Make a New York waterfront movie today—now that the action has moved to cost-effective New Jersey container ports—and it would have to be about a city planning commission hearing on building an Ikea store with maybe a planning member having sex with a condo developer at the Brooklyn Motor Inn. They would discuss mixed use and truck honking. Thank God for MOMA’s program of films that chronicle the changing waterfront over the decades. The studio features are all from the good old days when longshoremen hit each other over the heads with pipes and oh, there was payroll-padding and loading rackets and guys chewing sandwiches and saying “Don’t bust in”—Edge of the City (1957), On the Waterfront (1954).
The program celebrates Phillip Lopate’s new book, Waterfront, which has just about every thought, memory, and dream a person could have on the history, politics, architecture, film, and literature of Manhattan’s shore. There is no greater staging area for drama than waterfronts. In real life, they look like stage sets anyway, buildings in a row, all facing the fish. And with strangers coming and going, they are a far cry from a cow in the middle of a plain, chewing endlessly, looking at nothing.
The milieu is ripe for class struggle, and one of the most pointed films is the recently restored East Side, West Side (1927), with George O’Brien “sick of crawlin’ up and down the river.” In New York, the rich preferred to live away from or merely look out at the water, as Lopate points out. The poor got wet. The very set of William Wyler’s Dead End (1937)—one of the oddest in history (probably because it was copied from the play)—points up the conflict. A glamorous high-rise is pushed right up against the slums so we can see both at once and never forget the difference.
In Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, the sea is a force that pulls people away or brings them together, not unlike the buckets of liquor they drink because they feel so “Oh, vot’s the use.” MOMA presents the rarely shown German version (1930) directed by Jacques Feyder, with Greta Garbo. Also screening: shorts by Mark Street, Peter Hutton, Joan Jonas, and Rudy Burckhardt. Other features include Josef Von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928) and Scorsese favorite Regeneration (1915). On February 27, Lopate introduces Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953)—”So you’re the muffin.”