Film at its finest is able to use images to leave an indelible impression on an audience. King Vidor’s Street Scene opens with a telling montage. Kids being sprayed by a hose in a street. A slab of ice being carried off by a worker. A man swatting gnats away from his horse. A dog sprawled out on the pavement. There’s more, but we already get the idea: it’s a blisteringly hot day in a New York neighborhood.
The foreknowledge that this is a stage-bound studio street corner makes the “scene” no less engaging. There would be later pictures to channel the same intimacy and sense of a world — some of the Warner Bros. Cagney pictures or Dead End spring to mind. However, here we also get a sense of a myriad of voices — even immigrant stories — and plenty of people chewing the fat all across the city.
While it’s faux reality, it does feel like a wonderful piece of world-building. We get to know the whole row of people for minutes at a time. What Vidor has done is pluck out a moment in time for us to just sit in and relish. People shuffle by in and out of frame, down the sidewalk, poking heads out of second-story windows, or lounging on the front steps.
Beulah Bondi, in her debut (God bless her soul), is one of the first we get to know. When she’s not out walking her dog or bemoaning the weather, she’s gossipin’ about other folks. Namely, Mrs. Marraunt (Estelle Taylor), who is rumored to have a male suitor. She’s married of course. The busybodies love to titter on about this juicy piece of scandal. They fail to recognize how lonely she is with a husband (David Landau) who is totally absent from her life.
Sylvia Sidney doesn’t show up until 20 minutes into the movie although she could be considered the star of the picture. Recently, she’s been accompanying a local boss (Walter Miller) who has the hots for her. It’s possible he can get her out of her humble community. It’s not the nicest place. Her father is the same absent, aloof breadwinner and her mother is constantly agitated and beside herself with nerves. Their home life is hardly stable, and it’s quite public given the close-knit existence with folks window to window in the tenement.
In one of the intermittent visual montages, Vidor captures daily life in the community adding some lovely touches you couldn’t get any other way. With the very focused framework of this individual housing complex, the story builds out from here, layering in the moments on top of one another.
When Sidney asks her Jewish neighbor and childhood friend Sam (William Collier Jr.) how you’re supposed to act in the synagogue — she has a funeral to go to — the very pointed question feels genuine. She’s hardly interrogating him. Instead, she’s curious and surprised he has no spiritual beliefs.
All his knowledge and truth come out of the many books he consumes. She holds the sentiment “You gotta believe in something to be a little happy.” We hear little more about such matters but the hope might as well color her entire outlook on life even in the midst of tragedy. Their Romeo and Juliet friendship feels like a minor caveat underlying entirely different familial issues.
In one particular scene, Vidor instantly mobilizes what feels like the whole mass of humanity to overwhelm the movie. At its apex, New York comes alive. In fact, a moment must be taken to make a stunning acknowledgment. There’s an uncanny resemblance to Spike Lee’s incisive tour de force Do The Right Thing.
Surely as such a prominent cinephile, Spike Lee has seen the picture or somehow imbibed it. The cursory similarities begin with the heatwave and the cross-section of humanity, and then come down to the same inherent eye for human drama as well as intercultural relationships. Both directors feel fully engaged even immersed in their worlds.
For his part, King Vidor intuitively understands the material coaxing a great deal more depth out of it than what initially meets the eye. Part of what differentiates this picture is its lead. Sidney is the picture of stoic beauty going on bravely in the face of unimaginable tragedy. There’s a strength and assurance present in her being but also a quiet dignity. We watch her actions and responses and each and everyone feels enriched with candor.
It’s the contemporary world distilled into a moment — the street bustling with people of all sorts of backgrounds, beliefs, and fears. The picture is 90 years old, and yet I look at it rather incredulously. Not because of what doesn’t translate, but because so much still resonates within its frames.
There are gossips, lonely people, bullies, and young dreamers trying to figure out what to do with their lives. The world is still made up of all sorts, and when we’re thrown together, we very rarely agree. We have to learn how to live with one another each and every day. Sometimes we fail miserably.
In its closing moments, the world returns to the same shorthand of children playing in the street. Sidney walks off determined to move forward with her life by getting away from the street that has represented her entire existence thus far.
At the same time, it has so many memories attached to it and also instigated the greatest traumas she’s ever had to endure. For such a short, stagy endeavor, Street Scene is deceptively rendered. Vidor somehow makes it chockful of what can only be described as human pathos. From the days of The Crowd, he still gets it and puts it to good use. Sidney does the rest.
Alfred Newman’s theme would take on a life of its own as a motif recurring again and again in numerous of the studio’s movies. Here it plays almost as ironic counterpoint. A straightforward score would have brimmed with some kind of dramatic crescendo. Newman’s work, which I have heard referred to as Gershwinesque, is far more playful. I would stop short of saying it’s unfitting. More so, it accentuates a different kind of tone altogether.