige by paying $150,000 for the film rights to Street Scene, Elmer Rice's Pulitzer Prize-winning play depicting the events of two days in a New York tenement. Little happens until the climactic ending, but until then the tenants complain about the heat and argue about politics while their children dream of a better world to come. It sounded like a recipe for disaster, but it wasn't. Thanks to sound judgment and a little good luck, Goldwyn produced a film that brought him not only laudatory reviews but also a surprisingly strong showing at the box office.
The luck came with the casting. Goldwyn had hired eight actors from the original stage cast -- including Beulah Bondi and John Qualen, who would go on to notable careers as character actors -- but his associates suggested he throw in some prettier people to draw the crowds. Initially Goldwyn hadsought Paramount Pictures' top leading lady, Nancy Carroll, to play the young Irish girl whose dreams are shattered when her mother's affair becomes known. The deal was all but signed when Paramount's managing director B.P. Schulberg informed Goldwyn that Carroll was no longer available. Itwasn't that he had other plans for her, but he had other plans for a newcomer who had quickly become his protge -- and his mistress.
Young Sylvia Sidney was new to the screen. She'd started on stage, made a few minor films, then returned to New York disgusted with Hollywood. She scored a hit on Broadway in Bad Girl, in which Schulberg spotted her. At his wife's urging, he signed her to a contract. Her first Paramount film, the crime drama City Streets (1931), was a huge hit that set her on the road to stardom as one of the decade's most appealing social victims. In the end, she turned out to be perfect casting for Street Scene.
Where Goldwyn's good judgment paid off was in his choice of talent behind the cameras. Chief among them was director King Vidor, whom Goldwyn hired for his expertise at handling social issues in such films as The Big Parade (1925), The Crowd (1928) and Hallelujah (1929). Vidor had been one of the first directors to move the camera after the arrival of talking pictures, which was also excellent preparation for adapting the one-set play. The obvious temptation with Street Scene would have been to open the play up with scenes in the apartments and other parts of the city, but Vidor realized that the play's single setting outside the apartment building was one of its greatest strengths. The closest he came to opening up the film was when he pulled the camera back further to add the street itself to the scene, something that had been lacking in the Broadway production. But to keep the film from being static, he worked with cameraman George Barnes to find innovative ways to move and place the camera. As a result, he never used the same setup twice.
To integrate the actors who were new to the material with those who had done the show on Broadway, Vidor rehearsed the script for two weeks, with Rice on hand to offer his insights. At the end of those two weeks, they performed the entire script for Goldwyn and invited guests to visit Richard Day'simpressive tenement set. Afraid that Goldwyn would think this was going to be just another filmed play, Vidor whispered to him throughout the run-through to explain what he would do with the camera at certain points, but Goldwyn was so enthralled that he kept shushing him.
The only quarrel Vidor had with Goldwyn was over the soundtrack. Street Scene had been one of the first Broadway plays to include a score of sound effects, specifically street sounds played throughout the performance. Vidor had wanted to do the same thing with the film, but Goldwyn argued that talking films were still enough of a novelty that the audience would think the street noises had been recorded by accident. Instead, he hired Broadway conductor and composer Alfred Newman to create a background score, one of the first in film history. Newman attended rehearsals to scout out likelyplaces for musical accompaniment, then composed a score that would become the definitive musical depiction of life in New York City. As Newman became one of Hollywood's most prolific composers, his Street Scene theme would reappear in a dozen films, even serving as the overture for How to Marry a Millionaire (1953).
Street Scene opened at New York's Rivoli Theatre on August 26, 1931, heralded by the most massive publicity campaign Goldwyn had ever engineered. Sidney was so nervous that night she couldn't speak, but she was called to the stage for several bows after the film. The picture firmly established her as a major leading lady, while bringing Goldwyn the best reviews of his career.
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Director: King Vidor
Screenplay: Elmer Rice, based on his play
Cinematography: George Barnes
Art Direction: Richard Day
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Sylvia Sidney (Rose Maurrant), William Collier, Jr. (Sam Kaplan), Max Montor (Abe Kaplan), David Landau (Frank Maurrant), Estelle Taylor (Anna Maurrant), Russell Hopton (Steve Sankey), Beulah Bondi (Emma Jones), Matthew McHugh (Vincent Jones), John Qualen (Karl Olsen).BW-79m.
by Frank Miller