Old movies: celebrating the work of Sylvia Sidney

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Our old movies column returns, and this time we’re taking a look at the work of Sylvia Sidney – who starred in films of the 1930s and beyond.

In my last column, I spoke about King Vidor’s brilliant drama Street Scene (1931). In the article, I covered the alluring and excellent Sylvia Sidney, and her powerful performance as the young Rose.

So it’s about time we spoke a bit more about the superb Sylvia Sidney. Born in New Jersey in 1910, Sidney was merely 16 when she starred as an extra in her first film – D.W. GriffithsThe Sorrow Of S (1926). Her first major role came in the now lost film Broadway Nights (1927).

However, it would be Rouben Mamoulian’s gangster film City Streets (1931) in which the actor would get her first big break. Often classed as one of the first proto-noir films, City Streets sees Sidney play Nan, the daughter of notorious gangster Big Fella Maskal, who’s subsequently framed for murder by her own father. After falling in love with a carnival caller known affectionately as The Kid, played exceptionally by Gary Cooper, the film becomes about Nan’s unwilling sacrifice and how she tries to turn her back on the life of crime. It’s a phenomenal movie steeped in intrigue and becomes a character study of Nan. 

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Perhaps due to her round, doe-eyes, the actress would go on to perform as victims or characters with utterly disastrous ends during her early career. So much so that Sidney herself would joke that she was “paid by the tear.” She played the daughter of a murderer in Street Scene (1931); she’d be a woman drowned by her lover when he grew bored of her in Josef von Sternburg’s An American Tragedy (1931), and be abandoned by Cary Grant in Madame Butterfly (1932).

Even her comedies were tinged with tragedy. In Dorothy Arzner’s black comedy Merrily We Go To Hell (1931) Sidney plays Joan, a young heiress who falls in love with Fredric March’s drunken playwright Jerry. When Jerry beings an affair with an ex-flame, instead of crumpling into victimhood, Joan decides to play at Jerry’s own game, having her own affairs including with one dapper-looking Cary Grant. It takes a rather tragic turn for Jerry to truly change his ways. However, Arzner’s whip smart film is great to watch as March and Sidney spar off with one another.

Cary Grant and Sylvia Sidney would reunite in Marion Gering’s Thirty Day Princess (1934). Though the picture would garner mixed reviews, on revisiting it’s a charming film that sees Sidney in a dual role – both as a princess and an actress hired to impersonate her. Sidney’s performance is electrifying as she gets into hoopla with the whole affair. It’s a shame that not many people recognised her comedic talents because she’s terrific here.

Sidney starred in six Gering pictures including Ladies Of The Big House (1931), Good Dame (1933), and the aforementioned Madame Butterfly and Thirty Day Princess. The most famous of these includes Jennie Gerhardt (1932) in which Sidney played the titular tragic woman whose life is scuppered by pregnancy.

Towards the end of the decade, Sidney worked alongside some prominent directors, including Alfred Hitchcock on Sabotage (1936), Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1936), and William Wyler’s Dead End (1937) alongside Joel McCrea.

The 1930s  were particularly successful for Sidney. When she filmed Hitchcock’s Sabotage, she was one of the highest earning actresses of the era. However, Hollywood is fickle, and being typecast in such a way saw her roles diminish. She starred in just a handful of movies during the 1940s. Shockingly, by 1949, some exhibitors and venues called her box office poison – a remark also directed at the likes of Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn.

In 1952, Sidney starred as the ill-fated Fantine in Lewis Milestone’s adaptation of Les Misérables. And whilst it was far from a dream – the film itself garnering terrible reviews – there were so many who praised Sidney’s performance.

When she wasn’t acting, Sidney published two books on needlepoint and also raised show-pugs. As she grew older, her voice became more recognisable due to her excessive smoking. In 1973, she would earn an Academy Award nomination as Mrs Pritchett in Gilbert Gates’ drama Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973). Surprisingly, even though she was a celebrated actress, this would be her first and only Oscar nomination.

Sylvia Sidney as Juno in Beetlejuice.

Beetlejuice

Sidney continued to work, featuring in horror movies such as Damien: Omen II (1978) and made for television movies such as An Early Frost (1985), in which she won a Golden Globe for her performance. The film was particularly ground-breaking as it was one of the first movies shown to a mainstream audience to tackle the AIDS crisis.

Most modern film watchers would recognise Sidney from two Tim Burton films. The first as the gruff and perpetually pissed off afterlife case-worker Juno in Beetlejuice (1988), for which she won a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Sidney’s final film role came as the kindly and near-silent Grandma Florence Norris in Mars Attacks! (1996). She died three years later in 1999. Her legacy is clear, Sidney made an indelible mark on the Pre-Code era as perhaps one of the most recognisable and distinct actresses of the era.

With her big expression-filled eyes, her unique voice (either tender whilst young or husky whilst older), and such phenomenal acting, once you watch a Sylvia Sidney movie, you’ll be keen to watch them all.

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