King Vidor’s pre-Code adaptation of Elmer Rice’s popular play retains the voyeuristic confinements of the theatrical set but expands the bustling street tableau with a gently roving camera and naturalistic touches. Over the course of two sweltering summer days, the generational, political, cultural, ethical and tempermental differences among residents of a New York tenement building spill out onto the sidewalk. The film’s central melodrama only gradually emerges out of the stream of arguments and gossip, proselytizing and poetry, drunken kisses and incessant side-glances. A few of the usual suspects appear in this melting pot, but the film does not linger too much on stereotypes; instead it revels in the medley of characters tripping over each other’s lives until a final, fatal fall. 

Featuring young protégé Sylvia Sidney fresh from City Streets, and the first screen appearance of Beulah Bondi who continued her role from the stage version as the cantankerous busybody, the simply staged film also provided the spark for many cinematic city visions, from Rear Window to Do the Right Thing. Even Alfred Newman’s original score—capturing the rhythmic essence of New York—took on a life of its own, reappearing in several films including 1957’s How to Marry a Millionaire.

Directed by King Vidor. With Sylvia Sidney, William Collier Jr, Estelle Taylor
US 1931, 35mm, b/w, 80 min

Curator Matthew Wittmann will give a tour of the exhibit before the film, from 6:00 – 6:45pm, which includes the original Street Scene poster. The show will remain on view through December 15. For more information, visit the Houghton website.