Dec 12, 2009
Street Scene

Estelle Taylor, in the middle, and Sylvia Sidney, on the right confront a neighbor in a scene from Street Scene, a 1931 adaptation of the play by Elmer Rice. (There is not a reasonably priced DVD available, so there is no Amazon link.)

This is a film that is set in the slums of New York. The area is ethnically diverse, with Jews, Irish, Germans, Italians, Swedes or Norwegians, and other groups living in the same area.

The film is part of the realist tradition in literature and film. It focuses on the poor, and their struggles. Whether any section of the city was actually as diverse as the slice shown here is irrelevant. What Rice is interested in showing is the interaction among the residents, and in portraying a number of types. The Kaplans, the Jewish residents provide examples of this. Abraham Kaplan, the father, reads a Yiddish/Hebrew newspaper, and is a radical (socialist or anarchist). The father is prone to making speeches to the neighbors. These are usually ignored, or the father is gently told to shut up by the neighbors. In the context of the movie I don’t think the speeches necessarily reflect the author’s voice.

Sam Kaplan, the son, is college educated, and looking forward to law school. In a real life sequel the son would probably finish law school, become a lawyer, serve in WW II, and go into politics as a liberal Democrat in the postwar years. Sam is in love with Rose Maurrant (Sylvia Sidney), a gentile girl, who also loves him as a friend, but is involved with her married boss. Rose’s mother, Anna, is also involved with another man.

The film shows that there is some hostility in the interaction of the various groups. There’s some anti-semitism that varies from the polite variety, to some jocular uses of the word “kike,” to fisticuffs and violence. There is also some hostility on the part of Sam’s sister to his romance with a gentile girl.

There is the inevitable crime, and the perp foreshadows his doom when he says he’ll probably go to the chair.

The close of the film conveys the idea that this has been a typical day in the slums, and that the struggle will continue tomorrow.

It’s worth seeing as an example of 1930s realistic drama the next time it comes on TCM.