According to a pair of cinema historians, Erich von Stroheim directed either 60% or 75% of the final product that got the name, Hello, Sister! Originally titles Walking Down Broadway based on an unpublished play by Dawn Powell, Stroheim finally worked on time during production and within budget, but he ended up producing, reportedly, a serious-minded look at people torn apart by jealousy and suspicion. You can see these elements throughout the film, but the hour-long runtime and added narrative elements (almost all clearly designed to lighten the film with very obvious and not terribly amusing comedic relief) that consume a good amount of that limited runtime mash together inelegantly, to say the least.
Peggy (Boots Mallory) is a lower-class transplant to New York City who decides that she’s tired of spending every night at home in her tenement building and convinces Millie (ZaSu Pitts) to go with her out on the town to find some men for some innocent fun. They quickly meet Jimmy (James Dunn) and Mac (Terrance Ray), pairing off with Peggy and Mac going together while Millie and Jimmy walk along. Mac, however, is unbearable, and as the night gets called, Millie ends up falling into an open ditch where she gets soaked and rescued. The three take her back to the tenement where Peggy makes it obvious to Mac that she doesn’t care for him, and she ends up with Jimmy, the two of them hitting it off nicely. All of these machinations are necessary for the later accusations of infidelity that drive the movie’s final fifteen minutes, but it’s told in such a staccato manner that it feels like a lot has been cut out. It doesn’t help that there’s time dedicated to a drunk character (Will Stanton) who is stealing dynamite from…somewhere and storing it in his room, an action open to everyone in the building that they laugh off because…reasons. It’s odd. I don’t have to be told that this stuff was added in reshoots. It’s obvious.
Anyway, Peggy and Jimmy date for a while until talk of moving in together and getting married gets interrupted by news that Peggy is pregnant (pre-Code film, for those wondering). She’s nervous about telling Jimmy, but he’s elated at the news and decides that they must get married right away, but he’s delayed from showing up at the marriage license office because he’s at his boss’s office begging for a raise in a new department (purely melodramatic stuff here that doesn’t exactly have much impact). This starts the rift between the two as Jimmy runs around town trying to find her, getting increasingly negative portraits of Peggy from Mac, who’s angry that Jimmy isn’t going to go in on a business venture with him anymore, and Millie, who’s jealous of Peggy’s happiness with the man she had been paired off with originally.
This isn’t exactly great stuff, and it’s not really because of the events themselves. All of this takes place over the course of something like thirty minutes over the first forty-five of the film (the other fifteen or so is dedicated to other tenement dwellers like the drunk, looking for laughs), and the characters simply don’t have the depth necessary to actually form the connection with the audience. I have a strong suspicion that Stroheim’s original cut of the film did have all of that.
The action-packed finale of the film is a large fire in the building. In the original cut, the fire was apparently caused by Peggy somehow, but in this it’s caused by the drunk’s dynamite exploding. I mean…that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but whatever. The actual fire action is thinly exciting as Jimmy has to break into the building, go up, rescue Peggy from her room by going through the skylight, and then getting her over the alleyway to the building next door. As the ending to a melodrama, you could definitely go worse, and it provides a nice punch to the ending of a largely thin and unremarkable first fifty-minutes.
Released without a directing credit at all with Raoul Walsh and Alfred L. Werker having filmed the remainder of the film, Hello, Sister! is less enthralling that it probably was originally. In its truncated, mutilated form, it’s definitely a lesser film from the era and from Stroheim. His experience was so negative in the end that he swore off directing forever, and he just became a character actor, mostly in Europe. His directing career was over, and he left a very short but very adept little filmography behind.
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