Friday, September 4, 2015

Kid Actor with Sylvia Sidney

STREET SCENE.  AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY.  DEAD END.  Three of her early films.  The 1930s.  America is in the tight grip of the Great Depression.  At the movies, no one played a poor New York City girl with more soulfully than lovely Sylvia Sidney.  She was like an American beauty rose blooming in an ashcan.  Her low income neighborhood characters worked hard to get out of miserable surroundings to something better.  Life knocked her down but this sad-eyed beauty would get back up and carry on.  She'd try to help someone else knocked down by life get back up and carry on too.
Sylvia Sidney distinguished herself in a long career that covered Broadway, film and TV.  She started making movies just a few years after they'd learn to talk.  Street Scene and An American Tragedy (remade by director George Stevens 20 years later as A Place in the Sun) were released in 1931.  Sylvia Sidney did a good amount of TV work in the 1980s plus a popular movie.  Many recognize her as Juno in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988).  Her last film was 1996's Mars Attacks!, also by Burton.  She played Grandma Florence.  She worked with top directors from Hollywood's golden age such as William Wyler, Fritz Lang (the above pic is from Lang's Fury), Josef von Sternberg, Dorothy Arzner and Alfred Hitchcock.  She did not like Hitchcock.  I did a short interview of Sylvia Sidney for morning radio in the late 1970s.  It was my first broadcast job fresh out of college and she was doing a celebrity appearance to promote her popular needlepoint book.  Sylvia Sidney said that Hitchcock was "just a cutter."  He cared more about how he'd edit a scene later than he did about his actors.  Their film together was 1936's Sabotage.  Another of her tenement heroine roles was in a 1939 film that I saw recently.
It was ...ONE THIRD OF A NATION...  It's a social issue movie about the deplorable living conditions many New York renters had.  The same angle about poverty and tenements was done better by William Wyler in 1937's Dead End.  But Sylvia Sidney, who'd mastered and become a star playing that kind of character, is terrific to watch and she speaks out against squalid conditions that her relatives and neighbors must endure.  Her character, Mary, has a kid brother who becomes a victim of the plague of poverty.  There are no fire safety codes.  Landlords are derelict in upkeep.  A blaze starts in the building.  Her brother, Joey, has to jump to safety and is crippled as a result of the jump.  But he's alive.  Others aren't.  It's hard for Joey to accept that he may always need crutches.
He's angry at the cycle of poverty he and his family live in.

Joey rants at the tenement.  The building talks back and mocks the boy, telling him that it's been there for a long, long time and no one's done anything so far.  The building teases the boy by telling him that it'll remain standing to make even more lives miserable in New York City.  Joey is mad as hell at the building.

The young actor was 15 when he gave that passionate, moving performance.  He held his own opposite a pro like Sylvia Sidney.  It was his only feature film acting role.


Yet, he had an extensive and acclaimed film career.  He got four Oscar nominations.  The nominations came for 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The Verdict.  His other film credits include  The Pawnbroker, Fail-Safe, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express starring Albert Finney, Equus starring Richard Burton and 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.  Yes, that kid actor was future film director Sidney Lumet.
Lumet was a director known for taking on social issues in some of his finest films and for making films in which New York was his best set and location.  Look at his 1957 courtroom drama 12 Angry Men,  The Pawnbroker (1964), Serpico (1973), Network (1976) and Prince of the City (1981).  In ...One Third of a Nation..., that 1939 movie scene in which crippled Joey is as mad as hell and confronts the awful tenement building reminded me of Howard Beale in 1976's Network hearing voices in his head that drove him to extreme  behavior.  I thought of the apartment buildings in Network that had desperate New Yorkers going to their windows and connecting to Beale's pain and rage by yelling "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

The teen actor in ...One Third of a Nation... grew up to become a one of kind film director.

Lumet died in 2011 at age 86.  He did receive an honorary Oscar for his extraordinary body of work.




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