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City Streets (1931)
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City Streets (1931)

The sophisticated, atmospheric City Streets (1931) is an unjustly forgotten movie full of visual storytelling and expressionistic camerawork. For 1931, a year when movies were still learning to "move" again after the coming of sound, it's an especially impressive achievement, and it boasts the historical footnote of being - apparently - the first American film to use voiceover.

This was director Rouben Mamoulian's second feature. His first, Applause (1929), had been a commercial failure but scored highly with critics -- so highly, in fact, that Mamoulian expected Paramount to offer him another film right away. Yet the studio waited a year to do so, probably because Mamoulian had insisted on an unprecedented one-picture contract for Applause, and Paramount executives wanted to show him who was boss. In the meantime, Mamoulian was certainly no couch potato: he directed five Broadway plays and an opera.

Eventually, in late 1930, Paramount head of production B.P. Schulberg offered Mamoulian a screenplay called After School. It was based on a four-page treatment by Dashiell Hammett (the creator of Sam Spade and The Thin Man) about two teens, a boy and a girl, who get mixed up with racketeers. Hammett's treatment had been turned into a script by Oliver Garrett and Max Marcin, with the teens changed into adults and Gary Cooper and Clara Bow cast as the leads.

Mamoulian agreed to do the picture and took the train for his first trip to Hollywood. (Applause had been shot at Paramount's Astoria studios in New York.) As production drew near, the title was changed to City Streets, and then Clara Bow suffered a much-publicized nervous breakdown and had to withdraw from the movie. To replace her, Mamoulian suggested Sylvia Sidney. He knew Sidney's work from the New York stage and convinced Paramount to take a chance on the actress, who had acted in only one previous film, the Rashomon-like Thru Different Eyes (1929), for Fox.

City Streets is set in the world of seedy organized crime, dealing with beer rackets, mob rule and murder, but it remains essentially a love story. Gary Cooper plays a western marksman -- known as "The Kid" -- working in a traveling carnival who falls for Nan (Sylvia Sidney), whose stepfather Pop Cooley (Guy Kibbee) is a bootlegger in cahoots with mobster Maskal (Paul Lukas). The Kid joins the racket, where his shooting skills can be of great service, while Nan takes a prison rap for Pop. Afterwards, the young lovers must try and extricate themselves from this gangster world.

City Streets is too early a movie to be labeled "film noir," but with its focus on characters overwhelmed by fate and circumstance, and its strong mood of corruption and menace, it does emanate something of a noir attitude and can be seen as an important precursor to the style, along with such other films of its era as Underworld (1927), The Racket (1928), and Thunderbolt (1929).

There are also some similarities here to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, which was published in 1930 and first filmed in 1931. Both City Streets and The Maltese Falcon feature self-contained, amoral worlds in which honor and justice are measured by self-worth and one's ability to survive.

Gary Cooper's work on City Streets overlapped with that on the now-forgotten Fighting Caravans (1931). Cooper later said, "One day I was up in the mountains saving Lily Damita from the Indians [in Fighting Caravans]...Then I jumped into my car and made it to Hollywood, a hundred miles away, for my scenes with Sylvia Sidney in City Streets." Cooper turns in a good performance, with a rare foray into villainy, and he does an especially good job of controlling his accent. His character starts with a strong western drawl but loses it gradually throughout the story, a tricky piece of acting since the film was shot totally out of sequence.

For a film set in the world of gangsters, City Streets contains very little violence. There are ten murders, but not a single one takes place on screen. This was by design, and Mamoulian was very proud of his ability to imply and symbolize rather than explicitly show. It may be partly why the film is not as well known today as, say, Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931), which opened just before and just after City Streets, respectively. And Scarface (1932) came a full year later. Film historian William K. Everson once pointed out that City Streets, "like so many of the early gangster films, is extremely measured and somewhat slow-moving, although a rip-roaring melodramatic climax adds a dash of exciting physical action. The stress on chase and battle (the actionful Scarface excepted) didn't come until later, when, in films like 'G' Men (1935), the emphasis shifted from law-breaker to law-enforcer."

Mamoulian was an important technical innovator in the early days of talkies, liberating the camera and soundtrack in film after film in ways that had not often, if ever, been seen before. In City Streets, he evidently employed the first use of voiceover in an American film (Hitchcock had already done it with the sound version of Blackmail [1929]), superimposing Gary Cooper's voice over Sylvia Sidney's face as she remembers his words and thinks her own out loud. This type of voiceover -- a stream-of-consciousness, inner monologue -- is actually still an unusual way to use the device, and in 1931, Paramount executives were worried that audiences wouldn't understand it. Of course Mamoulian proved them wrong. Other innovative technical achievements in the film include the use of off-camera sound and events, and elegant, atmospheric tracking shots from the fine cinematographer Lee Garmes.

Mamoulian also demonstrated more subtle directing skills. For a prison sequence in which Cooper visits Sidney, Mamoulian directed Sidney to play the scene quite differently than the norm for such moments. Instead of smiling when Cooper arrives, he told her, "reverse the procedure! Cry with joy. And when at the end he tells you he's a gangster, don't cry at all but rather smile with the kind of smile that transcends sorrow."

Movie fans will be taken aback to see Guy Kibbee -- a soon-to-be-popular character actor in only his third feature film -- playing "for real" the kind of lecherous villain he would go on in his career to play for laughs. His "Pop Cooley" has a penchant for evil and violence: in one remarkable scene, he brutally questions Nan about her whereabouts, and when she won't reveal the information, he grins, immediately shifts his attitude, and gives her some money -- as a reward for being able to keep her mouth shut. Paul Lukas, meanwhile, seems totally miscast as the head gangster. While the suave, Hungarian-accented actor often played well-dressed, polished villains, a seedy American mobster was another story.

After the split verdict on Applause, Mamoulian this time found success with both critics and audiences. Variety declared the film "probably the first sophisticated treatment of a gangster picture" and praised Sylvia Sidney's "intelligent acting and appeal... This legit girl won't be unknown long." The trade publication pondered the development of the gangster genre, musing, "Whether the public sentiment which forced films into beer racket pictures has changed can't be figured except at the box office. And theatres have been demonstrating that good gangster pictures pay."

Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times noted the "hapless casting of Paul Lukas" but called Sidney "excellent" and praised the film's "photographic artistry" and the use of voiceover. As Hall explained to readers, "[it] permits the thoughts of a character to be heard, in much the same way as Alfred Hitchcock did in the British film Blackmail."

City Streets was such a success that Mamoulian had total artistic control over his next two films, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and Love Me Tonight (1932) -- masterpieces that are arguably his two best films.

This picture was released in the "pre-Code" era, and there were no censorship problems. Yet when Paramount tried to launch a re-release in 1936, a time when the Hays Code was being vigilantly enforced, the film, which contains many murders going unpunished, was rejected. Production Code administrator Joseph Breen wrote to Paramount, "Throughout the picture, there is a total lack of any indication that the forces of law and order are capable of coping with the illegal activities of the characters." Nothing could be edited out to change this, so the film was not re-released, and that is surely one reason it fell into obscurity in the years ahead.

Al Capone reportedly loved City Streets, calling it an accurate portrayal of gangsterdom. By the way, look for Paulette Goddard as a nightclub patron in one of her earliest screen appearances.

Producer: E. Lloyd Sheldon (uncredited)
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Screenplay: Oliver H.P. Garrett (screenplay); Max Marcin (adaptation); Dashiell Hammett (story)
Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Film Editing: William Shea (uncredited)
Cast: Gary Cooper (The Kid), Sylvia Sidney (Nan Cooley), Paul Lukas (Big Fellow Maskal), William Boyd (McCoy), Wynne Gibson (Agnes), Guy Kibbee (Pop Cooley), Stanley Fields (Blackie), Betty Sinclair (Pansy), Robert Homans (Police inspector), Barbara Leonard (Esther March).

by Jeremy Arnold

Louis Black, Cinema Texas program notes, 1979
William K. Everson, New School program notes, 1962
Stuart Kaminsky, Coop: The Life and Legend of Gary Cooper
Jeffrey Meyers, Gary Cooper: American Hero
Tom Milne, Mamoulian
Mark Spergel, Reinventing Reality: The Art and Life of Rouben Mamoulian
Stephen Zito, Washington DC Cinema Club 9 program notes, 1972