Posted by Moira Finnie on February 4, 2009
Who is the delicate looking girl at left with the brimming eyes and the heart-shaped face, who once described show business as “the world’s roughest gamble”? In her own way, Sylvia Sidney (1910-1999) rolled the dice against the house and managed to stay in the game for seven decades. Why don’t more people know her?
Well, they do, but contemporary viewers may be familiar with only a small portion of her graceful talent. Sylvia Sidney may be best remembered as the ancient woman who still smokes like a chimney in the afterlife, as she appeared as the brashly amusing ghoulish bureaucrat in Beetle Juice (1988) or in Mars Attacks (1996), as the Slim Whitman-loving granny who saves the world in those imaginatively surreal Tim Burton movies. With only a few of her movies available to contemporary viewers, her finely drawn portraits of earlier decades may be increasingly unfamiliar. Perhaps a small nod her way will encourage more of us to seek out her memorable gallery of characters from long ago.
I first became aware of Sylvia Sidney as a kid when I encountered her somewhat hapless good girl moll in Mary Burns, Fugitive(1935) on one of those channels that broadcast old movies repeatedly in the ’60s and ’70s. She won my heart playing a plucky, almost fatally naïve hash slinger in a rural diner whose boyfriend (Alan Baxter) turns out to be a very bad apple. Caught up in the media frenzy over her gunsel paramour, Mary Burns soon lands in the pokey, and only becomes liberated from society’s narrow expectations and her poisonous honey when she plugs him. The movie, which is a hybrid of the “woman’s picture” and the socially aware ”I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” flick, limns the downfall and rise of a person whose unexamined life is turned on its head by chance and by the coldness of the justice system. The gradual assertion of this overwhelmed young woman’s will to survive was more riveting for me because of the petite Sylvia Sidney‘s ability to convey such a highly feminine blend of fear, outrage, and her growing understanding of the thinness of civilization’s veneer.
I loved her steely fragility–her persona was like a thin birch tree being bent by the wind–a perfect embodiment of the Depression era victim and survivor. Subsequent dramas, such as Fury, Dead End, and You Only Live Once among others, allowed her to explore more of the colors of her valiant, waif-like characters, and allowed her to work with talented and demanding directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler & Fritz Lang, (though her salty comments about most of them indicate that she was never cowed by their aura). As Miss Sidney once said, she was always playing “the victimized kid,” who could’ve been paid “by the tear” shed from her limpid baby blues. She was almost always likable and believable, despite the somewhat repetitive casting. The actress did find it a bit wearing, however, commenting later that “I’d be the girl of the gangster … then the sister who was bringing up the gangster, then later, the mother of the gangster. And they always had me ironing somebody’s shirt.”
Born Sophia Kosow in the Bronx, she was the daughter of a Romanian father and a Russian mother, both of whom worked in the garment industry. After her parents divorce when she was 9, her mother married a dentist, Dr. Sigmund Sidney, who legally adopted Sylvia and gave her his surname. A shy manner and a stammer became tools of a young actress rather than social stigmas after the introverted child took elocution and dancing lessons, leading to her enrollment at 15 in the Theatre Guild School. Despite being asked to leave that training ground for serious young thespians because she stayed out late so often, the teenager made her Broadway debut at 16 in a melodrama called Crime, was being courted by the movies by the end of the ’20s, and made her first appearance in a silent movie in Thru Different Eyes (1929), (a film that is presumed lost).
A couple of her early roles on screen at Paramount seemed to set the mold for her film career in that hard-bitten but creative decade of the studio era . Soon after coming to Paramount, (reportedly as a hoped-for replacement for the increasingly unstable Clara Bow), Sidney was chosen for the part of a racketeer’s daughter opposite Gary Cooper in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 visually striking City Streets, in which her character went to jail to prevent her racketeer father’s imprisonment. The poignancy of her gradual realization of the cost of the life that she has been born into increases throughout the film as she goes from a naive girl to a determined woman. A somewhat unpolished acting style on the likable Cooper’s part is compensated for by the palpable rapport between the actor and Sidney. This is particularly memorable couple in those scenes when the camera lingers on Sidney’s fully expressive face and those eyes that are so sad and so merry, brimming with happiness one minute, desire and despair in another. The fact that Mamoulian chooses her moments alone in a cell to introduce the innovative technique of a voice-over to suggest her thoughts is helped immeasurably by the mobility of her exquisitely communicative features.
This critical hit, and King Vidor‘s casting of her as one of the tenants in a Brownstone in his vibrant slice of life drama by Elmer Rice, Street Scene (1931), was followed by the plum role that had initially lured her to the studio from the stage. Sidney played a part in the early version of An American Tragedy with a balance of restraint and neediness that underlined her character’s poignancy as well as her thoughtlessness. Appearing in a role that would be played much more broadly by Shelley Winters in the remake, Sylvia was seen as the pregnant working girl who meets her fate in an ill-timed trip in a rowboat in Joseph von Sternberg’s adaptation of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1931), featuring Phillips Holmes in the part later immortalized by Montgomery Clift in the much better known George Stevens’ version. You can see a sample of this earlier version’s subdued tragic tone in a clip found here.
The die was cast for Sylvia‘s dual career paths in Hollywood for a time. She would shine in stories that highlighted her gallant victimhood and the unraveling of her fragile happiness as she repeatedly became fate’s plaything. In retrospect, the actress commented that “[e]very young actress thinks she`s a tragedian — the more tragic roles, the more you cry, the more you suffer, the better an actress you are. But, when I got a little older, a little more mature, I wanted to get out of my image of the victimized kid.” It would take time to break through that image, and there were several bumps along the way.
One early Sylvia Sidney film that will soon be available on dvd is Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), co-starring Fredric March. An early, half-hearted attempt to show the corrosive effect of alcoholism on the youth who came of age in the jazz age under Prohibition, this movie may be of particular interest to pre-code aficionados. It will be part of the six movie boxed set, Pre-Code Hollywood Collection – Universal Backlot Series due out on April 7, 2009. You can see more about this welcome collection here.
In between the suffering on screen in these early roles, Sidney occasionally received a few breaks from doing hard time at the studio, especially when Paramount sought to take advantage of her lovely, almost Eurasian features, as occurred when she and a very young Cary Grant were cast in a non-musical version of Madame Butterfly (1932). While Sylvia Sidney was touching and did her best to play her part with some emotional truth, Russian-born stage director and Sidney friend Merion Gering sought to breathe life into the movie by weaving some occasional airs from Puccini’s rapturously beautiful opera score and adding a game Charlie Ruggles to the cast. Overall, the movie, which can be glimpsed in this clip, was quite dated for ’30s audiences, especially since it was based on David Belasco’s pathos-ridden, old-fashioned play, and was unredeemed by substantial portions of the opera’s music. Based on the comments of most reviewers from the time, dialogue given to Cho-Cho-San (Sylvia Sidney), who describes her dashing American lover in pidgin English as “the most best nice man in all world,” as well as “Honorable Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton, the whole works” really seemed inadvertently funny much of the time.
Interestingly, Sidney would go on to play in several other (now politically incorrect) movies as an exotic type, including another, more sophisticated and overtly alluring Asian woman in the James Cagney vehicle, Blood on the Sun (1945). (The pair of actors were great friends and it is a shame that the chemistry they showed in this wartime drama never had a chance to develop in further movies). One other example of this sideline in her career was in an early Mitchell Leisen-directed movie, Behold My Wife (1935), a glum drama about interracial marriage, which might have been called “The Squaw Man Redux”. The actress, whose character has the promising name of “Tonita Stormcloud”, plays the Native American bride of Gene Raymond, an actor whose presence in most movies is a trial for me. The central conflict of this story unfolds when he insists on transplanting his Indian beauty in the bosom of his stiff upper crust family back east. Though it’s been many moons since the shadow of this film flitted across my television screen, my primary memories of this melodramatic movie are of the sheepish expression that Sylvia wore throughout the proceedings and the presence in the cast of the luminous Ann Sheridan in a small but memorable part. As Sheridan recalled many years later, the established star Miss Sidney, years before the “Oomph” girl campaign took off at Warners, tried without success to get her employers at Paramount to note the latent quality of the younger actress.
Another outing directed by Gering and again featuring Grant was considerably more successful when the trio made the frothy Thirty Day Princess (1934). This all too rare comic foray for the actress found Sidney as a Ruritanian princess and lookalike actress (yeah, it’s one of those dual identity movies) has a screwball spin on its now familiar curves. Her vivacity and warmly appealing line readings are very winning, and, frankly, at this early stage of his career, she runs rings around the still rawly talented Cary Grant as a comic actor.
Her early film career might have taken a nosedive after her romantic involvement with the married producer and executive of Paramount studios, B.P. Schulberg, (the father of the noted writer Budd Schulberg). In a combination of bad timing, the impact of the Depression on the studio’s finances, and the rather public notoriety regarding the affair eventually caused the besotted Schulberg to neglect his corporate responsibilities and family, leading to his getting the boot from both his job and his home. It also contributed to the fact that in 1933 Paramount went into bankruptcy, re-emerging in ’35. It didn’t do Sylvia a lot of good either, even after the two went their separate ways by the mid-30s. What attracted the gamine beauty to the much older mogul? Perhaps a little desire to get ahead, but more likely his appeal was based on their shared liberal politics, similar backgrounds and his desire (if not his skill) at developing film’s social impact.
Sidney, who throughout her career wisely returned regularly to the stage, playing eventually in hundreds of plays, was still a favorite of many rising directors even after she became a contractee of producer Walter Wanger through his position at Paramount.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936), based on and update of the Joseph Conrad story, Secret Agent, tells the still sadly relevant story of terrorists living and working within London society while plotting the mass destruction of it. With remarkably intricate detail, the thriller builds a great deal of suspense by focusing on Sylvia Sidney‘s character, who, though married to a soft-spoken movie theater manager, (Oscar Homolka), becomes increasingly suspicious that her guilt ridden husband is not what he appears to be. Director Hitchcock, an admirer of the expressive actress and her child-like demeanor, had sought out Sidney‘s services. Unfortunately, when the pair worked together, their collaboration, which I think produced one of the director’s best earlier movies, was not a favorite for the actress or the director. According to those who knew both of them, Robert Donat was originally cast as the husband in this movie. Due to the asthma that would hobble his promising career throughout his life, Donat was replaced in the role by the older Homolka, whose “old school, old-fashioned” acting style grated on Sidney. The actress also found that the director’s insistence on shooting scenes without rehearsal and in very brief takes without going into detail about her character very mechanistic, (a sample of which can be seen in the montage at the right in a key scene when the wife’s suspicions come to a head). When she eventually saw the pieces of the film within the context of the movie, she agreed that the aloof Hitch was a great director, but felt that in this movie, his cinematic dexterity outweighed his judgment in certain parts of the story. The highly suspenseful sequences of the innocent in danger, which, if you have seen the movie, will understand, crossed the line for Sylvia*. On reflection, the actress said that if she’d “known how famous Alfred Hitchcock was going to be, I would have paid more attention to what he was doing. And if I’d known how long people were going to be asking me how it was to work with Hitchcock and Lang, I would have taken notes…Hitchcock wasn’t unpleasant, but he was strange. He seemed more interested in things than people.” All in all, she would reply to queries about her experience with the masterful director by asking “What did Hitchcock teach me? To be a puppet and not try to be creative.”
Though Sylvia Sidney would contradict herself a bit later by claiming that she preferred Hitchcock over her next talented but sometimes cruel director, her work with Austrian émigré Fritz Lang in Fury (1936), the proto-noir You Only Live Once (1937), and the odd comedy, You and Me (1938), was arguably among the best of her career. Fury, which gave Spencer Tracy one of his first truly impressive roles as a working stiff whose life and character was transformed by his encounter with a lynch mob, was made at MGM, where the autocratic Lang managed to alienate the star and the entire crew, while extracting work that is still impressive. In all of these films, according to David Thomson, it was Sidney who “caught exactly the fragile happiness allowed in Lang’s world and played with a restraint that perfectly matched the fatal simplicity of the plots. According to Thomson, “[t]here are close-ups in Fury of Sidney watching Spencer Tracy in a burning jail that are as harrowed as Lillian Gish close-ups.”
“The only reason I did it [Fury] was to be directed by Fritz Lang. Fritz was very difficult to work with. I loved working with him because I loved the fact that he was so meticulous. He knew more about camera, he knew more about cutting. It was very satisfying to work with him. A lot of people hated him, but I loved his craftsmanship and his knowledge of film.” I tend to think that Sidney‘s blend of emotion and strength gave Fritz Lang‘s movies more humanity and depth of feeling than the brilliant but sometimes rather cold filmmaker usually enjoyed, bringing out a latent but reticent sympathy for his characters. This is particularly so in the quietly powerful sequences of Fury when she is in shock after seeing her fiancé trapped by mob violence. Her beautiful, exhausted performance in You Only Live Once (1937) as the young woman partnered with a vulnerable Henry Fonda who become criminals on the lam has a tenderness and romantic despair that makes this memorable movie quite moving as it examines two everyday people who are very much the “victims of circumstances” in Depression era society. The movie, which caused many fights between Sidney, Fonda and the director blends lyricism with social commentary and elicited some of the best work of both actors’ careers in that period. In the resonant words of Joan, Sylvia’s fugitive character, whose frank loyalty to Fonda and her baby brings self destruction and release from a bleak world, we “may never find happiness, but we have a right to live.”
One of the last dramatic parts that Sidney played in a major motion picture in that turbulent era came with her appearance as Drina, a slum dweller whose love for her younger brother (Billy Halop) and for unemployed architect Joel McCrea in Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End (1937), cannot save either of them from temptation. In Halop‘s case, it is the lure of violence represented by visiting mobster Humphrey Bogart and the gang of the adolescent’s friends, played by the Dead End Kids, (who were introduced to movies in this movie). McCrea, a living embodiment of the American Dream as a bright young man, is drawn to the silken appeal of kept woman Wendy Barrie, one of the residents of a towering apartment house that overlooks the tenements on the East River. He seems to waver between his desire to build a better world or a successful career. Directed by the formidable William Wyler on an intricately designed soundstage at a time when location shooting was not regarded as feasible or necessary by the producer Samuel Goldwyn, the movie, which is beautifully photographed by Gregg Toland, is highlighted by a then novel idea of the environment contributing to the development of criminals. The acting honors in this film belong rightfully to struggling actor Humphrey Bogart, Claire Trevor as his former girlfriend turned streetwalker, and character actress Marjorie Main, who, as Bogart’s bitter mother, reminds us that she had a range far beyond the usual comedic roles she played. As a girl “who just dreams of being able to live life without having to worry about someone else”, Sidney plays a surprisingly passive character whose response to her confining environment sometimes seems awash in tears, though that may have reflected her feelings about her career in the movies as the oppressed working girl, as well as her working relationship with William Wyler. Having suffered a serious concussion that caused the filming to be delayed for two months, the actress was unable to remember her lines, perhaps as a result of her injury. Wyler, who Sidney later said, she “found…very distasteful” undermined her confidence with his notorious demands for numerous takes and his frustrated disbelief of her recent illness. Since Sidney was hardly the only actress to have “issues” with this meticulous director, and if, as she later claimed, Wyler also sought to make love to her after castigating her on the set, it seems that his ability to keep the actress off balance may have helped to garner her some fine notices for her sensitive performance and to convince her to return to her first love, the theater, with only occasional forays into movies after this role.
Turning down the role that went to Hedy Lamarr in Algiers with Charles Boyer and a bizarre sounding planned production of Wuthering Heights opposite Boyer as well helped to make her decision to concentrate on other outlets for her creativity more likely. Once she recovered her equilibrium from this personal and what she regarded as a personal career setback, she went on to appear in several Broadway shows, as well as many more movies, acquired and shucked three husbands between 1935 and 1951, (including publisher Bennett Cerf, actor Luther Adler as well as Carlton Alsop, the Hollywood agent and CIA operative brother of Washington columnist Joseph Alsop). According to more than one source, including her obituaries, Sylvia Sidney reportedly had a son and daughter while married to Adler, though other sources indicate only a son, Jacob, who sadly, was lost to ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1987. This sad event led to her becoming a spokeswoman for ALS organizations promoting research into the devastating illness. The actress aslo wrote two excellent books on needlepoint, and pretty much shed the slightly sad sack quality that had vexed her during her Depression era flicks. She was even nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role as the salty tongued domineering mother of Joanne Woodward in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973). Her re-emergence in many television programs, (notably WKRP in Cincinnati as the predatory and very amusing Mrs. Carlson and in the soap opera Ryan’s Hope–as a nun!), seemed to be accompanied by a “what the hell” attitude that made this reportedly difficult lady off screen extremely likable, if formidable. Publicly rejecting the contrasts between her youthful valiant beauty and her “tough as old boots” attitude and leathery appearance in her old age, she commented that “[w]omen who try to hide their age just call attention to it. Why lie about it? I don’t feel any younger…I don’t look any younger. Somebody finds out about your real age eventually. It`s easier to be frank about it…I’ve enjoyed every age in my life.” One of my favorite appearances of this actress in her latter day sporadic film careercame in the mid-fifties when she took a supporting role as a librarian in director Richard Fleischer‘s memorable Violent Saturday (1955). In awe of the actress who had been a very big star when he was a youngster, the respectful director arranged to meet with her in her tiny dressing room prior to filming. Eager to form a bond with the actress, Fleischer, who could only bring himself to call her “Miss Sidney” launched into an elaborate description of her character’s backstory, trying to come up with what he hoped would be a sufficiently worthy subtext imaginatively outlining the psychological history of the character, her relationships and her self-perception. During this long exegesis, Sylvia barely acknowledged his presence, apparently completely absorbed in knitting a garment. After the spent director finished, “[t]he knitting stopped, and she looked up, a serious expression on her face. ‘That was very interesting, Mr. Fleischer,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell you what, though. When we get to the set, you just tell me where to stand and I’ll be there.’ Then she smiled. A devilish, roguish smile. All [Fleischer's] reseserve and nervousness vanished. ‘Sylvia,’ [he] said, ‘I could kill you.’ [He] kissed her and said, ‘I’ll see you on the set,’ and started to leave. As [he] opened the door she called to [him]. ‘Oh, and by the way’, she said, ‘whenever you need tears…just tell me when to cry.’
* Alfred Hitchcock later expressed regret about the choices he made in plotting Sabotage as well.
Fleischer, Richard, Just Tell Me When to Cry, Carroll & Graf, 1993.
Herman, Jan, A Talent for Trouble: William Wyler, Da Capo Press, 1997.
Kobal, John, People Will Talk, Aurum Press, 1986.
Thomson, David, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
N.B.: Many thanks to my friend Angie for her generous help with the images.
Below is a centennial tribute to the actress:
Sylvia Sidney Movies available in their entirety for viewing on the internet:
Dead End (1937)
Violent Saturday (1955)
MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D Action Films Actors Actors' Endorsements Actresses animal stars Animation Anime Anthology Films Art in Movies Autobiography Avant-Garde Aviation Awards B-movies Behind the Scenes Best of the Year lists Biography Biopics Blu-Ray Books on Film British Cinema Canadian Cinema Character Actors Chicago Film History Cinematography Classic Films College Life on Film Comedy Comic Book Movies Crime Czech Film Dance on Film Digital Cinema Directors Disaster Films Documentary Drama DVD Early Talkies Editing Educational Films European Influence on American Cinema Experimental Exploitation Fairy Tales on Film Faith or Christian-based Films Family Films Film Composers film festivals Film History in Florida Film Noir Film Scholars Film titles Filmmaking Techniques Films of the 1980s Food in Film Foreign Film French Film Gangster films Genre Genre spoofs HD & Blu-Ray Holiday Movies Hollywood history Hollywood lifestyles Horror Horror Movies Icons independent film Italian Film Japanese Film Korean Film Literary Adaptations Martial Arts Melodramas Method Acting Mexican Cinema Moguls Monster Movies Movie Books Movie Costumes movie flops Movie locations Movie lovers Movie Reviewers Movie settings Movie Stars Movies about movies Music in Film Musicals Outdoor Cinema Paranoid Thrillers Parenting on film Pirate movies Polish film industry political thrillers Politics in Film Pornography Pre-Code Producers Race in American Film Remakes Revenge Road Movies Romance Romantic Comedies Satire Scandals Science Fiction Screenwriters Semi-documentaries Serials Short Films Silent Film silent films Social Problem Film Sports Sports on Film Stereotypes Straight-to-DVD Studio Politics Stunts and stuntmen Suspense thriller TCM Classic Film Festival Television The British in Hollywood The Germans in Hollywood The Hungarians in Hollywood The Irish in Hollywood Theaters Thriller Trains in movies Underground Cinema VOD War film Westerns Women in the Film Industry Women's Weepies