“Street Scene,” basically a filmed play from 1931, features a rather static camera trained on the front steps of a tenement apartment building as neighbors interact with each other for gossip, dreams and news of the day. The numerous characters include a biddy with an opinion of everyone (Beulah Bondi), a cheating housewife (Estelle Taylor) and her attractive daughter (Sylvia Sidney). The depression era drama focusses on the problems people of different ethnic backgrounds encounter when they live too close to each other. A Jewish family, an Irish family, and an Italian family all interact through open windows or on the front steps.
Sidney, who plays Rose Maurant, likes the smart and sensitive Jewish pre-law student Sam Kaplan (played by William Collier Jr.). She sees great potential in Sam, but he wants to chuck his future and run away with Rose. Rose’s father suspects his wife’s infidelity with a milkman, so he adopts an authoritarian stance that makes things worse. The gossip about Mrs. Maurant and the milkman eventually leads to tragic consequences.
Although stiffly filmed, the Elmer Rice play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929, and it addresses the serious problems faced by tenement dwellers in hard economic times. King Vidor directed it, and he excels at portraying gritty reality combined with preachy sentimentality in his early sound films. Vidor later filmed another Depression era story called “Our Daily Bread” in 1934. I wonder if the characters in Street Scene knew that things would get a lot worse before they got better.