Sylvia Sidney

City Streets (1931, Rouben Mamoulian)

The first third of City Streets is this awesome bit of experimenting from director Mamoulian as he tries to figure out how to make a sound picture. Lots of great shots and camera setups, usually with too dawdling cuts. William Shea holds everything just a few seconds too long. But the montage imagery itself is fantastic. And Mamoulian carries it over into the narrative a bit too, though he eventually stops with it after sort of peaking.

But even for all Mamoulian’s experimenting, Streets is never experimental. There’s always the script to drag it back to reality. Oliver H.P. Garrett (adapting a Dashiell Hammett original story, with help form Max Marcin) writes some great scenes and some excellent characters… he just doesn’t write the right ones excellent. Or, if he does, at the wrong times. There’s no reason Wynne Gibson, as a jilted mobster’s dame, ought to end up giving the most dynamic female performance in Streets. It’s literally Sylvia Sidney’s movie and she loses it to Gibson for the finale. Gibson’s great, but great because the movie doesn’t give Sidney a presence much less a chance. Possibly because no one realized Gary Cooper doesn’t work without Sidney around. His performance is better, but he doesn’t function right in the plot without her.

Streets is a crime melodrama. Sidney works for her step-father, a truly singular Guy Kibbee as an abject sociopath, who in turn works for crime boss Paul Lukas. Lukas is a classy European guy who seduces the women of his gang and then kills off his romantic rivals and promotes some duplicitous underling. He’s a psychopath, but one in the guise of a sociopath. Lukas is pretty awesome. He’s not as good as Kibbee because no one’s as good as Kibbee, but Lukas is frightening. Of course, Lukas doesn’t meet Sidney through Kibbee, rather through Gary Cooper. Cooper starts the movie a dope of a cowboy who’s found his way to the big city, just waiting until the circus shows up and he can join up. He’s Sidney’s fella. And he wants nothing to do with the bootlegging gangsters.

At least until Sidney’s in a jam and, being a complete moron, Kibbee’s able to talk Cooper into it to help her. Shame the only thing Sidney’s able to hold onto is the knowledge her fella would never get involved with the bootlegging gangsters.

There’s some great romantic scenes between Cooper and Sidney, which occasionally get messed up by the edits, occasionally amplified. The first one is on the beach and is exemplar good sexy until they cut to a two-shot in the studio instead of the location. Then one where the lovers are separated by a screen. Sidney’s amazing in that one. She also gets a few great thinking scenes, one accompanied by a sound flashback (the first in film, according to the IMDb), and then one where she’s got to figure out how to save Cooper.

Because once Lukas gets a look at her, he’s not going to stop at anything to get her.

And Kibbee’s more than happy to go along. And Cooper’s a dope who thinks Lukas is his pal.

There’s a better movie in the story, but maybe not much better. Cooper’s okay. He’s actually better as the plotting gangster than the dopey cowboy stud. Sidney’s excellent, but the material’s not always with her. Kibbee, Gibson, Lukas. William Boyd’s kind of blah as Lukas’s number two. Not bad just blander than he ought to be. Some of it’s the script.

There’s a great montage sequence of Cooper and all the mob guys looking at each other. I wonder how it’d sound with Ennio Morricone.

The film’s most impressive for Mamoulian’s direction. Unfortunately, you could cut together a ten minute reel of all the best directed stuff and be fine. For whatever reason, Mamoulian drops the experimenting in the second half and the melodrama stalls. It even drags, not good for an eighty minute picture. Maybe it needs to be longer….

The film just can’t figure out how to make all its pieces work; Mamoulian tries a lot of successful things, they just don’t add up. And he seems to get tired of trying, which hurts it.

But City Streets is still an amazing piece of motion picture making.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian; screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett, based on an adaptation by Max Marcin and a story by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Lee Garmes; edited by William Shea; produced by E. Lloyd Sheldon; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Sylvia Sidney (Nan Cooley), Gary Cooper (The Kid), Guy Kibbee (Pop Cooley), Wynne Gibson (Agnes), William ‘Stage’ Boyd (McCoy), and Paul Lukas (Big Fellow Maskal).


Man and woman talking while teens watch them

Dead End (1937, William Wyler)

If you tilt to just the right angle, for a while you can see Dead End as the tale of three people from a poor neighborhood and how life has worked out for them as they got closer to their thirties. Humphrey Bogart grew from a “not too bad” young punk to a public enemy number one, infamous for killing eight men. Joel McCrea busted his ass to put himself through college, got an architecture degree, hasn’t been able to find a job. Sylvia Sidney has been working since age ten, first taking care of her mother, now younger brother Billy Halop. Unfortunately, it’s eventually impossible to keep the head at that tilt and you’ve got to acknowledge Sidney gets the shaft so the film can focus on Halop and his teen gang. Sort of. They infest the film, nothing better to do with their day–Dead End takes place over a single day—than go swimming in the East River, maybe bully then physically assault and rob rich kid Charles Peck; just kids being kids stuff… because the film’s only willing to go so far with its observations.

Dead End might go after classism and gentrification (back when White people were still gentrifying other White people), but it’s not going to go after toxic masculinity or misogyny. There isn’t a single teenage girl shown in the film—the boys in the gang haven’t discovered girls yet—and the only insight into their situation comes from Bogart and teen love Claire Trevor.

The first hour of the film—it runs just over ninety—is mostly Bogart’s. He’s around the dock, talking with the gang, talking with childhood “pal” McCrea, back home with twenty grand in his pocket in a roll, a new face courtesy the plastic surgeon, trying to see his mom (Marjorie Main) and ex Trevor. Allen Jenkins gets the relatively thankless part as Bogart’s sidekick, who’s there to remind him dames aren’t worth it and run errands as needed.

Most of the time Bogart’s behaving himself and somewhat likable. When he takes a turn for the dark, the film does a good job with it. Sadly the only reason he takes that turn for the dark is because his mom doesn’t want anything to do with him because he’s a stone cold killer who does nothing but bring reporters and cops to her door and shame to her name. Doesn’t help Main’s not good. Whatever she and director Wyler decided she should do with the part was the wrong decision. It’s an awkwardly bad scene. You keep waiting for there to be a point to Main’s take on the character and it never arrives.

Trevor’s in a more complicated situation. She gets a single scene, after Bogart talking about her for forty-five or so minutes; what happens to a girl from the poor neighborhood? She ends up in sex work, possibly with tuberculosis, rejected by psychopath Bogart for not being clean enough for him. As far as the acting goes in their scene, they’re both good. They’re amazing when Bogart’s not pretending he should be rejecting her—clearly the makeup people weren’t going to make Trevor look bad, just mildly cheap but still nice looking—but once he gets put out thinking about her not being virginal, the scene becomes a little rote. If only these women had stayed pure enough, maybe Bogart wouldn’t have to go back to a life of crime. Mind you, he’s checking in on them at age thirty-one after being away for ten years plus however long he was in reform school.

Makes you wish play author Sidney Kingsley and screenwriter Lillian Hellman did something with the female characters except martyr them.

Though there is the poor cleaning woman who steals food from a baby, during one of Wyler’s phenomenal background sequences. They shot Dead End on an elaborate set; mostly it’s just the main cast or gang hanging out, but occasionally there are these sequences showing the daily lives of the residents and Wyler does a great job with them. Beautiful Gregg Toland photography, good editing from Daniel Mandell. Sadly, while Toland’s photography is good (or better) throughout, Mandell’s not as good at cutting the dialogue scenes as the physical action ones. Sure, it’s understandable you’d need to cut around some of Halop and the gang’s acting, but it’s still jerky.

McCrea gets a subplot about kept woman Wendy Barrie—who the film doesn’t slut shame, which is kind of weird given it really sounds like she’s a mistress—who wants to run off with him, away from her rich boyfriend, but only if McCrea can support her right. McCrea’s trying.

Meanwhile, Sidney’s been in love with McCrea since they were kids but McCrea still sees her as a ten year-old. She starts the film with a subplot about striking at work and having to convince the men around her she’s justified and actually deserves to be paid for her work; that subplot shrinks, then disappears, as Sidney eventually just ends up supporting Halop’s youth criminal in training story arc.

The youth gang stuff in Dead End is poorly executed, mostly due to the performances, but also the writing. Their scenes are vaguely from their perspective, but they’re also on display as tragic figures. Except they’re also profoundly likable, whether it’s beating up new kid Bernard Punsly for three cents—trying to convince him to steal from his mother—or when they start beating rich kid Peck with boards. Peck’s an absurdly obnoxious caricature, but then so are all the kids in the gang. Wyler doesn’t seem to want to get into the conversation about how apathetic rich people mocking the trauma of poverty is going to boil over at some point so instead plays the assaults like antics.

Great performance from Bogart, okay ones from McCrea and Sidney. Bogart’s able to overcome his part’s slightness, McCrea and Sidney not so much. Barrie’s not memorable but it’s also a bad part because Barrie’s a woman. Trevor’s excellent, mostly because the film doesn’t keep her around long enough to ruin it. Jenkins is good, Ward Bond’s solid as the doorman to the rich apartment building, and James Burke’s fine as the beat cop.

Dead End’s technically outstanding—Wyler’s direction, Toland’s photography, Richard Day’s set design, Julia Heron’s set decoration—but can’t get as serious as it needs to be about its subject matter. The Code wouldn’t allow some of it, but going the route of piloting a “Dead End Kids” franchise for the teen cast, making Dead End the only “real film” entry in the franchise, is rather disappointing. It just seems like with such a potentially strong cast, such a gorgeous set, Wyler and company could’ve done something more with it than Dead End.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Lillian Hellman, based on the play by Sidney Kingsley; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by United Artists.

Starring Sylvia Sidney (Drina), Joel McCrea (Dave), Humphrey Bogart (‘Baby Face’ Martin), Billy Halop (Tommy), Allen Jenkins (Hunk), Wendy Barrie (Kay), Claire Trevor (Francey), Marjorie Main (Mrs. Martin), Huntz Hall (Dippy), Bobby Jordan (Angel), Leo Gorcey (Spit), Gabriel Dell (T.B.), Bernard Punsly (Milty), Charles Peck (Philip), Minor Watson (Mr. Griswald), James Burke (Mulligan), and Ward Bond (doorman).



Sabotage (1936, Alfred Hitchcock)

Sabotage demands the viewer's attention. It opens with a dictionary definition of Sabotage, forcing the viewer to read something and then immediately relate it to the rapidly edited sabotage of a power station. This sequence, which sets off the first act of the film, takes place in maybe a minute, maybe less. Charles Frend's editing is rapid and fluid; it's ever moving, ever graceful.

This first act almost seems like a stage play, establishing the principal cast members. There's suspicious husband Oskar Homolka, his young wife Sylvia Sidney, her younger brother (the reason why she's married to a troll, even if he's nice) Desmond Tester and, finally, the too friendly shop keep from next door John Loder.

Over the film's first sixteen or so minutes, Hitchcock creates an odd domestic short. Sidney doesn't question Homolka, who maybe is just suspicious generally and not explicitly.

But then everything changes–the film follows Homolka and Loder on their separate paths, with Sidney and Tester sort of the spheres they're exerting gravity on. Hitchcock is very expressionistic during the first half of the film; the odd domestic situation, while apparently tolerable, is a little off.

Later on is when Hitchcock opens up, when Sabotage has its first amazing sequence. Then there's a lull and then the second amazing sequence. The second one is nearly silent. The finale, which is intricate, is just gravy.

Sidney and Homolka are both fantastic. Loder's strong. Excellent supporting cast.

Great script, great direction, great Bernard Knowles photography–Sabotage's entirely phenomenal.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, Helen Simpson, E.V.H. Emmett and Alma Reville, based on a novel by Joseph Conrad; director of photography, Bernard Knowles; edited by Charles Frend; produced by Michael Balcon; released by Gaumont British Distributors.

Starring Sylvia Sidney (Mrs. Verloc), Oskar Homolka (Karl Anton Verloc), Desmond Tester (Stevie), John Loder (Ted), Joyce Barbour (Renee), Matthew Boulton (Superintendent Talbot), S.J. Warmington (Hollingshead) and William Dewhurst (The Professor).


Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973, Gilbert Cates)

What is this film and how have I never heard of it.

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams is somewhat indescribable in terms of plot. I mean, it obviously isn’t indescribable–I could list the scenes (there are about fifteen in the film, which means it averages a scene every six minutes and that calculation sounds about right) and there’s a narrative, but the film feels like an adaptation of a play. There’s a lot of conversation, a lot of dialogue, but at times, there’s also a lot of movement. So it couldn’t really be a play–the use of Johnny Mandel’s score, absolutely essential, wouldn’t have been done on stage and the film–the story–wouldn’t work without it.

During the last scene, it occurred to me Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams is the end of a long novel. It’s maybe the third part, where the two characters who each got their own earlier section, finally commingle.

Most of the film–it only runs ninety minutes, so most only means fifty minutes to an hour–belongs to Joanne Woodward. She starts it, her relationship with her family kicks off the second half, she gets to do voiceovers, she gets to have dream sequences. It’s her film for a while. But in the last twenty minutes–and here’s where Summer Wishes becomes something entirely singular and spectacular in any American cinema I’ve seen–the film ceases to be about her and becomes about her husband, played by Martin Balsam. Specifically, it’s about him returning–a World War II veteran–to a battlefield. These scenes are of astounding power. American cinema–good and bad–visibly devastates. Starting with the silents, through the Golden Age, into the seventies, now (especially now), it visibly devastates. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just a feature of the way Americans tell stories. Summer Wishes doesn’t visibly devastate. A friend of mine’s coming to visit and wanted to watch a great film he’d never heard of from the 1970s and here I found it without looking.

The film’s obviously not out on DVD–it apparently never even had a laserdisc release–so I got stuck with the pan and scanned VHS. Gilbert Cates, who I’ve never heard of, does an excellent job directing the film. The pan and scan can’t impair it. He makes each line of dialogue, each exchange, spellbinding. There’s an early scene with Woodward and Sylvia Sidney bickering about bickering with each other–the conversation ought to be drawing attention to the artifice, but it doesn’t. It does the opposite. The next scene, with the pair walking down the street, is marvelous (probably the first scene in the film where it occurred to me Summer Wishes was going to be quite good).

Stewart Stern’s script–for a while–uses both dream sequences and voiceover narrations. The narrations seem like a progression from the dreams (the dreams stop once the narration starts), but then the narration goes too. Instead of replacing it with another device, Stern tells the rest of the story without adornment. I kept waiting for the dreams to come back or for another narration, but not only did none ever come, I couldn’t figure out how Stern used them. While watching the film, the thought was brief as not to distract, but as I’m thinking about it now… I don’t understand how Stern’s script works. It shouldn’t, but it excels.

Woodward and Balsam both give great performances. I think Balsam’s a little more impressive, only because Woodward’s frequently excellent. Balsam’s a solid actor, but this performance is just spectacular.

The supporting cast–Sidney, Dori Brenner–is good.

During the last twenty minutes, after it becomes clear how good Summer Wishes is going to turn out, I kept getting excited. Each minute was, I predicted, going to be another great minute of film. And they are.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gilbert Cates; written by Stewart Stern; director of photography, Gerald Hirschfeld; edited by Sidney Katz; music by Johnny Mandel; production designer, Peter Dohanos; produced by Jack Brodsky; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Joanne Woodward (Rita Walden), Martin Balsam (Harry Walden), Sylvia Sidney (Mrs. Pritchett), Tresa Hughes (Betty Goody), Dori Brenner (Anna), Ron Richards (Bobby Walden), Win Forman (Fred Goody), Peter Marklin (Joel) and Nancy Andrews (Mrs. Hungerford).


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