Saturday, April 9, 2011

City Streets (1931)

City Streets 

Starring:  Gary Cooper, Sylvia Sidney, and Paul Lukas

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

Writers: Dashiell Hammett (story), Max Marcin (adaptation), and Oliver H.P. Garrett (screenplay)

Release Date: April 18, 1931

Runtime:  83 minutes

Synopsis: Nan is a racketeer's daughter and in love with the improbably named Kid, who also improbably makes his living as a shooting gallery showman.  Kid is happy with his career path, Nan wants him to join the family business so they can marry and she can continue living in the lifestyle to which she's become accustomed.  Her views change when her father implicates her in a murder, telling her she will never spend a day in the "stir", and Nan is convicted.  While incarcerated, Nan's father convinces Kid to join the gang in order to free Nan.  Upon her release, Nan wants nothing more to do with the mob and wants Kid out as well but she may be too late.

Flick Facts:

* Sylvia Sidney replaced infamous "It" Girl Clara Bow in the role of Nan when Bow failed to show up on the first day of filming.

*  Star Sylvia Sidney had an impressive career in Broadway, films and then television, spanning an amazing seventy years.  Her last appearance was in a televised remake of Fantasy Island in 1998, a year before her death at age 88 in 1999. 

*  Actor Gary Cooper had a high profile relationship with actress Clara Bow, his intended co-star, in the 1920s.  He would eventually have other high profile romances with actresses Lupe Velez, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly and Patricia Neal, as well as with the socialite-spy Countess Carla Dentice di Frasso. 

* Gary Cooper was producer David Selznick's first choice to play Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (1939).  Cooper turned down the role, publicly saying that "Gone With the Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history.  I'm glad it will be Clark Gable who's falling flat on his nose and not me."

*  Gary Cooper won Academy Awards for his performances in Sergeant York (1942) and High Noon (1953) and received an Honorary Oscar in 1961, which was emotionally accepted by good friend James Stewart, as Cooper was too ill with cancer to accept.

*  Actor Paul Lukas had a successful stage and film career in Hungary, Germany and Austria before arriving in Hollywood, where he specialized in womanizers and villians.

* Paul Lukas won an Academy Award for his performance in 1943's Watch on the Rhine, beating out former co-star Gary Cooper.  

This was one of actress Paulette Goddard's first film roles, as an uncredited nightclub patron.  She would later go on to more prominance in Modern Times, The Women and The Great Dictator, among others, and as the third Mrs. Charlie Chaplin. 

City Streets was director Rouben Mamoulian's second film.  He would later go on to direct such notable flicks as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Queen Christina and Silk Stockings.  He was also fired from the classic noir Laura and resigned from the Elizabeth Taylor extravaganza Cleopatra.  Footage shot in both films was not used in the final product.

* City Streets has the distinction of being the first film to use the sound flashback.  It was director Rouben Mamoulian's idea to repeat dialogue heard earlier in the film over a huge close-up of Sylvia Sidney's tear stained face as she recalls the past. 

City Streets was shot at Paramount Studios in New York City.

* Writer Dashiell Hammett was creator of classic literary characters Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) and Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man).  City Streets was his only original screenplay. 

* Dashiell Hammett would begin a thirty year long afffair with playwright Lillian Hellman in 1931, the same year City Streets was released.  The affair would be memorialized in the film Julia, where Jason Robards, playing Hammett, won an Oscar and Jane Fonda, playing Hellman, was nominated for an Oscar.  Julia also has the distinction of being Meryl Streep's first film performance. 

Chic Chick Sounds:

There is no soundtrack for the Pre-Code City Streets but there is a small variety of music played during scenes that is uncredted.  "Sobre las olas (Over the Waves)" is played during a scene at the shooting gallery.  "Sing, You Sinners", "Happy Days Are Here Again", and "I'm Yours" is played by the band during the nightclub scenes.  "Prelude to Act I of 'Die Meistersinger'" is played at the end of the film.

City Streets is one of many gangster/crime noir films that were released during the early 1930s.  What makes it notable in my opinion is the presence of Gary Cooper.  This was "Coop's" first and only role as a gangster and the long, lean actor makes an interesting one.  He is lacking the dark, sinister look that was so common with cinematic gangsters during that time and resembles more a man fresh off the farm, or horseback, than racketeer.

There are definitely flashes of the future Coop to come and you cannot help but be attracted to the warm approachability and All American good looks and toothy grins exhibited by him.

Sylvia Sidney is lovely, if a bit aloof .  She's a good actress but didn't connect with me the same way other actresses of her era like Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford did. 

The storyline is a bit stereotypical, the prison scenes very clean and sanitary, with Sidney looking coiffed and nicely attired and the ending is no real surprise but it's still a neat little picture to view. 

Best Parts of City Streets: The young, poised on stardom Gary Cooper, who is amazing to watch.  He simply steals any scene he is in.  The names of certain characters is also delightfully 1930s Pre-Code (Kid; Pansy; Big Fellow Maskal).  I also thoroughly enjoyed the 1930s ladies' fashions and the interior design. 
Worst Parts of City Streets: Predictability!  There are no real surprises thrown at the viewer, with the exception of Gary Cooper making his living working at a shooting gallery.  And Sylvia Sidney's character at times seems a bit too meek for a racketeer's daughter.  Example:  Wanting to prevent the man she loves from walking into a trap, she runs after him, telling him not to go.  For about  five feet.  Then she stops and looks worried.  Huh? 

Spawns and Sequels: City Strees itself was actually a remake of a 1928 film.  While there was no sequel of City Streets, there were many films before and after City Streets that followed its basic format.

The Final Word: If you're a fan of Gary Cooper, Sylvia Sidney, Paul Lukas and/or Rouben Mamoulian, City Streets should be required viewing.  The film was shot while talkies were still relatively new but this film doesn't suffer from the scratchy, jumpy issues that can plague some early talkies.  There are certain aspects of the film that are very dated (Cooper makes his living at a shooting gallery; Sidney seems to have no real purpose in life other than getting married; Sidney's father is borderline ridiculously comical and very nearly unbelievable as being in the mob) but it is still an enjoyable film to view.  An interesting aside:  I came to the conclusion that radios in cars must have been a novelty at the time with the repeated shots of Cooper tuning the car's radio each time he drove.  

City Streets is not yet available for purchase or rental on DVD but is shown periodically on Turner Classic Movies.

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