#579) A Bronx Morning (1931)

#579) A Bronx Morning (1931)

OR “Jay and Silent Job”

Directed by Jay Leyda

Class of 2004

The Plot: As the title suggests, “A Bronx Morning” is…well, a morning in the Bronx. Jay Leyda chronicles an average day in New York’s fourth largest borough, as its businesses open up and all walks of life travel across its sidewalks. But Leyda is also quick to note the effects the Great Depression has started to have on the Bronx, with several businesses closing or having fire sales, and several residents now living on the streets.

Why It Matters: Well someone likes “Bronx Morning” over at the NFR. They call it a “renowned city symphony”, praising the “sensational and stylish use of European filmmaking styles.” There’s also an essay from film expert Scott Simmon, cribbed from his liner notes for the film’s DVD release.

But Does It Really?: Oh sure. I’m always willing to give a pass to documentaries, short films, or avant-garde pieces from influential filmmakers, and “A Bronx Morning” is all three! That being said, studying Leyda led to the kind of artsy film critique that makes my eyes glaze over (if I see Leyda’s filmmaking style described as “European” one more goddamn time…). Jay Leyda is an important figure in film history, and while his contribution to film study has overshadowed his actual film output, one of his movies should be on the NFR, and “A Bronx Morning” is the right choice.

Everybody Gets One: Not a lot of information out there about Jay Leyda before “A Bronx Morning”, other than he was born in Detroit, grew up in Ohio, and moved to New York in 1929. An accomplished still photographer, Leyda used the money from various gigs to buy a movie camera and film. Just so we all feel bad, Jay Leyda was 21 when he made “A Bronx Morning”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Obviously, the film’s Depression era setting is on full display. Also, look for a few shots from the Bronx El train, part of which would be destroyed two years later by a giant stop-motion ape.

Other notes

  • For starters, a reminder that the Bronx sits on Lenape land.
  • Named after Swedish and/or Faroese farmer Joseph Bronck, the Bronx became part of New York City in stages: the land west of the Bronx River in 1873, and the land east of the river in 1875. The Bronx became one of the five boroughs when New York City officially consolidated its land into the City of Greater New York on January 1st, 1898. Like most of New York, the Bronx saw an immigrant boom in the early 20th century, with immigrants arriving from Europe and the Caribbean (as well as African-Americans emigrating from the South).
  • Not a lot to say about “A Bronx Morning”, other than it is artsy, and not without its ironic humor: a title card stating “The Bronx does business” is followed by a store sign reading “Lost Our Lease”.
  • For anyone interested in an NFR film festival: “A Bronx Morning” would make a good companion piece with “In the Street“, the Levitt/Loeb/Agee short about 1948 Spanish Harlem. Both would pair well with “On the Bowery“, Lionel Rogosin’s 1956 docudrama about the titular Manhattan neighborhood.
  • Looks like someone learned how to intercut. Several of this film’s shots cut back and forth between each other. If there’s some layer of symbolism Leyda’s trying to convey I ain’t catchin’ it.
  • Anyone looking for the Eisenstein influence on Leyda can spot it in a lingering shot of an abandoned baby carriage. Of course, it’s easy to assume that any baby carriage in a movie is a reference to “Battleship Potemkin“…or “Naked Gun 33 1/3“.
  • This is where film stock makes all the difference. Presented in black-and-white, the Bronx of “A Bronx Morning” appears even drabbier than it would in real life (even the sky is gray). You can’t help but wonder how different this film’s tone would be if the exact same shots were in color.
  • Like many a documentary before and after, “Bronx Morning” closes with shots of children at play, including two kids putting the “rough” in roughhousing. They’re fighting on concrete! There is something about kids being kids that appeals to anyone trying to capture natural life on film.

Legacy

  • “A Bronx Morning” was screened primarily at various New York art galleries, and Jay Leyda included the film when he applied to Sergei Eisenstein’s directing course at the Moscow State Film School. Leyda was accepted, and worked with Eisenstein on many of his projects.
  • Following his return to America in 1936, Leyda did…pretty much everything. Over the ensuing decades he was assistant film curator at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote extensive biographies of Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson, wrote the first English book about Chinese cinema, and taught film studies at several universities, including Yale. Jay Leyda died in 1988, just three days after his 78th birthday.
  • The Bronx as seen in “A Bronx Morning” was the beginning of a new era for the borough, one defined by an economic decline brought on by the Depression and World War II. Like most of New York, the Bronx spent the mid-20th century in urban decay, with crime rates skyrocketing. The good news: the quality of life has improved in the Bronx in recent years. The bad news: It’s because of gentrification. 
  • On a less depressing note, the Bronx has given so much to American culture; from Off-Off-Broadway to the creation of Hip-Hop, and even the Bronx Cheer. But the greatest piece of pop culture associated with the Bronx: “Leave the Bronx. You are ordered to leave the Bronx.”

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