"Big City Dreams"
Those of us who are city dwellers live in a community of strangers, free perhaps of small-minded mores and the whip hand of gossip, but also free of a sense of responsibility and of belonging to one another. This century's ever-denser urban landscape has drawn more and more of us into lives of concrete anonymity, a drive toward the hive that the cinema, as this century's premier art form, has treated many times and in many ways. Two classic Hollywood films pleasurably illustrating the pains of city life screen this Sunday courtesy of the San Francisco Cinematheque, selected and curated by stained-glass artist Jerome Hiler. King Vidor's Street Scene (1931) is a filmed transcription of a play by Elmer Rice that takes place entirely on and around the front steps of a New York tenement. The illicit affair of a bored housewife (Estelle Taylor, believably desperate) gives a focus to the free-floating hate and envy of most of her neighbors, spearheaded by termagant Beulah Bondi. Only the woman's daughter (Sylvia Sidney) and the gentle law student in a neighboring flat have any spiritual desire beyond mere survival; the result is a darkly claustrophobic portrayal of a cityscape without pity. While Street Scene displays a view of the urban melting pot at least as bleak as Blade Runner's, George Cukor's It Should Happen to You casts a more benevolent eye on the New York of 1954, where Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon share a similar brownstone -- albeit one stripped of its many dueling ethnicities. Holliday, a brilliant comedienne who resembles a softer, plusher Lucille Ball, plays an unemployed girdle model unhappy with her fate as an unknown "one of the crowd." Her innovative way of winning fame without having any talent marks her as a 1990s celebrity born 40 years too soon -- she manipulates the mass media into a frenzy of attention, over the plaintive protests of her filmmaker boyfriend (Lemmon, sweetly sour in his debut). Garson Kanin's clever script ringingly endorses private life and domesticity in the last decade when such a refuge from urban loneliness seemed plausible.
-- Gregg Rickman
Street Scene screens at 7:30 p.m. (and It Should Happen to You at approximately 9 p.m.) on Sunday, Dec. 14, at the San Francisco Art Institute, 800 Chestnut (at Jones). Tickets are $7; call 558-8129.