New York’s last best strike at Hollywood

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Claud Rains, Margo in Crime Without Passion. (Photofest/Paramount Pictures)
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In recent decades, certain picturesque sections of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn have come to seem like one big studio backlot. For 20 years, Law & Order acted as a kind of public works program to keep Broadway actors employed, and in the wake of that show’s cancellation the state legislature has even gotten around to extending the wildly successful tax incentives for television and filmmaking in the city.

The sight of wardrobe trucks and overflowing catering tables (not to mention the occasional star) is so familiar to today’s New Yorkers that it’s remarkable to reflect that, for the most of the medium’s history, hardly any filmmaking took place in New York—despite the fact that so many of Hollywood’s classic films supposedly took place here.

It’s true that American filmmaking began in New York. The industry was more or less founded just across the Hudson River, at Thomas Edison’s laboratory in West Orange. Major studios like Fox got their start as scrappy operations in Manhattan, and the first great American film director, D.W. Griffith, was a struggling Broadway actor when he started dabbling in the new form. That golden age didn’t last long—better weather, lower overhead, other factors swiftly drove filmmakers West—starting with Griffith himself.

Still, if there was ever a moment that New York might—just might—have reclaimed the film industry from Hollywood, it was with the coming of sound. In 1930, after all, New York was still the biggest center of trained dramatic actors and actresses—people who could properly speak the increasingly sophisticated dialogue that was being produced by talented playwrights-turned-screenwriters.

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"Hollywood on the Hudson," a new series at Film Forum, celebrates a brief period in the 1930s when this might have seemed just possible, as important films again began to be made in the city—a moment of semi-independent filmmaking that flourished and faltered like a false spring.

Until the Great Depression pushed Paramount into bankruptcy, the company maintained its studio in Astoria—now Kaufmann Astoria studios—allowing performers like Claude Rains and Claudette Colbert to shoot films while still appearing on Broadway. Dudley Murphy used the facility to make the Emperor Jones (Aug. 10), completely independently—an unheard of accomplishment in 1933.

Broadway also had a surfeit of singers and dancers, whose talents took on a new importance when synchronized soundtracks gave birth to the movie musical. It’s worth watching a film like Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (Aug. 3) to see just how quickly movie musicals matured. The 1931 film proves a surprisingly sophisticated entertainment that deals light-heartedly with subjects like extra-marital dalliances and the selection of lingerie—so what if the songs are silly, Colbert and Miriam Hopkins can’t sing a lick, and the thin plot about Central European royalty isn’t even worthy of a Marx Brothers film? (The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers were also made in Astoria around that time.)

The heart of the Film Forum series, however, are two written and directed by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, Crime Without Passion and The Scoundrel (playing as a double-feature on Tuesday). These weren’t just made in New York but are very much films about New York, written from point of view so cynical they end up being cynical about their own cynicism.

Though Crime Without Passion is set largely in the demimonde of night clubs, while The Scoundrel explores the world of the literati, the two films have similar structures. We meet a protagonist who is the envy of all around him, larger than life in the way only those at the top of their field in New York can be. He disdains the common man—at the beginning of in Crime Without Passion, Claude Rains actually gazes down scornfully from his office skyscraper—and we watch as fate forces this übermensch to become part of this hated crowd.

Rains plays a defense attorney who revels in his own ability to bend reality to his will. He finds himself gradually driven mad, however, as he races across the city attempting to prevent the police from pinning him with the murder of his ex-girlfriend. The film aims for the bleakness of Greek tragedy, though it eventually sinks back into proto-noir. The Scoundrel, by contrast, takes the downfall of its main character to another level—a metaphysical one—and decidedly more successfully.

No&eumlaut;l Coward is perfectly cast as a still-recognizable type: the bon vivant book publisher with a penchant for taking young female poets under his wing. He brushes off serious proposals with witticisms, while casually encouraging an atmosphere of intellectual sycophancy that leaves his authors biting one another’s backs in his well-appointed waiting room. (Alexander Woollcott, fresh from his spot at the Algonquin Round Table, was recruited to lead the barb-trading.)

After Coward’s plane crashes in the Atlantic, his character is reported dead, but mysteriously returns to surprise his old “friends”—searching desperately for the one among them who might be convinced to shed a tear for him. As we by now expect, he finds little comfort from a social set whose reactions to the news of his untimely death had ranged from bored sarcasm to righteous glee—“I’ve just discovered that there is a God.”

Coward, so gleefully acidulous earlier in The Scoundrel, becomes truly frightening in the film’s closing sequence, feverishly haunting the crowded July streets looking for a savior. Up until its final moments, in a rundown apartment on Cherry Street, The Scoundrel presents an unrelentingly bleak, unforgivingly precise of how New York’s best and brightest live to tear one another down. So we watch the end in genuine suspense—Hecht and MacArthur might just be jaded enough to eternally doom their difficult-to-love protagonist, without so much as a blink.

It gives nothing away to say that the film’s conclusion is the least convincing thing about it—but otherwise this remarkable film is as close to a masterpiece as this epoch of New York filmmaking ever got. More than that, it’s the rare film of its time—or any time—less interested in using New York’s streets and buildings as backdrops than in prodding the city’s barely concealed underbelly of ambition, envy, and loneliness.

In other words, if you don’t have an invitation to a book party tonight, see The Scoundrel.