“There’s never been a film made in New York City that doesn’t feature New York as a character.” –Margaret Bodde
Whether it’s Little Italy in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), Brooklyn through the lens of Spike Lee, or the Upper East Side socialites of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990), the richness of life on New York City’s streets shapes the mood and message of these iconic movies. For generations, filmmakers have roamed the City’s alleys and avenues searching for the details, sounds, and personalities to inspire new works. MoMA’s recent restoration of two shorts in our collection deliver both narrative and documentary examples of early 20th-century filmmakers taking to the streets to shape and tell their stories. In this installment of The City Stars, our online film exhibition highlighting shorts made in NYC, Margaret Bodde, executive director of The Film Foundation, joins us to discuss an early silent classic, D. W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), and In the Street (1952), a silent documentary by Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, James Agee, made long after talkies were popularized in 1927. Bodde is well versed in such titles; The Film Foundation, established by Martin Scorsese in 1990, supports the preservation of older films and works to remind us that the cinema of yesterday still resonates today.
The Musketeers of Pig Alley, an early film by director D. W. Griffith, is thought to be the first gangster film ever. In it, a married couple’s lives are upended when the husband’s wallet is stolen by a gangster. The wife was played by silent star Lillian Gish, who pioneered many early screen acting techniques, adapting the skill set from Vaudevillian and stage approaches. She is later saved by the same gangster, complicating the couple’s relationship with both these shady characters and law enforcement. As Bodde explained in her interview, “The unique qualities of cinema are cinematography and editing. The Musketeers of Pig Alley uses those two powerful tools to tell the story in a way that couldn’t be told through any other artform. It’s not a literary work. It’s not a theatrical work. It’s purely cinematic, visual storytelling. Within every frame, you’re aware of the rest of the story playing out. It’s really a precursor to many performances and many styles that followed it.”
In the Street is a silent documentary short, directed by photographer Helen Levitt, filmmaker Janice Loeb, and writer James Agee, that explores Spanish Harlem. As the film was originally shot in 1948 and rereleased in 1952, long after the introduction of sound into movies, choosing to forgo sound was an artistic choice. The filmmakers used hidden 16mm cameras to capture the everyday lives of Harlem residents in the neighborhood. Bodde commented on the energy of the past that Levitt’s powerful cinematography reveals: “[Levitt] really knows these streets. She was born in Brooklyn and worked in New York City her whole career. For her, the lens was a window into the souls of the people that she was photographing, whether it was still images or moving pictures. The gaze is just so soulful and deep.” Levitt’s imagery is so engaging that, for Bodde, the lack of sound becomes unnoticeable, or even an enhancement. She states, “I find personally, when I’m watching In the Street, that I go into a bit of a trance. I feel like I’m inhabiting those streets with those characters, and can almost hear the voices, the laughter, the shouts of the children.”