City Streets (1931) Directed by Rouben Mamoulian.  Sylvia Sidney, Gary Cooper, Paul Lukas, Wynne Gibson (83 min).

The only original story Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) ever wrote for the screen is this atmospheric gangster yarn—told entirely from a woman’s point of view.  Nan’s jocular stepdad is an enforcer for a suave bootlegger.  She lives in the crannies of the rackets until she loyally takes a fall for her Pop.  Achingly beautiful Gary Cooper is her beau, an easy-going ex-rodeo hand who’s reluctantly drawn into a life of crime to save his girl.  The expressionistic camera makes every shot intoxicating, and the film includes American cinema’s first voice-over narration.  “STREETS is actually very beautiful, sleazy, unrepentant, and expressionistic as all art deco hell” (acidemic.blogspot).

In the early gangster films, let’s face it, pretty much ALL gangster films, girlfriends like Jean Harlow and Mae Clark (Public Enemy) Karen Morley and Ann Dvorak (Scarface) and Glenda Farrell (Little Caesar) wear clinging, bias cut satin dresses, stacks of diamond bracelets (they called them their “service stripes”) and they either shut up or get slapped around.  It’s thrilling to see a woman’s point of view spotlighted in a classic Pre-Code gangster picture.  City Streets focuses on a workaday criminal, and the way his stepdaughter comes of age in a world of crime.  During the Depression, finding a job is hard, and Nan doesn’t aspire to the wealth and power of the underworld.  She yearns for the modest income that will allow her to marry her carnival boyfriend, who is clearly making barely enough for himself alone to live on.  She urges him towards a life of crime (which he resists) because of the steady, not the extravagant, income.  She refuses to rat out her Pop when he commits murder and goes to jail (as she has been groomed to do).  The Kid appears at the jail on visitor’s day in a flashy fur-collared overcoat, signaling that he has finally taken her advice, which she now realizes spells doom.

March 1932 Silver Screen:  “Moments of Destiny” by Rose Natkins.  “Here’s a right pretty little peak, ladies and gentlemen.  And why not?  Look who’s sitting on top of it.  Our old friend—pardon, our young friend, Sylvia Sidney.  And the name of the peak is “City Streets.” Sylvia jumped into this role a few days after she arrived in Hollywood, fresh from a Broadway stage triumph.  An eleventh hour substitute for Clara Bow, she had little time to prepare for her part.  Yet, Sylvia turned in a performance which a veteran of the silver screen might envy.  She recognized her big chance in the scene where her sweetheart (Gary Cooper) visited her in Jail and told her he had joined the racketeers, and one glimpse of the scene convinced Hollywood that here was one young ‘un who had come to stay”

Dashiell Hammett turned to writing as a profession when his career as a Pinkerton’s detective was cut short by tuberculosis.  He published his first story when he was 28, in 1922.  He desperately needed to support his family, and pulp fiction magazines, like Black Mask, provided reliable income.  His first novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, were serialized in Black Mask.  By the end of the decade, his health improved, and with his writing newly successful, he intentionally wrote fiction with one eye fixed on his work being adapted for the screen. The Maltese Falcon was written in 1930 and was first filmed in 1931. The novel assured his place as one of the era’s finest writers. In 1930, he signed a contract with Paramount to write an original story for the studio.  Seven handwritten pages for “After School” were elaborated on and christened “The Kiss-Off.”

Paramount wanted to film it, but they transformed Nan and The Kid from teens to adults. The plan was to star Clara Bow and Gary Cooper, a proven star paring, (and once hot off-screen item).  The film was meant to evoke Ladies of the Mob, one of Bow’s silent era hits.  Rouben Mamoulian had only made one other feature, Applause starring Helen Morgan.  Well reviewed, it hadn’t been big at the box office, and Paramount lingered before offering the director the project. The story is recognizable as City Streets, but definitely doesn’t have the female point of view of the film.  The scene where Pop test’s Nan’s loyalty by manhandling her, is one incident recognizably from Hammett’s story.  David Thomson observed that Hammett, and Max Marcin and Oliver H.P. Garrett who wrote the screenplay, might not have spotted their work in Mamoulian’s expressionistic transformation.  Hammett wrote about the movie to Lillian Hellman.  He thought the film was “pretty lousy, though Sylvia Sidney makes the whole thing seem fairly good in spots.  She’s good, that ugly little baby, and currently is my favorite screen actress” (Thomson 171).

The director didn’t want his film to look like a conventional gangster movie, and, teamed with Lee Garmes, created innovative cinematography.  When Cooper visits Sidney in prison, Mamoulian told the actress not to smile when she sees him and cry when he leaves.  “Reverse the procedure. When you see him, cry with joy; and when at the end when he tells you he’s a gangster, don’t cry at all, but rather smile with the kind of smile that transcends sorrow” (Meyers 68). The jail house love scene also sets a new erotic standard as they touch and stroke the barrier between them to touch each other and kiss.  Afterwards, she returns to her cell and relives emotional moments through the innovative use of a voice over.  The studio balked, thinking audiences would never understand it, but of course, they did.  Expressionistic use of animal imagery dominates scenes, like when Pop tells Aggie how to smoke his cigar to create an ashy alibi, the camera caresses stylized cat statues (supposedly belonging to the director in real life) and when Nan makes a decision that will change her fate, she makes a phone call in the shadow of a gigantic stuffed bald eagle mounted over a mirror. There are a lot of birds:  Pop has a canary that doesn’t sing (like Nan, perhaps) and there is a symbolic flight of free birds at the end.  Such interesting choices!  On the big screen the camera work thrills, like tracking closer and closer to an actor until their faces fill the screen to the margins.  The average working day was 16 hours, and Mamoulian recalled one late night Sidney and Cooper fell asleep during the take.

There are some beautifully lit romantic scenes by the shore. Cooper is seated in the center, and Mamoulian on the right.

Sidney was born Sophia Kosow in New York City.  Her parents divorced soon after her birth, and she was shy as a child.  Her mother’s prescription was dancing school and elocution lessons.  The latter led to school plays and after attending The Theater Guild School she worked extensively in stock and on Broadway.  She had a brief role in Thru Different Eyes “an all-dialogue murder trial novelty” at Fox studios, but then returned to the stage.  Paramount executive B.P. Shulberg saw her in Bad Girl and decided to persuade her to return to Hollywood.  The bait was a part in An American Tragedy to be directed by Sergei Eisenstein, and when the original director cancelled, Josef von Sternberg.  But the real attraction was Shulberg, himself.  Although he was married, they sparked instantly and commenced a scandalous love affair.

From Hilda Price’s scrapbook. A color image probably cut off the cover of a movie magazine.

When Clara Bow withdrew from City Streets, Sidney was third choice after Nancy Carroll.  Sidney hesitated, but respected director Mamoulian, who she knew from The Theater Guild, and “adored” Gary Cooper.  Mamoulian, in fact, campaigned for her.  “If it hadn’t been for Mamoulian, I would never have been a movie star.  I refer to him as Mr. God” (O’Brien 51).  Advertised as her screen debut, it made her a star.  After An American Tragedy (where the poignancy of her acting far overshadowed the film’s other two stars) and as a tenement dweller in Street Scene, Elmer Rice’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, imaginatively filmed by King Vidor, she was type-cast.  “Nobody suffered quite so convincingly as she, so let her suffer—let her great eyes fill with tears, her petal lips tremble, her husky little girl voice throb over the injustices of the world” (Springer p.8).  Frustrated with her roles, she left Hollywood, mostly for good after the 1930s, although she continued acting on stage, in movies and on tv.  She published a best-selling book on needlepoint, a long-time passion, and devoted herself to raising her beloved pug dogs.  These days most movie-goers recognize her from Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, as Juno, the cranky underworld case worker, who warns the ghostly Maitlands not to say “his” name.

The New Movie Magazine September 1931.  Photo by Bredell

Gary Cooper was born in Helena, Montana, once known as Last Chance Gulch.  His parents were born in England, and at 9 he was sent away to school there, he stayed until the outbreak of WW I, when he was 16.   Returning home to his father’s ranch, he became interested in art, and hoped to become a cartoonist.  After two years of college, in 1924, he ended up in Hollywood because his parents moved there after his father retired as a judge from the Montana State Supreme Court. Cooper ran into a couple of old Montana friends who were working as cowboy extras for $10 a day. He could make more money riding a horse in Westerns than he could as an artist. A combination of looks, grace and helpful love affairs helped him out of the extra ranks. A romance with Clara Bow landed him a small part in It, and in her film Children of Divorce he was coached by assistant director Josef von Sternberg. A couple of supporting parts in big budget pictures, The Winning of Barbara Worth and Wings, led him to romantic leads. In The Virginian, his first talkie, Walter Huston called him a “Son of a…” and Cooper drawled, “When you call me that, SMILE.”  After his success as Marlene Dietrich’s lover in Morocco, he agitated for a raise, and as punishment, he was assigned to City Streets with Clara Bow, whose talkie career was cratering.  Replaced by Sylvia Sidney, the part made Sidney a star.  Cooper filmed City Streets at the same time he was filming a Zane Grey Western, 100 miles away, on location.  One of his biographers thinks “Cooper, a decent guy gone wrong, looks too nice to be a villain.”  Of course.  That’s the point. (Meyers 68).

Guy Kibbee, soon to become a comic staple at Warner Brothers here plays a more sinister character in Pop.  Although many feel Paul Lukas is miscast as the suave mob kingpin, his Hungarian accent stresses that crime was another pathway to financial success for the immigrant.

Wynne Gibson plays a remarkable gritty moll.  Kay Francis was supposedly the first choice, and she seems far too elegant for the part.  Gibson was primarily a stage actress, and most of her 51 film credits are in the first half of the 1930s.  I love her in the title role of Aggie Appleby, Maker of Men!  After two brief marriages, both before 1930, she became the longtime companion of actress Dorothy Roberts, until her death in 1987.

Cooper and Gibson watch Paul Lukas put the moves on an unwilling Sidney

City Streets traditionally has been dwarfed by the three landmarks of early gangster cinema.  It did get one unusual endorsement for its accuracy of the criminal life, from Al Capone.  Many years later, Capone’s brother told the director how much he had loved City Streets; he saw it eight times.  It had “class.” Mamoulian recalled in 1975, “I was puzzled by his enthusiasm for a time, Then I realized it was because I hadn’t shown the dirty work” (O’Brien 55).  Although there are ten murders, they all take place off screen, unlike in those films that surged with fury and testosterone, and the rat-tat-tat sound of the tommy gun.  Still, because the crimes were “unpunished” (Cagney, Robinson and Muni all die in a hail of bullets) the Production Code forbid the re-release of this film, part of the reason for its relative obscurity.  This film is often described as “slow-moving” by which it means that rather than concerning itself with the physical violence perpetrated by the leading man, it is focused on the emotions, aspirations and suffering of its heroine, and the other women, like her, in thrall to men who revel in violence and crime.

* (This link is broken), (This link is broken) Have You Seen…? By David Thomson, Gary Cooper: American Hero by Jeffrey Meyers, Sylvia Sidney: Paid by the Tear by Scott O’Brien.  “Gary Cooper” by Carlos Clarens in Films in Review, December, 1959, “Sylvia Sidney” by John Springer, in Films in Review January 1966, The Paramount Pretties by James Robert Parrish, “Silvia Sidney” by Jeff Laffel in Films in Review, September-October 1994, The Hunter and Other Stories by Dashiell Hammett, edited by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett