Jackson’s Pre-Code Essentials #49: CITY STREETS (1931)

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post is the latest addition in our series of Pre-Code Essentials. Here’s the updated list.


49. City Streets (1931)

A racketeer must choose between his criminal life and love. Starring Gary Cooper, Sylvia Sidney, Paul Lukas, Wynne Gibson, William Boyd, and Guy Kibbee. Story by Dashiell Hammett. Adaptation by Max Marcin. Screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.

“Bootlegging chief Blackie is killed by Pop Cooley at the urging of Big Fella Maskal because Blackie was against Maskal’s involvement with Blackie’s gun moll Aggie. After Pop shoots Blackie, he passes the gun to his step-daughter Nan, and she naïvely takes the rap for her father, believing the mob will arrange for her acquittal. While in prison, Pop recruits Nan’s straight boyfriend, “The Kid,” a sharpshooter with the circus, into the illegal beer trade. When he visits Nan in a fur coat, she becomes terrified of his involvement with Pop’s gang after witnessing a fellow inmate’s mobster boyfriend being gunned down outside the prison gate the day the girl was to go home to him. Earlier, however, Nan had recommended The Kid take a job with her step-father so they would have enough money to marry. Having served her term, Nan is released safely into The Kid’s arms, but returns home to find her father unrepentant and involved with a loose, gold-digging woman named Pansy.

“Maskal soon takes a strong liking to Nan and throws her a homecoming party, forcing her to dance with him all evening. When The Kid finally asserts his claim over Nan, Maskal threatens him, then later sends his thugs to kill him, but The Kid successfully disarms them, then goes after Maskal. Terrified her lover will be killed, Nan goes to Maskal to warn him and offers herself to him in exchange for The Kid’s life. Aggie, now Maskal’s mistress, shoots him with Nan’s gun after he leaves her for Nan, and Nan is accused of murder. The Kid then names himself mob chief and escapes with Nan in a car with three of Maskal’s men, who aim to kill him. By racing a train and maintaining high speeds, The Kid keeps himself alive until Nan pulls a gun on the men and disarms them. Dropping the thugs off with “no hard feelings,” The Kid tells them he has quit the beer business, and he and Nan drive off.” (Courtesy of TCM.)

City Streets was Paramount’s answer to the smash success of Warner Brothers’ Little Caesar (1931), which took the underworld picture and turned it into a Pre-Code sensation by focusing on the anti-heroic pursuits of the title character. A trend was born. Yet, when we think of this genre, we tend to focus only on two Warner titles, Little Caesar and its successor,  The Public Enemy (1931) — which cemented the studio’s superiority in projecting the grit and gravel of a criminal life — along with the trilogy’s capper, United Artists’ Scarface (1932), completed in ’31 but held due to its potentially objectionable content. (That film will be covered here soon; stay tuned…) Sometimes we also talk about glamorous M-G-M’s efforts in the gangster arena, like The Secret Six (1931), and their high-profile attempt to conclude this fascination with The Beast Of The City (1932), also coming up here soon. But we, film lovers and critics, rarely go into the other studios’ contributions, least of all those by the classy Paramount.

It’s fascinating to see how Paramount approaches the genre, for just as one can spot the obvious differences between Warner and Metro, this studio enforces its own aesthetic. For starters, it mitigates the former’s rawness and the latter’s splash by enhancing the cinematic elements at play — crafting a symbolic story that inspires a more poetic, sophisticated, and human take on the criminal world. While the other studios found gangland spectacle in either darkness or bigness, Paramount’s spectacle is artfulness — and with Rouben Mamoulian (Applause, Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, Love Me Tonight, and Queen Christina — all covered here) as director, the film’s calling card for posterity is the incredibly inventive ways he tells the story. Aside from the oft-discussed fluidity in how Mamoulian uses the camera — with a breathtaking variety that places City Streets head and shoulders above most jerkily static films from 1931 — he routinely employs devices like metaphorical imagery (ex: photographing two statues during a conversation between two hardened characters) and voiceover (one of the first major uses of it in an American feature) to supplant the more traditional manner in which most yarns, including gangster narratives, had thus far been presented.

With an eye for the beautiful angle and the allegorical photograph, Mamoulian also guarantees that none of the picture’s several big murders are ever witnessed; rather, they’re suggested or thereafter discussed. And instead of seeming like the film is cowering away from this bluntness (which Warners would display), City Street‘s conscious decision to avoid the obvious becomes even more haunting, for the pain and consequences of such violence are allowed to register elsewhere — like on the face of its leading lady, Sylvia Sidney. The telling of this story, the only original screen scenario written by Dashiell Hammett (best known for The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man), along with Mamoulian’s direction, really put her at the crux of the action, representing a shift from the other gangster films, which tended to follow the gang members themselves. While Warners’ gangland flicks are overtly masculine, City Streets takes a substantially “feminine” angle, which probably contributes to the film’s heightened human sensitivity, and moves the stakes from beyond the plot’s danger and onto the leading lady’s individual torment.

Of course, even with Mamoulian’s direction, the only reason this perspective carries merit is the strength of the performances — chiefly Sidney as Nan, who takes the rap for her step-father and then learns her beau has fallen in with the same murderous crowd. The role was originally intended for Clara Bow (who starred in a thematically similar silent called Ladies Of The Mob), but Sidney brings a gravity that Bow would have had to fight to organically present (instead of just counting upon the audience’s shock at seeing the fun lovin’ “It Girl” not being fun lovin’ — which, incidentally, is a large part of Call Her Savage‘s charm). Gary Cooper, meanwhile, gets top-billing, even though Mamoulian doesn’t invite us into his head like with Sidney. So, for those watching City Streets for its leading man, he’s not its driving force. In fact, the delightful Wynne Gibson has as much bearing on the story as a murdering jilted mistress — another figurative tentpole in the film’s female-centric design. Of course, the picture is generally well-cast as a whole, with Guy Kibbee, whose smarminess is usually harmless, as a veritable villain (alongside Paul Lukas)!

Ultimately, though, City Streets is fascinating simply because it’s a Paramount gangster film. It’s the studio’s Little Caesar rebuttal… overshadowed by M-G-M’s aforementioned The Secret Six and then Warner Brothers’ own follow-up, The Public Enemy. The studio’s style is reinforced through the expert, groundbreaking work of Mamoulian, while great performances — particularly from Sidney — further keep the audience engaged. If you’re a fan of this classic Pre-Code genre, you’ve got to see City Streets; it’s unique. And highly recommended — even Al Capone liked it.



Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in again on Tuesday for more Newhart!