Cast & Crew
During a fire in a tenement in the Bowery section of New York, Joey Rogers attempts to escape from the building using a fire escape ladder; when the ladder breaks, however, Joey falls and receives severe injuries. Peter Cortlant helps Joey's sister Mary take him to the hospital, where he agrees with her that the owner of the building should be held for negligence, and offers to pay for Joey's hospital bills. Peter later finds out that he owns the block of tenements that were on fire, and his business manager, Arthur Mather, advises him that the district attorney will be investigating the case. Against Arthur's advice and his sister Ethel's scorn, Peter attends the district attorney's investigation, where Mary finds out his true identity. During the investigation it is revealed that this "old-law" tenement, along with 67,000 others in New York City, were built before 1901 and are therefore excluded from any new safety construction laws. As there were no complaints made about the building, which is falling to pieces, the district attorney rules that there were no violations. Mary is horrified to learn the identity of Joey's benefactor, especially when he appears so ignorant of the condition of his buildings. When Peter visits the tenement and attempts to kick prostitute Myrtle out, Sam Noon, who is in love with Mary, comes to her aid and advises Peter to stay away from Mary. Mary takes Joey out of the hospital, but he is crippled for life and refuses to go inside the tenement. Fantasizing that the building talks to him and tells him that it has always housed squalor and misery, Joey vows revenge. Mary, meanwhile, finds her way to Peter's mansion and offers to repay him for the hospital bills, but he rejects the offer. After Peter describes how his ancestors ruthlessly acquired, Mary encourages him to find a way to fix the tenements by selling the mortgage to the city and supervising their reconstruction. Ethel vows to take Peter to court and expose his relationship with Mary as a sordid one. Afraid that Mary will be hurt, Peter discards his plan, but when he invites Mary to dinner and tells her how his sister has stopped him, she leaves angrily. Later, Joey sets fire to the building and dies with it. Sam promises Peter he will marry Mary the next day to save her from scandal if Peter then promises to rebuild, and Peter agrees. Peter supervises the destruction and rebuilding of the tenements.
Oliver H. P. Garrett
...One Third of a Nation...
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
...One Third of a Nation...
According to the onscreen credits, Leif Erikson appeared in the film "courtesy of Group Theatre." The stage version of ...one third of a nation... was produced in New York by the Federal Theatre Project of the Works Progress Administration, and was the first W.P.A. play to be sold to the film industry. The film marked Broadway producer Harold Orlob's first independent film production and Sidney Lumet's first and only screen appearance as a featured actor. In reference to his brief experience as a film actor, Lumet, who was fifteen years old at the time of production, is quoted in a 1974 New York Times article as saying, "I hated acting in movies, and I've understood all about actors ever since....I knew that I could never be a really good actor." The title of film is taken from a line in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's second inaugural address: "...I see one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished..." According to a Hollywood Reporter pre-production news item, proceeds from the sale of the film rights were earmarked for the Federal Writers Committee, a branch of the W.P.A. that sponsored writers who wrote about Americana and American culture and heritage. A November 1938 Hollywood Reporter article notes that the release of the film, originally set for December 23, 1938, was delayed as a result of the studio's anticipated rejection of the film by censors. The article states that Paramount's home office decided to reshoot portions of the film that were deemed "propaganda situations" after viewing it and deciding that the picture was "too hot to handle in its present form." An Los Angeles Examiner pre-production news item stated that Sylvia Sidney's fiancé, Luther Adler, was originally set as her co-star.