I’m working on an interesting freelance project helping to write a California history textbook. I have an unexpected pause this afternoon as the chapter I’m writing is being re-outlined. So in my free time, what more relaxing subject could I be thinking about than the filth-infested New York tenements of the Great Depression?
I saw this fantastic movie last night at the UCLA Film Archive called “One Third of a Nation.” The title comes from Franklin Roosevelt’s second inaugural address in January 1937. It was a killer speech and parts of it ring very true for today. Here’s an excerpt:
In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens—a substantial part of its whole population—who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.
I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.
I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.
I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.
I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions.
I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.
But it is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope—because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
If I know aught of the spirit and purpose of our Nation, we will not listen to comfort, opportunism, and timidity. We will carry on.
Wow. You go, Franklin. And he did “paint it out” although the manufacturing boom of World War II eventually came in and helped things quite a bit. As part of his broad New Deal programs, Roosevelt created the WPA, the Work Projects Administration, which ended up providing jobs for millions of people. The WPA also included legendary arts initiatives such as the Federal Theatre Project whose mission was to provide employment for out-of-work actors, writers, directors, and so on. Can you imagine anyone in the government caring about that particular group today? The other goal was providing low-cost entertainment. But the FTP soon became the bane of the conservative members of Congress since most of their productions had a decidedly leftist slant.
One of the FTP productions was “One Third of a Nation,” a play dealing head-on with the horrific conditions of millions of people living in tenements. It was part of the “Living Newspaper” unit. Journalists and playwrights would literally comb the newspapers for important issues and write theatre pieces around them—I’m talking everything from syphilis to farming worries to unpopular government policies. The play opened on Broadway on January 17, 1938 and was a huge success despite its hit-you-over-the-head-with-its-leftist-politics stance. It became the only WPA play to make it to the big screen. Shot in New York’s Astoria Studios (later a favorite of Woody Allen) and on location on the Lower East Side, the film version is cleaned up a bit from the stage production but it’s still pretty hard hitting. The film stars the beautiful Sylvia Sidney in the role of a shopgirl forced to live with her parents and little brother in a one-room hovel crawling with cockroaches and rats. You can almost smell the filth caused by the ooze coming out of the non-working drains and I feared for the life of every extra going up the broken-down stairs of rotted wood.
In my experience, tenements were always a bit glamorized in the movies and in my head. Sure, they looked cramped and crowded, but they always had a certain seedy charm, like old black-and-white photos of the good old days. Yes, we’re glad those days are gone but wasn’t it fun back when our families were living in extreme togetherness in the tenements? Weren’t we all a little happier during those simple times? Even visiting the wonderful Tenement Museum in New York, as I’ve done many times, housed in an actual tenement building, has a certain city charm in all of the recreated apartments. But the housing shown in “One Third of a Nation” does not look charming, it looks ghastly.
I always loved Sylvia Sidney. She was a nice Jewish girl, born Sophia Kosow, from the Bronx. She never got the big movie break she deserved but appeared in endless films as the tough-talking yet vulnerable girlfriend or sister of people like Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, George Raft, and Cary Grant. Sidney got her only Oscar nomination when she was in her 60s for the 1973 movie “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams.” I probably was first introduced to her when she played Melanie Mayron’s grandmother on “thirtysomething” and a death clerk in Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice.”
Some time in the late 90s my brother-in-law Jeff Tweedy was in L.A. recording an album. Jeff was anything but starstruck but he had always admired actor Charles Nelson Reilly who was a good friend of Kendall’s. We once brought Charles to one of Jeff’s recording sessions and the two really hit it off. So somehow, on this night, Kendall and I found ourselves out to dinner with Charles and Jeff at Orso's in Los Angeles. And who was the first person we ran into at the restaurant? Sylvia Sidney. Charles knew her so we went to her table. She was majestic, bawdy, and funny as hell as she good-naturedly bellowed in that husky voice to everyone around her. What a treat. Now Charles and Sylvia are both gone.
Back in 1938, still in her 20s, Sidney was cast as the lead in the controversial “One Third of a Nation,” a film similar in style, tone, and content to “Dead End,” the movie made the previous year that introduced the Dead End Kids to the world. Sidney had starred in this film as well and her character, the dirt poor but hard-working and nicely dressed tenement girl looking for escape, was similar. But instead of Joel McCrea, Sidney’s potential love interest and savior in this film was Leif Ericson, on loan from the Group Theatre. Ericson was married to actress Frances Farmer at the time, she of forced lobotomy fame, and Sidney was married to actor Luther Adler, also a Group Theatre devotee. At the time Sylvia and Leif were filming this movie, their spouses were appearing together in Clifford Odets’ “Golden Boy.” Plenty of ultra-liberals all around, no wonder Joseph McCarthy would set his sights on this crowd a few years later.
There are lots of wonderful, gritty performances in “One Third of a Nation,” from Myron McCormick as Sidney’s leftist would-be boyfriend Sam who despises the rich to character actress Iris Adrian as Myrtle, a hooker working in the tenement. But the real stand out is the little boy who plays Sylvia Sidney’s little brother Joey. I was shocked to discover that Joey was played by 14-year-old Sidney Lumet. Yes, THE Sidney Lumet, the amazing Oscar-winning director of such films as “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Network,” “Running on Empty,” and so many more including last year’s “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead.” Who knew that young Sidney was a talented child star? He mostly appeared on Broadway and was a bit hit in many juvenile roles, including the original play version of “Dead End.”
Lumet is what holds the film together. After he becomes crippled in a tenement fire because of a faulty fire escape, the boy nurses a burning hatred of the building. The tenement talks to him, taunting him that his kind of people will always live in such miserable conditions. Meanwhile, rich-boy Leif Ericson, who owns the tenement, promises Sylvia that he will tear them down, giving them all hope (then where will they live, I kept wondering). But Leif caves from the pressure of his vile let-them-eat-cake sister, played by the deliciously evil Muriel Hutchison, who turned in a very different but equally brilliant performance later that year as Norma Shearer’s worried maid in “The Women.” Her scene with the cook in which she nervously relays everything about the fight between Norma Shearer and her husband that's going on upstairs is my favorite sequence in the film. But here Hutchison represents everything that's wrong with greedy capitalism.
When Joey hears that the building won’t be torn down after all, he loses it completely and proceeds to burn the tenement to the ground, killing several people in the process including himself. Ignoring the pleas of his sister and other horrified onlookers, Joey stands triumphantly on the roof of the burning tenement, waving his crutch in the air as he dies. Fun night at the movies, huh? And yet, despite the somewhat hackneyed plot, this is a far more realistic, unglamorized look at poverty than many of the films made today including “Slumdog Millionaire.”
It’s the hopeful finale of the film that got me going. To prove that little Joey didn’t die in vain, Leif Ericson tells his sister to go fuck herself and starts pulling down all of the tenement buildings in New York that have made his family so rich. Sylvia is there to cheer him on and we can only assume that she has dumped her radical suitor for the privileged golden boy. We see massive old buildings being turned into rubble—scenes that I’m sure were taken from newsreel footage of actual tenements coming down in the 1930s. I could barely restrain myself from screaming, “STOP IT! Those buildings are magnificent! Sure, they’re infested with vermin and need to be repaired, but ARE YOU NUTS?!” The demolition shots then dissolve into hideous, clap-trap housing projects going up all over New York with tiny little squares of green grass for the poor children to play on.
While these projects must have seemed like a great idea at the time, they were an eyesore and not nearly as well constructed as the older buildings. Indeed, it was these complexes that would later become the nightmare of urban housing authorities as they morphed into the dysfunctional ground zero for all sorts of criminal activities. By the 1970s, low-income housing experts started to publicly admit that they were a bit too rash in tearing down some off those great old structures instead of repairing and renovating them. Sigh. Many of the tenement buildings that survived the wreckers’ ball during that era are now luxury condos, dripping with kind of old-world features that modern Yuppies crave. Moral of the story? Well meaning do-gooders need to think twice before pulling down one broken-down system in favor of another. It’s important to look at the long-range picture and not just throw good money after bad.
Take heed, President Obama!