October 12, 2018
Sidewalks of New York – 1931, US
At some point in the first half of the twentieth century, the United States became concerned over the plight of young boys and began debating just what should be done with them. The options appear to have involved either getting tough or changing their behavior through kindness. Only one of those strategies makes for a good narrative, so it is natural then that Hollywood would make films in which noble men and woman worked as hard as they could to help youths who were just one step away from either a life of crime or a life in jail. 1938 brought both Spencer Tracey’s Boys Town and James Cagney’s Angels with Dirty Faces. Five years earlier, William A Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road depicted young boys entering adulthood far too early and its consequences for both society and the youths themselves. Buster Keaton’s Sidewalks of New York was released in 1931, making it a predecessor for later similarly-themed films, yet its telling – and more than a little problematic – that its solutions for youth rebelliousness are merely band aids, actions that, while having the effect of making society feel better, are both simplistic and slightly insulting.
In the film, Keaton plays a rather wealthy landlord named Harmon. Toward the beginning of the film, Harmon meets a young ruffian named Clipper (Norman Phillips Jr.), who’s fallen under the influence of local gang leader Butch (Frank Rowan), and Clipper’s tough-as-nails sister, Margie (Anita Page). Their first meeting involves a slap to the face from her and a declaration of love–at-first-sight from him. To win Margie’s heart, Harmon embarks of a mission to straighten Clipper out, and as usually happens in movies of this sort, his means of doing this involves giving the trouble boys a place to constructively exhaust their energy, a gymnasium.
Think about this for a moment. According to the film, the solution for youth unruliness is not to improve local schools, fight for safer, more modern neighborhoods, or improve local employment opportunities. It is not to provide programs for them to go to after school that better prepare them for the future, but to put a basketball in their hands or let them duke it out in a boxing ring. Sure, sports can be a godsend for many young men, but the number of people who make a living in professional sports is so minuscule that presenting a gym as the sole saving grace of the community is naive at best and classist at worst. I remember watching the Academy Awards one year and seeing Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis discuss putting both balls and books into students’ hands, and the message was clear. Sports are not enough; minds must be engaged as well. It was true then, and it is true now.
This is not to say that Sidewalks of New York is not also an intermittently interesting film. A Buster Keaton film can never truly be bad, for there are always scenes in which Keaton’s magic shines though. In this one, he has several humorous moments, yet few that I would describe as side-splitting. In one memorable moment, he exits his chauffeur-driven car to address the brawling youths around him and says, “Come, come, my little men.” His delivery is perfect, as is his subsequent retreat back into his limousine. A later courtroom scene gives Keaton the opportunity to engage in both verbal witticisms with an increasingly frustrated judge and physical comedy, and a later scene involving Harmon’s attempts to find the words to woo Margie and the romantic titles of popular songs is quite inventive. Unfortunately, other attempts at comedy are less successful. A boxing match never feels wacky or wild enough, and a stage performance, in which Harmon and his valet, Poggle (Cliff Edwards), attempt to be Shakespearean by ending every other word with eth never quite comes together, partly because of the complete disconnect between the disaster we see unfolding on stage and the audience’s utter disconnect to that madness. They should be laughing uproariously at the calamity in front of them, not whole-heatedly applauding it.
Page gives an adequate performance as Margie, yet the film denies her the opportunity to do much with the role other than talk loudly and encourage Harmon to be more manly. Missing are scenes in which she genuinely falls in love with him, and there’s little in the film to back up its assertion that they have any a deep connection. The same can be said of young Clipper. More is needed to establish a father-son relationship that a few scenes in which Harmon doesn’t report Clipper’s criminal behavior to the police, but since the film neglects to give us these scenes, we just have to accept his eventual change of heart. I felt that acceptance was unearned.
The film ends with a crowd-pleasing scene in which the young gym attendees show their appreciation for Harmon, and it is indeed a fun sequence. However, it doesn’t make up for the film’s paint-by-numbers approach to storytelling or its troublesome solution to the supposed crisis of rebellious youth. Sure, it is a bit unfair to compare Sidewalks of New York to films that came after it or to criticize it for drawing from a playbook that was perhaps less commonly known at the time of the film’s release, but that is the perspective through which current viewers will likely see and assess it. And looked at from that angle, the film is only mildly interesting. We’ve seen Buster Keaton in this kind of role, and we’ve seen him in better, more humorous films. We’ve also seen him in movies that are timeless and that still reflect the best of American values. Sidewalks of New York is just not one of these films. (on DVD from Warner Archives)
2 and a half stars