Thursday, July 19, 2012


Shopgirl Sylvia Sidney lives with her unemployed father, mother, and teenage brother in an old tenement building that is badly in need of repair. When a fire breaks out one day, her brother (Sidney Lumet) tries to climb out on the fire escape but it snaps and he falls to the ground. A rich man (Leif Erickson) who just happens to be driving past offers to take Lumet to the hospital and pays for his treatment; the boy's life is saved, but he will use crutches for the rest of his life. Erickson falls for Sidney, but things get uncomfortable when he discovers that the damaged building is one he owns. At a hearing, he is found not liable because, despite the sub-standard condition of the building, it was built long enough ago to be exempt from the current building code. However, Erickson vows to make a difference and sets in motion a plan to tear down the old buildings and, with help from the city, build new ones with parks and playgrounds nearby.  Erickson's sister, thinking he is only going on this crusade to impress Sidney, warns that she'll make trouble. Erickson decides to postpone his plans, but Lumet, by now deranged because he's become a neighborhood misfit, sets fire to the building, leading to tragedy, but also to Erickson's renewed effort to rebuild.

This is based on a Federal Theater "Living Newspaper" play, one of a series that told headline stories of the day and usually took a political stand on the issues. The film is stuck between romantic melodrama and propaganda, and though it never quite finds its footing, it's an interesting period piece. Erickson is a handsome and hearty leading man, but remains a stick figure without a real personality; Sidney (pictured above with Erickson) fares a bit better simply because her character is a bit more believable. The supporting cast helps carry the day. The 15-year-old Lumet (at right) is excellent as the bitter lad who winds up at the center of the narrative. He even manages to make a strange gimmick work: one night, while out on the street, he vows revenge against the building, then imagines the tenement talking back to him, telling him that it's always been bad news for its inhabitants and things will never change. Myron McCormick plays Sam, a leftist friend of Sidney's who is supposedly in love with her but who seems mostly to be a mouthpiece for the playwright. The tone is mostly serious, even grim at times; there are two startling scenes: dead bodies laid out on the sidewalk after the first fire, and a burning man leaping to his death from the roof in the second fire. Despite this, there are some tonal problems: an odd screwball scene when Sidney goes out to Erickson's mansion to have a showdown with him, a final reconciliation scene between Erickson and McCormick which doesn't ring true, and a rushed and completely unrealistic happy-ish ending that doesn’t work at all.  But it's well made for a low budget film, and worth seeing as an example of earnest social commentary of the era.  [Netflix streaming]

1 comment:

sobrien31 said...

Helpful review. I am currently writing a biography Sylvia Sidney ... she had given up on Hollywood at this point and was associated with the Group Theatre ... heavily influenced by her husband Luther Adler. Thanks for this!