Charles Staggers (Charles Laughton) is a London street performer, a "busker," with his partners, Arthur Smith (Gus McNaughton) and Gentry (Tyrone Guthrie).
He protects Liberty (Libby), Vivien Leigh, a runaway/pickpocket/dancer/busker, when she steals a gold cigarette case from successful song writer Harley Prentiss (Rex Harrison). He then takes her into their troupe, making their trio into a quartet.
Libby attracts the attention of Prentiss and his wealthy friends, who can give her a life and career away from the streets.
When she leaves, cruelly rejecting Charles's marriage proposal, he doesn’t want to go on with the act anymore, and becomes an alcoholic.
Libby’s career is a big success; and, she is offered a Hollywood contract. She asks Prentiss to marry her; but, he declines, saying he doesn’t want to be thrown away, like Charles, as a mere stepping stone for her career.
In the press of crowds, waiting to see her, as a big star, Libby sees Charles, and, her old partners, busking on the street the way they used to. Charles asks her for her autograph; but, he is pushed aside by the mob.Charles Laughton as Charles Staggers
Vivien Leigh as Liberty (Libby)
Rex Harrison as Harley Prentiss
Larry Adler as Constantine
Tyrone Guthrie as Gentry
Gus McNaughton as Arthur Smith
Edward Lexy as Mr. Such
Maire O'Neill as Mrs. Such
Helen Haye as Selina
Cyril Smith as Black Face
Ronald Shiner as the Barman (uncredited)
According to Vivien Leigh's biographer Alexander Walker, Laughton and Vivien Leigh didn't get along while working together. Walker wrote that when an attempt was made to obtain Leigh's services for a film version of Cyrano de Bergerac, Laughton stated that she would have to dye her hair blonde. Leigh asked for a blonde wig, but Laughton insisted she dye her hair. The discussions fell through and Leigh felt slighted.
When Leigh was approached to make Sidewalks of London, she did not want to work with Laughton and she felt no attachment to the role. Nevertheless, she was persuaded otherwise. In Alexander Walker's biography of Leigh, Larry Adler is quoted as saying that Leigh was difficult to work with. He said, "She didn't like Charles and he didn't like her. But he was much more professional. One weekend there were a few close-ups of Vivien to be done outside a theater and Charles, who invariably went down to the country with Elsa [Lanchester] at weekends, stayed up in town to 'feed' Vivien lines from behind the camera. I doubt if she'd have done as much for him. [Laurence] Olivier would show up on the set and they'd disappear into her dressing-room and it was quite a business to get her back to work." Olivier would show up on the days that Leigh was to shoot love scenes with the handsome Rex Harrison.
The film was adapted into the stage musical Busker Alley with songs by the Sherman Brothers. After several false starts with Tommy Tune as director and starring Tune and Melissa Errico, the musical had debuted at the York Theatre in New York on December 13, 2006 starring Jim Dale and Glenn Close. A CD which recreated this one-night-only performance was released by Jay Records in 2007.