CITY STREETS B+
USA (83 mi) 1931 d: Rouben Mamoulian
USA (83 mi) 1931 d: Rouben Mamoulian
This second Rouben Mamoulian film, after the box office failure but critical praise for APPLAUSE (1929), is significant in several respects, as Paramount studios forced the young director to wait a year before offering him another picture, an adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett screenplay with Gary Cooper and Clara Bow as the leads, a romantic couple that gets mixed up with bootlegger racketeers. Clara Bow suffered a much publicized nervous breakdown and had to withdraw from the movie, much of it based on a lawsuit that Bow initiated against a former secretary named Daisy DeVoe, claiming she stole thousands of dollars worth of clothing and personal items. While Bow won the lawsuit, the scandalous publicity cost her much more, as the secretary’s trial testimony exposed Bow’s reputation as a woman with a wild and uncontrollable love life, not to mention supposed drug use, unwanted publicity that sent her on an emotional tailspin that all but ended her career. Since the success of It (1927), Bow was the mistress of Paramount associate producer B.P. Schulberg, where she was his vested financial interest as well, but by 1931 due to major personal problems she left Paramount, her career finished, and within another year Schulberg was squeezed out of the studio as well. For this film, however, in an era when sex and romance determined stardom, Bow was replaced by Sylvia Sidney in only her second feature, though she was a well known star on Broadway at the time and had been directed by Mamoulian on the New York stage, where she was not only given the lead role but also became the new mistress of Schulberg as well—That’s Hollywood, folks. During the Depression era of the 30’s, Sidney worked with many of the major lead actors, but her terrific work on this film may have cemented her reputation with gangster movies. The commercial and critical success of von Sternberg’s Silent film Underworld (1927) is often thought of as the inspiration behind a trend of Prohibition-era Hollywood gangster films that followed, like LITTLE CAESAR (1930), PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), and SCARFACE (1932), while often overlooked is this gangster melodrama that features less onscreen violence, with supposedly ten murders, but not one of them takes place onscreen, released a month before Fritz Lang’s M (1931), containing many of the characteristics that would anticipate film noir.
Working with cinematographer Lee Games, who became associated with shooting the films of von Sternberg, nominated for an Academy Award for MOROCCO (1931), winning the award for SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1933), his expressionistic influence on this film is a major factor on why it’s still important today, as it deals with noirish themes of gangland turf and criminal amorality, where the fate of the individual is challenged by a corrupt world around them, where in the laws of the jungle only the strongest survive. Mamoulian’s direction shows a greater appreciation for the visual stylization, including elegant tracking shots, where it is arguably the most artistically advanced of the 30’s gangster films, showing momentary brilliance and occasional poetic flourish. It’s also interesting for Gary Cooper’s portrayal of an underworld criminal, the only known example on film, while it’s also one of the earliest talking efforts, where the sound editing is often clumsy, as the camera rolls before anyone speaks, creating a time gap between characters having a dialogue that slows the pace of the film. This is the first use of voiceover in an American film, used earlier by Hitchcock in the sound version of Blackmail (1929), as Sidney is alone onscreen with recurring thoughts in her head spoken out loud, where the audience hears the echoing voice of Gary Cooper as she recalls what he said to her earlier, where Paramount executives believed this would confuse audiences and tried to cut the scene, but the director fought for it, also the additional use of off-camera sound, which was also considered innovative at the time. While Cooper went on to greater fame, it’s Sidney’s performance as Nan that dominates the film, literally stealing every scene she’s in, often pushed to the breaking point, becoming the face of the 30’s aptly called “Depression’s Child.” The audience is immediately intrigued by her love affair with The Kid (Cooper), a rugged guy off the ranch with a talent for shooting, appropriately enough working at a carnival shooting gallery, where their conversation is often drowned out by the massive crowd. But when they have a romantic moment where they’re quietly alone at the beach, she tells him sees nothing wrong with working with racketeers, as at least they’re guys that make money, including her own stepfather Pop (Guy Kibbee) who works for the biggest bootlegger in town, The Big Guy (Paul Lukas). The Kid has other ideas and wants no part of a life in crime, including his girl. But she was born into the business, where in one of the cleverly written early scenes with Pop, he scolds her for coming in late and asks who she was with? When she refuses to answer, despite being goaded, he bursts out laughing and rewards her with money for learning to keep her mouth shut.
While Al Capone supposedly loved this film as an accurate portrayal of the underworld of gangsters, where they are continually undermining one another to get ahead, where hits are ordered with subtlety, where the boss’s henchmen have to read between the lines to figure out what he means, and when they knock somebody off, this makes life easier within the organization. The Big Guy makes this clear right away, asking if Pop is interested in taking over somebody else’s territory, inferring he would like for this to happen, and then walks away while Pop gets involved in a gangland slaying, quickly giving the gun to Nan to dispose of, but she gets caught with the murder weapon and takes the prison rap. Meanwhile Pop manipulates The Kid into joining the organization by telling him the cops planted the gun on Nan, and they’ll need his help to try to get her out of jail. Despite promises that the mob will get her out, Nan languishes in jail for two long years, becoming embittered by her experience, where her tough girl persona is convincing, becoming cynical about the whole racketeering operation from behind bars. This prison sequence shows Sidney at her best, given a hard edge, as she’s wise to the ways of the world and can stand up to anybody. When she gets out, she’s literally dumfounded to find The Kid working with these same bootleggers, blinded to their real intentions, where The Big Guy throws her a party in her honor, where he uses the occasion to make Nan his girl. When The Kid stands up to him, “Nobody steals my girl, not even you,” which seems to click a switch in his head where all bets are off and anything can happen, leading to a spectacular fight to the finish, culminating with an exhilarating chase scene up a narrow mountain road that is as thrilling today as when it was made. Paul Lukas is an interesting contrast to the humble Western manner of Gary Cooper, as he plays the suave and sophisticated Charles Boyer-style villain, well dressed and heavily Hungarian-accented, where it’s easy for the audience to root against such a villainous guy. Many of these little quirks make this an offbeat gangster film, where Mamoulian uses a staggering array of innovative camera shots and narrative techniques for this film, including an infamous sequence shot from the top of the stairs where The Kid is steadfast in going after The Big Guy and refuses to listen to Nan, despite being draped all over him, where she’s left alone in tears muttering “You fool” over and over again, yet the camera holds the scene in utter silence as she composes herself and paces the floor until an idea comes to her, and she slowly walks across the floor to make a telephone call, where Sidney offers her own praise for the director, “Look, he carried me through that picture. He was a great teacher and a great director, and I will always be indebted to him for his genius and for his confidence in me.” In one of her earliest screen appearances, Paulette Goddard can be seen as a nightclub patron, but in perhaps the most bewildering twist of all, once the outcome has been determined, the rising trumpets and blaring horns from Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger Herbert v. Karajan "Prelude to Act I " Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg YouTube (9:49) resound triumphantly over the end credits in one of the more astonishing audience send-offs on record—an enduring classic that will likely leave the audience smiling.