I think I'm starting to see the key to appreciating these MGM films. I don't look at them as Buster Keaton's films, but comedies of the early 30's that happen to have Buster Keaton in them. SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK has the disctinction of being the highest grossing film Keaton ever made and also the one Keaton personally cared for the least. If that's not an indication that this film has early 30's styling and little Keaton styling, I don't know what does. It just happens to be I enjoy early 30's films, and I also happen to enjoy one other aspect on its own merits, an aspect not necessarily in line with making the kind of films Keaton makes. That aspect would be the directors - Zion Myers and.....wait for it.....Jules White. Yes, that Jules White, the guy whose films we discussed for several years and will be discussing again briefly within the next year once Keaton goes to Columbia.
As far as early 30's, the gangster film came into prominence around this time with James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson at Warner Brothers, and there's a gangster in this one trying to run the neighborhood and influence some kids to pull off jobs. While hardly on the level of THE PUBLIC ENEMY or LITTLE CAESAR (OK, not even close), the gangster element still comes across as a fascinating by product of its time. The idea of impressionable tough talking kids living in a ghetto is both a reflection of depression America and a precursor to the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys. I'll also state the atmosphere in the neighborhoods is wonderfully dark, dingy, and convincing on par with any classic gangster film, no doubt a testament to MGM's production values, at the time the biggest studio there was.
Now for the Jules White thing. The film starts out with a bunch of rough neighborhood kids getting into an argument over a baseball game. This evolves into a giant neighborhood food fight. At one point, one kid even tricks another kid to believing they're on the same side, only for the kid doing the tricking to throw food into the other gullible kid's face. The kid doing the tricking then gets food from off screen smacking him in the kisser. I can easily picture such a routine in a Stooge film.
A routine we all know from a Stooge film is Curly taking an oath to tell the truth and nothing but the truth in DISORDER IN THE COURT. Well, guess what? Keaton did it first in SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK. The whole misunderstanding the fast talking oath, the raising of the right hand with object in the way, not swearing but knowing all the words, falling on your butt when trying to take the stand....it's all here, and Curly basically does it better. This is no knock on Keaton. His timing is superb, his delivery fine for his style, but this kind of routine works better with a frustrated comedian who slowly boils over, and that Curly's style. Keaton is a toned down comedian and works best in a steady delivery. Here's a fine example of humor probably not written by Keaton better suited for someone else, so I can understand Keaton's grievance. Still, I enjoy seeing Keaton doing the routine nonetheless, and he does do one thing Curly doesn't do....take his own fall when falling on the chair on the witness stand. Now that's by far Keaton own domain more than Curly. One other Jules White gag....when Keaton wins the boxing match, he gets carried away on people's shoulders, only to have his head hit a bar above him, knocking him out. This is similar to Curly and Besser is WHAT'S THE MATADOR and SAPPY BULLFIGHTERS.
The main flaw of the film is also a Jules White trait, and one that stands out much more in a feature than a short film, and that's comic insensitivity. Keaton and his girl, (played very well and assertively by Anita Page) throw her little brother a birthday party. The little brother, who gets caught up in gang and mob activities, walks away from the party, only to have Anita Page crying. Keaton acts completely oblivious to her sadness at this big dramatic moment, insists it's time to eat, and it is at this moment a gag involving a duck being wrongly sliced is used. Not a good example of when to use comedy. Later in the film, the younger brother, through orders of the gangster trying to mold him, is ordered to kill Keaton with a real gun in a play. The kid is basically holding back tears, can't do it, and it is at this highly dramatic moment little comedy bits are thrown in. The comedy feels on the side of the drama, not enhancing. Jules White did not have the sensitivity of a Chaplin, Lloyd, Langdon, or even Keaton when he occasionally wanted to to mix drama and comedy, as these bits feel completely inappropriate and are the weakest parts of the film.
As far as comedy, I do enjoy the boxing match and enjoyed watching Keaton deliver a dropkick on a few occasions. During the chase at the end, there is one nice gag which screams Keaton. Being chased in his house by gangsters, Keaton goes through all this trouble to make this huge pile of furniture blocking the door so the gangsters don't get in the room. The irony is they are in the same room as he is!
As an example of Buster Keaton's comedy, hardly a good example, but like I stated before, there are enough elements in this thing outside the realm of Keaton, including Stoogian elements, that fascinate and make me rate this as my favorite MGM talkie we've discussed so far. One final point...the dim witted Elmer character is not on display much at all outside of the love sickness, and I find this very welcoming. So a Keaton fan who could care less about Jules White, pre-code film and gangster movies should avoid this thing at all costs. However, if you enjoy these elements, and want to see Buster Keaton enhance a film with all these things....