Charles Lane executes one of the purest Chaplin homages in the first minutes of Sidewalk Stories. Lane, playing the homeless Artist, finds himself in competition with another street-portrait artist whose easel is propped up mere feet away. The two squabble over territorial rights and stand to duke it out, at which point it’s revealed that the other man has easily a foot on Lane, looming over the Artist as he boxes the poor man to the ground repeatedly, until the smaller man thinks better of his chances and plays dead on the pavement. Later, the Artist takes advantage of the other man staring at a pretty woman across the way to casually set his rival’s easel on fire.
Chaplin is all over the film, which finds its narrative footing when the Artist comes into the guardianship of a toddler (Lane’s daughter, credited minus surname as Nicole Alysia) after witnessing her deadbeat father murdered by some local criminals. This more vicious framing updates The Kid into a more cynical modern setting, and it also allows Lane to branch out into other stylistic modes. The murder scene, for example, looks closer in spirit to the work of Fritz Lang than Chaplin, with the Artist in the foreground facing toward the action in the alley, shadowed but for the scummy streetlight that casts a dim glow on the murder, the killers either not noticing or not heeding the witness as they casually kill for a few bucks. The scene may lack Lang’s undercurrent of organized evil, but it captures that sense of a world in which crime is so commonplace that even a direct witness means little to anyone who might fear justice.
Rather than separate out such grim social statements from the silent comedy, the film, at its best, finds a balance between the two. The Artist strikes up something of a relationship with a sympathetic store owner (Sandye Wilson), who invites him and the girl back to her apartment, where the homeless man’s presence arouses the suspicion and dismissal of the concierge, who’s ultimately slapped by the woman for consistently refusing the man entry. Elsewhere, a wealthy white woman watching her child play with the girl at a park constantly looks nervously at the Artist as he also watches his ward, averting her eyes and inching halfway off the bench to put as much distance as she can between them. Another scene places Lane in front of a shuttered store window with “Jew” spray-painted on it, on one hand a clear Great Dictator nod, but also a comment on how prejudice can crop up anywhere, even among those prejudiced against. Lane regularly employs pans to upend the tone of shots, as in a scene of a crowd gathering to see the Artist paint with the little girl that then shifts to see her father’s murderers standing nearby, watching maliciously as they plan to tie up loose ends.
There’s an economy to such direction that threatens to bypass the elegant simplicity of silent cinema for merely functional visual storytelling. But the didacticism of Sidewalk Stories lies in its metatextual commentary. To see Lane enjoying tender scenes with his child is to see a void in silent movies retroactively filled, a racial context consciously and unconsciously omitted from the classic era, and film history in general. It’s not just the film’s racial makeup that confronts the blind spots of film history though; sound enters the final scene as the voices of homeless people can suddenly be heard begging for change. On the nose as the moment may be, it also calls attention to the tendency of even socially conscious films to ignore the actual masses of neglected citizens in favor of a centralizing hero. In the conclusion, Lane acknowledges that he has backgrounded and stripped the homeless of their voice to speak on their behalf, and that this is the least he could do to let them speak for themselves.
Carlotta Films’s restoration looks wonderful, most especially in night scenes that maintain a high contrast while preserving the film’s deep black levels. Daytime shots have a slightly washed-out quality, but that seems intentional given the level of textural detail that remains. The audio track is entirely given over to Marc Marder’s exceptionally dense score, which flits between brass-n’-clarinet jazz, sentimental string arrangements, and anxious electric instrumentation, and the sound quality is every bit as superb as the music, with every note rendered as crisp as if you were listening to it in the recording booth.
An audio commentary with Charles Lane and Marder is a fairly laidback affair, with both commenting on the film’s themes and production and clearly enjoying the fact that the film has been resurrected. They’re similarly enthused in a half-hour interview with both men that covers some of the same ground, albeit in less specific detail. The most substantial extra by far is the inclusion of Lane’s 1977 short A Place in Time, which shares some of the feature’s narrative points and gags while containing a number of sequences all its own. Finally, the disc comes with a re-release trailer.
Charles Lane’s long out-of-print film both apes and expands upon silent cinema and its ability to speak more clearly than talkies. Carlotta’s exceptional restoration does justice to this neglected delight, introducing this touchstone of African-American film to a new generation who will find its lessons enduringly relevant.