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In 1931, Hollywood was on the brink of collapse. The coming of sound andthe stock market crash had put the film capital in a perilous state, andmost studios were experiencing severe financial difficulties. Conventionalwisdom dictated a return to old-fashioned entertainment, but independentproducer Samuel Goldwyn was never one to bow to the dictates of themarketplace. 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 playdepicting the events of two days in a New York tenement. Little happensuntil the ending, when a jealous husband kills his wife and her lover.Until then, the tenants complain about the heat and argue about politicswhile their children dream of a better world to come. It sounded like arecipe for disaster, but it wasn't. Thanks to sound judgment and a littlegood luck, Goldwyn produced a film that brought him not only laudatoryreviews but also a surprisingly strong showing at the box office.
The luck came with the casting. Goldwyn had hired eight actors from theoriginal stage cast -- including Beulah Bondi and John Qualen, who would goon to notable careers as character actors -- but his associates suggestedhe throw in some prettier people to draw the crowds. Initially he hadsought Paramount Pictures' top leading lady, Nancy Carroll, to play theyoung Irish girl whose dreams are shattered when her father kills hermother. 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 anewcomer who had quickly become his protge -- and his mistress.
Young Sylvia Sidney was new to the screen. She'd started on stage, made a fewminor films, then returned to New York disgusted with Hollywood. Shescored a hit on Broadway in Bad Girl, in which Schulberg spottedher. At his wife's urging, he signed her to a contract. Her firstParamount film, the crime drama City Streets (1931), was a huge hit thatset her on the road to stardom as one of the decade's most appealing socialvictims. In the end, she turned out to be perfect casting for StreetScene.
Where Goldwyn's good judgment paid off was in his choice of talent behindthe cameras. Chief among them was director King Vidor, whom Goldwyn hiredfor his expertise at handling social issues in such films as The BigParade (1925), The Crowd (1928) and Hallelujah (1929). Vidor had been one of the first directors to move the camera after the arrival of talkingpictures, which was also excellent preparation for adapting the one-setplay. The obvious temptation with Street Scene would have been toopen 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 apartmentbuilding was one of its greatest strengths. The closest he came to openingup the film was when he pulled the camera back further to add the streetitself to the scene, something that had been lacking in the Broadwayproduction. But to keep the film from being static, he worked withcameraman George Barnes to find innovative ways to move and place thecamera. As a result, he never used the same setup twice.
To integrate the actors who were new to the material with those who haddone the show on Broadway, Vidor rehearsed the script for two weeks, withRice on hand to offer his insights. At the end of those two weeks, theyperformed the entire script for Goldwyn and invited guests to visit Richard Day'simpressive tenement set. Afraid that Goldwyn would think this was going tobe just another filmed play, Vidor whispered to him throughout therun-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. StreetScene had been one of the first Broadway plays to include a score ofsound effects - specifically street sounds played throughout the performance. Vidor hadwanted to do the same thing with the film, but Goldwyn argued that talkingfilms were still enough of a novelty that the audience would think thestreet noises had been recorded by accident. Instead, he hired Broadwayconductor and composer Alfred Newman to create a background score, one ofthe first in film history. Newman attended rehearsals to scout out likelyplaces for musical accompaniment, then composed a score that would becomethe definitive musical depiction of life in New York City. As Newmanbecame one of Hollywood's most prolific composers, his Street Scenetheme would reappear in a dozen films, even serving as the overture forHow 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 everengineered. Sidney was so nervous that night she couldn't speak, but shewas called to the stage for several bows after the film. The picturefirmly established her as a major leading lady, while bringing Goldwyn thebest 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