Saturday, December 1, 2012

Sidewalks of New York (1931)

I'm getting tired of saying this, but after watching "Sidewalks of New York" last night I have to conclude: "it's really not that bad." Also getting tired of sharing that there is a kernel of a good story idea in the film that clearly got overproduced away. There is an unmistakable feel of too many hands on deck and no one's vision coming through.

The story involves Buster as a slumlord (did I just type that? seriously) who goes to visit his tenement and gets involved with a beautiful girl, Margie, played by Anita Page, and her ruffian brother. By far the best thing about this flick is that Buster is NOT playing Elmer. Yes, his character is seen as the butt of some jokes, but Buster does not use the "Elmer affect" in his performance (you know: that hangdog look, the dimwitted earnestness, the strange stilted speech that makes it look like just getting words out is hard). Although his character in SNY is described in various internet film sources as "dim witted," he really isn't. He comes across as quite normal. In fact, this is as close as I've ever been to hearing Buster in what is probably his normal voice, and I really loved that!

In fact, his voice is beautiful when he's not doing the Elmer. If there is anyone out there that wants to watch a talkie of Buster's just to hear what he sounded like, this is definitely the one I'd recommend.

The major shortcoming is the ridiculous plot, which is somewhat heavier than normal Keaton films - with thugs, criminal activity, juvenile delinquency, and great poverty. It walks a line somewhere between crime melodrama and comedy - and does neither well. The way the gangs of kids were portrayed was so irritating and so grating that I longed for merciful silence. Their shouts and jibes were so jarring. Characters do not behave in reasonable ways in this film -- either irrationally hating Buster's character, Harmon, or changing too quickly from hate to approval, or, as Buster always seems to do, falling in love for no apparent reason.

But, in the plus column are: an incredibly whimsical and romantic kiss in the gym between Harmon and Margie and several moments of vintage Keaton skill including some hilarious boxing, an amazing scene with a feast of duck, and a very charming scene when Harmon and his sidekick, played by Cliff Edwards, improvise a marriage proposal for Harmon using popular sheet music titles. The movie is not entirely rescued from itself by these features but, it does make the film "not that bad" to watch. In fact, I actually enjoyed it a good deal.

I read on TCM's film notes that before he made this film, Buster was sent away by MGM to dry out from his alcoholism and he came back fit, excited and ready to work. That clearly shows in this film. He looks fantastic here; there is a sharpness about him I hadn't realized I'd missed so much. Physically he is in fine form doing plenty of falls and flips that look great. Apparently Keaton was devastated to be given this "dog" to work on when he came back. However, it seems to me he nevertheless tried to give it his all. That attitude and coherence in him really comes through in the film, even though the project is not a great one. Leading me to once again pine for the lost creativity that hampered Buster at this time.


  1. You liked this better than I did. I found SNY to be rather dull, though some parts were pleasant. It's always nice to see Buster playing something other than the idiotic Elmer in these talkies, and I always love Anita Page and Cliff Edwards.

  2. I watched some of this film again today and I totally agree with you on Buster's voice. In Free and Easy and Doughboys, he seems strained, but here? Natural and lovely.

  3. Yeah. Agreed. He acts like a normal adult mainly. Not a moron. It's refreshing.