There was once an audience for Yiddish film. It was the 1930s, and then the audience went away. There was a director who specialized in Yiddish film, Joseph Green, an eccentric fellow who parlayed a walk-on role in Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer" into a brief career in Jewish film. He made a series of Yiddish films, and then stopped, and the New York Times quoted his explanation in his obituary: "I have only one answer: six million potential moviegoers were missing and they were the most important audiences for Yiddish films."
There is a haunted quality to Green's films as a result. He filmed in Poland on the eve of World War II, in real locations, with local Jews as background talent, and it would all soon be wiped off the map. Green himself would lose three sisters in concentration camps. His films act are a sort of parallel to Roman Vishniac's photographs of Eastern European Jews in the few years before the Holocaust, but while Vishniac provided documentary images, Green preserved the cultural life.
I have only seen one of Green's films so far, but it is his most famous. The film is title "Yidl Mitn Fidl" in Yiddish, "Yiddle With His Fiddle" in English. The film was shot in Kazimierz Dolny, Poland around 1936, a town that had a Jewish population since the 14th Century and was now half Jewish, with a population of about 1,400 Jews, many of them living in dire poverty, according to star Molly Picon. By 1940, there were no more Jews in in Kazimier.
So it's hard to watch the film without knowing that the shadow of the future hangs over it, that many of the people in it were bound for extermination. And yet the film doesn't want to be seen this way. It was created as light entertainment, made without knowledge of what was to come, and cannot bear the weight of it. It was based on a script called "The Wandering Musicians," telling the story of itinerant klezmorim, the wedding and dance musicians who give klezmer music its name. Green wanted stage star Molly Picon to star in the film, and so adjusted the script to make one of the musicians a girl, and then inserted a plot wrinkle straight out of Shakespeare. Afraid for her safety, her father insists she dress like a boy, which works until she falls in love with another musician.
All if it is done in big, silly strokes, and the main cast is drawn from some of the better actors in Yiddish theater, including Leon Liebgold as the love interest; Liebgold also starred in The Dybbuk, which I will review later. They are savvy enough actors to know the difference between acting for film and stage, that film is a more intimate medium, and so scenes must be underplayed. So there is a pleasant naturalism to much of the film, even in its clowning, which there is an awful lot of. The filmmakers even try to make the music diagetic, so there are always people sawing away at fiddles while the cast sings.
Despite this, it's often a rough film, filmed in a nondescript manner. For a 1930s musical, it feels like something that would have been made 10 or more years earlier, with some awkward plotting and jagged edits. It's a film I very badly wanted to love, and I know there are things in it I can love, but it is so ungainly and often amateurish that it must be loved with effort.
But it must be loved. It must be loved because it is one of the only documents of this sort of a world that was destroyed. It must be loved because it is one of the few efforts to put Yiddish theater onto the screen. It must be loved because of history, even if the film wasn't built to support that weight.
And it must be loved because it is one of the only films to capture the younger Molly Picon, before she aged into an eccentric yenta character (including the character Yenta in the film "Fiddler on the Roof.") Picon was a delightful oddball, and played up that quality, which is both surprising and isn't. I'm not familiar enough with Picon's work to comment on it in any great detail, but I can say that she was not conventionally attractive, and while she could carry a tune, she wasn't a superb singer. If Yiddish theater had been a place that exclusively prized traditional beauty and world-class vocals, Picon might not have had a career.
But Jewish entertainment has always prized our oddballs. Think about entertainers who are Jewish in a way that is more than incidental -- Sarah Bernhardt, the Marx Brothers, George Burns, Zero Mostel, Shelly Winters, and on. These were all weirdos. I knew Shelley Winters, and can personally testify to the fact that she was odd in a way that seemed unnatural, like she was produced in a parallel dimension where cartoonish, shrieky neuroses were unremarkable. In this dimension, they were remarkable, and celebration -- Shelley won tow Academy Awards, and one of them was for "Diary of Anne Frank." Weird though she might have been, she had a place in Jewish performance.
So "Yidl Mitn Fidl" is a showcase for Picon, and her oddness isn't as pronounced as Shelley's was, but here she has a squirrely, wide-eyed quality that is unexpected -- she isn't be especially girlish when she's a girl, and neither does she play at being boyish when she dresses as a boy, but she's always just a Molly Picon character. She openly moons over Liebgold, who notices and doesn't quite know what to make of it.
There's something about this, and I can't quite put my finger on it. Either there was something about Picon that the filmmakers saw as essentially genderless, so they did not expect Picon to playact at being a boy, as Streisand did in Yentl. Alternately, the filmmakers just felt that there was so significant difference between the way an adult woman behave and the way a little boy behaves, which is troubling. Whatever the case, whether dressed as a boy or as a girl, it is Picon as Picon all the way through the film, which is good for historians of Yiddish theater and complicated for historians of gender.
I am not yet familiar enough with Yiddish to know what accent is used in the film. I suspect it's Polish, as Picon was an American but had Polish Parents, Liebgold was Polish, Green was Polish, co-screenwrtier Konrad Tom was Polish, and the film is set in Poland. Yet I am given to understand that Yiddish theater was largely done in Ukrainian Yiddish, so maybe it's that. As a result, I essentially understood none of the film. I'd catch a word here or there, but between the fact that the vowels are utterly different (where I would say "zun" for son, they would say "zin"), the sound quality was muddied, and it was spoken by Yiddish speakers for a Yiddish audience and so there was no real concern with careful annunciation.
I don't know when I'll know Yiddish well enough to be able to actually understand the dialogue in this film. I don't know that this will ever happen. But at least I can hear what it sounded like, in the same way that I can see what Molly Picon was like at the height of her fame, in the same way that I can see the people of Kazimierz before they were destroyed. I may never have complete comprehension of the language, the actress, or the town, but at least I can access the film that documented them.