One Third of the Nation (1939) is a window on the world of the late 1930s where the view is clear only because some of the grime has been rubbed off the pane with our fist, allowing us to look out. Some of what we saw then, we see today. The clothes and the speech may be out of date, but the problem isn’t, and neither is the desperation.
Classic film buffs recall 1939 as a marvelous extravaganza, an abundance of well-made and well-loved films, running the gamut between The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind and a list as long as your arm of other Oscar nominees. One Third of the Nation is far down in the pack; it doesn’t sparkle much as a social message film with its lukewarm hero and a pat ending and the heroine that seems to drift emotionally (which may echo our national malaise after a decade of Depression). It is not as well-remembered, perhaps, as the giants that the studios produced in that year, but its roots are legitimate and its theme has lasted and it is more relevant today than most of the most beloved films of 1939.
It began as a stage play, one of the experimental works produced by the Federal Theater Project in 1938. Written by Arthur Arent, it was part of the Living Newspaper series which dramatized conditions of the day, this one with a message of the common man versus the big men, including the landlords, about the slum conditions in New York City, how they came to be, how they are maintained, and who profits from them.
Along with its New York run, the play was produced in several other cities across the nation and garnered a great deal of publicity and praise, except by congressional conservatives who were offended by its message. Conservatives were not fond of funding the Federal Theater Project as they regarded it as an incubator of left-wing ideas and dangerous messages—dangerous to them, one presumes—but though it’s been reckoned that actually something like less than 10 percent of its play productions had a left-wing message, nevertheless, Congress decided to quit funding the Federal Theater Project in 1939, and that exciting experiment that kept writers, actors, and directors working during those terrible years in the Depression and that spawned such important works, was killed.
The title of the play, adapted for the movie in 1939, comes directly from the line in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Second Inaugural address in January 1937: “I see one-third of the nation ill-house, ill-clad, ill-nourished... The test for progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
We’re still grappling with that idea.
The movie’s plot diverges a little from the stage play in that it has a less experimental presentation (except for a few scenes when the boy has a conversation with the firetrap tenement that he lives in, but we’ll get to that in a minute). Instead, it follows a more conventional line of the damsel in distress, a hero who comes to her aid, and a happy ending.
The film opens on the East Side of New York with kids playing in the streets, turning on fire hydrants and being chased away by the cops, overshadowed by tenements. We get inside views of one particular building with the walls falling apart so that we are able to see the exposed lathing, of trash in hallways, of railings that need to be repaired. A fire starts in the basement of this tenement building. It quickly spreads and its residents attempt to escape in all directions, stumbling out of doors, scrambling out of windows, from fire escapes that will not hold their weight, screaming. A crowd gathers in the street, the fire department arrives, and we see a line of dead bodies already covered on the sidewalk waiting for the morgue.
As the fire rages, at the top of the building we see a boy climbing a fire escape to try to reach the roof because he is blocked from getting to the ground. The ladder on which he is clinging breaks and he falls to the ground. It is a sickening scene, and through the crowd his sister rushes forward in horror. She is played by Sylvia Sidney, fresh off her gig in a similar environment in Dead End (1937). Miss Sidney had the chops to play fearless dames, but her sophisticated appearance, maybe just her distinctive beautiful eyes set wide in her porcelain face, left her an aura of glamour no matter what setting.
In the back of the crowd, we see a man in an automobile and his snide, wisecracking best friend, rubbernecking at the tragedy. Leif Erickson plays the hero of the piece, and Hiram Sherman is his pal who, not even before the movie is half over, we want to strangle for his smug, sophomoric arrogance. It was Sherman’s only film, then he went on to a lot of TV and theatre. It’s interesting to note that a lot of players in this movie had few movie credits, but had more career traction in TV and theatre.
Leif Erickson reaches Sylvia Sidney as supposedly helpful people are picking up her brother, who is unconscious, probably suffering from head and neck injuries, and handle him like he was a sack of potatoes. If nothing else, our ideas about first aid have certainly changed for the better over the decades.
Erickson offers to drive him to the hospital and Sidney is very grateful and goes along. She thinks he means that they will take her brother to City Hospital which is for poor people, but he is taking him to the better Surgeons Hospital. Appalled, she asks “Isn’t that just for swells?”
Leif Erickson is rich. He tells her not to worry, and it is not until after the operation when they find out that her brother will survive but will be crippled that she discovers that Erickson has paid all the bills. She is grateful, of course, but intends to pay him back, though she has no idea how.
She is furious at the slumlord who owns the building but will not repair it or keep it maintained. She asks Erickson “Isn’t that murder? Shouldn’t a man like that be in jail?” Erickson agrees, but he will soon learn from his trusted family business manager that he owns the firetrap building. A large slum area of New York has been in his family’s possession for decades.
Mr. Erickson is not the only man in Sylvia Sidney’s life these days; Myron McCormick plays Sam, her longtime beau she cannot marry yet because they have no money. She says of him smiling, “He's sort of left, if you know what I mean.” Sam does not appear to be an agitator or an anarchist, but he is an intelligent and fearless thorn in the side of Erickson and anyone will he thinks makes a profit off other people’s misery. Miss Sidney’s remark tells us that, like many of the poor, she has no political convictions, and is only concerned with the landlord that won’t fix the light in the hall or the boss that won’t offer a raise; her social concerns are largely about herself. McCormick seems airy to her because he sees the big picture; Sylvia’s driven by her own personal needs. The very rich and the very poor aren’t always too far apart in ideology.
There is a brief inquiry with Otto Hulett playing the assistant DA, and Erickson manfully stands up and takes responsibility, against the expressed wishes of his business manager played by Percy Waram and his obnoxious sister, played by Muriel Hutchison. They are intent on protecting the family name and the family dough.
At one point in the hearing, one of the tenants is questioned about the conditions of the building, but it is difficult for him to give an objective report because he lost his wife and children in the fire and he is too shocked, too broken up to want to even discuss the matter. He is an immigrant and whimpers “My little babies.” He is gently told that he can go now.
He looks up astonished, “Where?”
It seems that the rich family of Leif Erickson is legally off the hook because this tenement was built before 1901 and therefore it does not need to adhere to new safety regulations. We are given an insight to the inefficient and bungling bureaucracy which allows this system and we get facts and figures almost like a docudrama in parts. We are told that such firetraps where low-income people live are not rare in the city, that there are over 67,000 of them.
Sylvia Sidney is angry and wants Leif Erickson interrogated on the stand, and he is only too happy to discuss the situation because he has thus far been ignorant about what kind of property his family owns. He has never really been involved in the business. His business manager, Mr. Waram, explains that Sylvia Sidney’s family would have to pay more – mother, father, younger brother, and herself all live in a one-room apartment – which goes for $10 a month rent. If Erickson did all the repairs and upkeep that she demands, they would have to be charged at least $25 a month rent.
Such rents for 1939 actually seem remarkably low for a city like New York. Other towns certainly, but I would’ve thought New York, even its most rundown apartments, would have charged at least $30 a month.
Nevertheless, we see that Sylvia Sidney’s situation is compounded by the fact that she is kind of the Winnie Winkle the Breadwinner of the group. (For those of you familiar with the old comic strip, Winnie supported her mother, her younger brother, and her shiftless father, which is why she was called the Breadwinner.)
I have a Winnie Winkle coffee mug on my desk that I keep pens in. It was a gift. I always had a soft spot for Winnie Winkle the Breadwinner.
Her father played, by Charles Dingle, whom most probably remember as the conniving elder brother in The Little Foxes (1941), is not working and it seems inferred that he is not looking too hard, either.
Erickson comes to Sylvia Sidney’s tenement to see what conditions are like for himself, runs into her boyfriend Myron McCormick, who slugs him and when Erickson falls through a rotten railing, it occurs to him that the place really is a rattrap.
The film takes an interesting turn when her young brother is released from the hospital. He looks hale and hearty, but he walks with crutches and he will for the rest of his life. He is played by Sidney Lumet.
This was young Sidney Lumet’s only movie, though he did small roles in one TV show and a bit part in a movie many decades later, but we know him best as the director of over eighty films. He was certainly a talented filmmaker, but just from this one film he seems a very talented child actor.
We see the slum through Lumet’s eyes more than anyone’s. His friends welcome him home but then they are cruel to him because he is a "cripple." They tease him, they won’t let them play their games; he is too slow for them and the boy begins to spend a lot of time on his own. He sits on the pier watching the other boys swim in the river, he broods outside on the steps of his building. He does not want to go into the building on his first day home, he stays out until quite late because he is afraid and depressed. We know the fire has left him emotionally scarred and he does not want to enter a building which he knows he can be trapped in at any time, especially now that he is not able to walk easily and less able than before to escape in an emergency.
But his anguish is more than that. His troubled soul is absorbing the despair of this neighborhood and the people who live in it, in that building that has seen so many generations of despair. He talks to the building. He tells the building that he hates it and in his imagination the building talks back to him with an eerie voice.
He tells the building, “Look what you done to me.”
The building taunts him and gloats that it has made victims of its residents for decades. We have a brief foggy flashback to the 1870s when the building was younger, but no less dangerous. We see people in clothes of the time period, a doctor’s visit and the whispered dreaded word: Cholera! The screams of the dying from cholera and their terrified families, which was very common in the nineteenth century in crowded buildings with poor sanitation. The factory town I grew up in had a cholera epidemic, and maybe yours did too.
Lumet threatens the building, “I’ll get you some day. I’ll get you – just wait.”
The scenes with Sidney Lumet staring up at the building, he stares directly into the camera – are haunting and unnerving, his piercing, fevered expression of a child half-crazed with the superior knowledge of someone who knows personally how grim the stakes are. For a kid without a whole lot of screen experience, he’s pretty impressive.
Unfortunately, there are no resources to help, medically, emotionally, not from the city, not from charities, not from his own family. The real burden of poverty is that one is essentially alone.
Leif Erickson struggles with his conscience. Sylvia Sidney struggles with the idea of paying him back for the hospital bill. Erickson’s family struggles with trying to distract him away from what they regard as his naiveté.
At last Erickson wants to make a move to tear down the houses in that section and put up new housing – we assume he means for the selfsame low-income residents, but historically in such cases, usually it’s to gentrify the area and jack up the rents.
Sylvia Sidney believes that he is going to give them a shiny new neighborhood and she is thrilled, and her young brother Sidney Lumet taunts the building, his worst enemy, “They’re gonna tear you down. How do you like that, old stinkpot?”
Unfortunately, Erickson has to humor his sister and he confesses to Sylvia Sidney that it will take time to put these plans into motion. Her disappointment in Erickson is such that she loses all hope and rants to her little brother about her desperation and how things will never change. It is a cruel thing to do to a young boy who is obviously emotionally and psychologically brittle, but nobody is paying attention to him
It puts him over the edge and he sets fire to the building. It goes up like a torch and another crowd gathers and the firemen come and the same old scene is repeated. This time, the building kills the kid brother.
In the dim, gray aftermath, Myron McCormick commiserates and Erickson answers, “The time may come when men like you all realize that men like me are human beings, just the way that I’ve begun to suspect that you are.”
The building is torn down, McCormick and Sylvia Sidney plan to pool their resources as best they can and get married, not wanting to wait any longer. Erickson may be the hero of the piece but he’s not going to play Prince charming to Cinderella and take her out of the ashes, literally. He's still going back to his own kind.
We have a montage scene of new buildings being constructed with playground areas. We are meant to understand that the people living in them will experience a kind of poverty Shangri-La, with the cleanliness and privacy and community spirit with all of them pitching horseshoes and raising their children in the sunlight. It’s not suburbia – nobody predicted suburbia yet – but for a city dweller in a firetrap tenement, it might very well have seemed like the next best thing to paradise. At least the producers thought so.
One segment of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Monument in Washington, D.C. is devoted to his “one third of a nation” speech. It is depicted here above in this photograph in the collection of the Library of Congress.
The bronze statues by George Segal, are titled The Rural Couple and The Breadline located in Room Two of the memorial.
We have another legacy: Today, one of the main reasons why people continue to struggle financially and even live in poverty are the cost of healthcare and the cost of housing. We have revisited young Sidney Lumet’s nightmare on a much grander scale. Though most of us who enjoy classic films enjoy the nostalgia of them – we spend a lot of time looking at the furniture, the clothes, the music, the speech expressions as evidence of a long-ago world – for those who are not fans of classic films it is probably more important not to concentrate on these things, but to concentrate on the heart of the message, on the emotion of the story, and thereby finding in these, whom they might regard as hokey characters, a lot more in common than they thought possible.
Come back next Thursday when we conclude this series on the 1930s and their messages for today with Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), and an elderly couple whose retirement has left them helpless, homeless, and dependent on grown children. Take a look at those spinning headlines – they’re from today.
Part 1 - Gentlemen Are Born (1934)
Part 2 - Our Daily Bread (1934)
Part 3 - Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and Girls of the Road (1940).
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.