Friday, March 18, 2011

City Streets (Paramount, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Not long ago Charles and I screened a quite remarkable movie from TCM’s recent tribute to director Rouben Mamoulian: his second film, City Streets, made at Paramount in 1931 — says it was shot at Paramount’s Astoria studios in Queens (which still exist as Kaufman Astoria Studios, and are still in use, notably by Woody Allen for his New York-set films), but my impression was that Mamoulian had already come out to Hollywood by then and shot the film there. Mamoulian’s previous film, Applause (1929), actually had been made at Astoria — a dark masterwork starring Helen Morgan in a backstage story of almost unrelieved grimness (anyone coming to that film with the expectation that “musical” inevitably means “light, frothy entertainment” would be duly perplexed) that had pushed the envelope in terms of innovative uses of sound. The critics had loved Applause but the audience hadn’t, and Mamoulian continued his career as a stage director (despite the Depression and its inevitable effect on theatrical productions and the availability of the financing for them) until 1931, when Paramount summoned him back and gave him the choice of three stories for a second film.

He hated them all, then ran into Dashiell Hammett — who had also been given a contract by Paramount but hadn’t yet come up with anything filmable. “I told him I was looking for ideas, and he put a suggested outline down in four pages,” Mamoulian later recalled (to Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg for the book The Celluloid Muse). “Dashiell wrote a familiar gangster story, and I accepted it, intending to treat it in an original manner. There were several murders, and I had them happen off-screen. And I wanted to use symbolism, a term that’s anathema in Hollywood. In a conversation between two bitchy women [sic — actually it’s between a woman and a man], I simply showed two china cats.” [Mamoulian had an extensive personal collection of such artistic bric-a-brac and brought in two pieces from his own collection.] City Streets is a good movie but a rather quirky one, surprisingly slowly paced (anyone whose expectation of an early-1930’s gangster film has been conditioned by Little Caesar, Public Enemy and the other zippy Warner Bros. speed-fests is going to be surprised here), and it’s several minutes into the film before the leads, Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney, appear.

It begins with the assassination of bootleg beer maker Blackie (Stanley Fields) — who somehow has managed to keep an extensive factory (presumably a legal brewery he kept open after Prohibition by bribing the right authorities) in operation, much to the dismay of Big Boss Mackal (Paul Lukas), the overlord of the city’s illegal booze business, who wants to horn in on it. Mackal gets Pop Cooley (Guy Kibbee, making his screen debut and cast as a black-hearted gangster whose only redeeming quality is his love for his daughter — a far cry from the comic-relief ditzes and letches we’re used to seeing him as, though he could be a credible action figure in movies like this and Captain Blood, where he was part of Errol Flynn’s pirate crew), Blackie’s partner, to carry out the killing from him, and rather than show the murder on screen he dissolves from a vat in which the beer is being manufactured to the running water of a river in which Blackie’s hat is floating. After shooting Blackie at the Big Boss’s behest, Cooley hands the gun to his daughter Nan (Sylvia Sidney) — the American Film Institute Catalog identifies Nan as Cooley’s stepdaughter but the film itself says she’s his daughter — figuring that since she has no record and is a woman, even if she’s popped for it the authorities will go easy on her.

Nan has been dating The Kid (Gary Cooper), a carnival sharpshooter, and wants to marry him but is concerned about his finances, or lack thereof; she keeps trying to get him to join her dad’s gang and he keeps refusing. Then Nan is arrested and charged with being an accessory to Blackie’s murder, and she’s convicted and sentenced to prison — where the Kid visits her and, in a scene of intense, frustrated and unabashed romanticism one doesn’t expect to see in an early-1930’s gangster movie, they end up trying to kiss each other through the wire-mesh screen in the visiting room before his time expires and he’s ushered out by the matron. The Kid accepts Cooley’s offer to join the bootlegging gang, hoping that he can make enough money to get Nan’s conviction reversed and get her released — only he begins to enjoy the gangster lifestyle, the money he can make from it and the lavish digs he can now afford. Meanwhile, Nan’s feelings towards her father’s business do a 180° turn when her cellmate is about to be released and she expects to be picked up by her gangster boyfriend, Joe — and Nan witnesses from the window of her cell (an oddly angular contraption that makes it look like she’s doing her time in The Prison of Dr. Caligari) as Joe duly shows up — and is gunned down by members of a rival gang before he and his girlfriend can reunite. (Nan’s trauma over this turn of events is dramatized by a voice-over in which she is unable to sleep because she keeps hearing, in her mind’s ear, her former cellmate’s reassurance that Joe will return to her, her own questioning of Joe’s loyalty, her dad’s offers to let the Kid join his gang and her own assurances that the Kid should do this. It’s been called the first sound flashback ever used in a film, which it may be, and also the first use of a voice-over to represent a character’s thoughts, which it isn’t; Alfred Hitchcock had done that one a year before with Herbert Marshall in his British film Murder!)

When Nan finally does get out, she’s horrified that the Kid is now part of her dad’s gang, and things get even hairier when the Big Boss, who seems to regard every woman in the vicinity as his property if and when he wants her, dumps his previous girlfriend Aggie (Wynne Gibson) — who’d been Blackie’s girlfriend before the Big Boss had Blackie killed — and insists he’s going to make Nan his mistress. Nan agrees to the deal if he’ll let the Kid live, but goes to the Big Boss’s home with a small gun intending to kill him — only he catches on that she’s hiding a gun in her purse and takes it away from her. Then he throws it away and Aggie picks it up and uses it to kill him. Nan is accused of the murder and the Kid manages to get them both out of the gang life by pretending to take over the mob after the Big Boss’s death; when he and Nan make their escape they’re chased by three of the gang’s thugs, but Nan holds a gun on them and disarms them, and the Kid sends them off, saying, “No hard feelings” (the Big Boss’s words at the beginning of the film to Blackie just before he had him killed), and Mamoulian cuts to a shot of birds in the sky and puts the prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger on the soundtrack as the film fades out.

Despite its occasional sluggishness, City Streets is quite a good movie, the characters well delineated and the emotions vivid and intense. Though the story got filtered through two other writers after Dashiell Hammett outlined it (Max Marcin was credited with “adaptation” and Oliver H. P. Garrett with the script), Hammett’s world-weary world view is very much in evidence — as is his intriguing fascination with fat characters: the imagination that brought us Mr. Crostlethwaite in his early story “One Hour,” Casper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon and Sydney George Harper Carp in the comic script Secret Agent X-9, which Hammett scripted and an equally illustrious talent, Alex Raymond, drew for the Hearst syndicate is here in Kibbee’s character and his quirky romantic relationship with someone equally zaftig, Pansy Trevillian (Betty Sinclair), in the second half of the film. I had seen this one only once before — at a revival theatre in San Francisco in the 1970’s — and the big scenes I remembered were that heartrending prison visit between Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney (unusual not only for its desperate romanticism but also the fact that it was the man outside visiting his girlfriend in prison, not the other way around as usual) and Guy Kibbee eating candy with his equally large girlfriend.

City Streets was a major hit when it was first released and still holds up quite well — Gary Cooper’s laconicism and diffidence as an actor are right for the part even though this is one of those movies that justifies the joke about him that all he could say on screen was “yep” and “nope,” the rest of the cast is quite good (it’s a special treat to see Guy Kibbee cast so totally against what later became his movie “type,” and likewise though Paul Lukas would go on to play other villains they usually were either inept or charming, which he decidedly isn’t here), Mamoulian’s symbolism and stylization add weight to the story without overwhelming it, and overall it’s quite a good job within the early-1930’s gangster cycle while at the same time transcending the typical gangster conventions and giving us a pair of leading characters we care about and want to see prevail.