Film: Eli Eli (1940)

My father's family owned a poultry farm. I don't know much about it, and need to interrogate my father more, as they were New York Jews who lived in Brownsville in Brooklyn. Maybe nowadays the neighborhood is filled with urban farmers, but back in the 1940s when you said "Jew" and "New York," the next thing people thought of usually wasn't "chicken farm."

The farm was elsewhere. I have always had the idea it was in New Jersey, but I might have just made it up. Perhaps it was in upstate New York -- my grandfather had a summer place in the Catskills for many years. Maybe it was in Connecticut. I don't know. All I know is that once in a while my father mentioned that his family members would go out of the city for a weekend, collect eggs, and bring them back to sell.

I mention this half-remembered information because I watched a Yiddish film recently that's set on a Jewish chicken farm in Connecticut, and so while that might strike some viewers as surprising, it seemed about right to me. The film is called "Eli Eli" and was lensed in 1940, and I hoped it would help fill in some of the details about Jewish chicken farming. It didn't, alas. (There is another reference I can turn to one day, "Comrades and Chicken Farmers: The story of a California Jewish Community" by Kenneth Kann, which tells the true story of a sort-of war that broke out between Communist and non-Communist Jewish chicken farmers in Petaluma, California.)

"Eli Eli" barely concerns itself with chickens at all. No, it's a film version of the sort of Yiddish stage shows that were dismissively called "shund," meaning "trash." This was light melodramatic fare, often featuring broad comedy, and usually included a few musical numbers. "Eli Eli" has all this, and it's melodrama is one of family.

Our Jewish chicken farmers, an elderly couple played by Max Badin and Esther Field, immediately lose their chicken farm to the bank. The couple has two children, a son in Philadelphia and a daughter in New York, or maybe a daughter in Philadelphia and a son in New York -- the film subtitles perhaps one line of dialogue for every 20 spoken, so it was a bit hard to get the exact details. Each child takes one of the parents into their house, which nobody seems to think is odd. Perhaps in the 1940s is was common for old married couples to be split up when there was a financial crisis, but it seems unusually cruel nowadays.

It's supposed to be cruel. The film was directed by Joseph Seiden, who had a sizable career making Yiddish films, but also a notable career in English-language trash: In 1938 he scripted a film called "Sex Madness," which an IMDB commenter admirably summarized: "This sex exploitation film includes wild parties, sex out of wedlock, lesbianism, etc. After going to a 'casting couch,' a chorus girl contracts syphilis."

Yiddish-language trash is not English-language trash, of course, so "Eli Eli" replaces the garish spectacle of sexual exploitation with something equally traumatizing in the Jewish community: terrible children. In fact, the version of the film I have, from Alpha Video, has scrawled across their box cover bold yellow text that looks like it would belong on a psychotronic film: "ABANDONED BY THEIR HEARTLESS CHILDREN."

And make no mistake, having rotten children is just as life-destroying in this film as syphilis is in "Sex Madness": By the film's climax, the father has been accused stealing $60 and driven out of the home, and the mother lies dying in her bed, unconscious and unable to communicate, mostly because she was not invited to a birthday party.

It sounds a little hysterical, and it is. This is a world in which all older Jewish men look like Grandpa Joe from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory" and spend their entire day smoking pipes with long stems. It's a world that builds a protracted and completely unrelated song and dance number around the unlikelihood of romance between a Litvak and a Galitzianer. It's a film that bases its entire plot around children being utterly awful, and yet the children themselves are, at worst, occasionally a little grumpy. It's as though the entire film was written from the point of view of one of those stereotypical Jewish mothers that were in vogue in the mid-20th century, who might threaten suicide if you forgot to call last week. It's weird, and, weirder still, we're expected to sympathize. We're expected to understand that if you fail to invite your mother to a party, she might literally die, and that's a perfectly reasonable reaction.

There isn't a lot to recommend the film, technically speaking. It's a flat, ugly piece of filmmaking, looking something created by a filmmaker who saw a lot of Poverty Row melodramas and tried to recreate them out of cardboard. The plot is, as you have gathered, ludicrous. There are two comic performances in it that feel like a favor to the film's producer, as though he had said, listen, I'll bankroll this, but I have a son and a daughter in vaudeville and it's not going very well for them ...

And I love it. There has been a trend recently to ransack the world of trash and exploitation films and turn them into campy musicals, and I don't know how this film has been overlooked. It's already ready to be converted into a musical, as it features songs by the incomparable Sholom Secunda, who wrote "Bei Mir Bistu Shein." His songs are perfect -- lead actress Esther Field has a magnificent, sobbing singing voice, and he wrote songs for her that sound cantorial, as though the subtext of every song you hear in a synagogue is that there is a very unhappy mother somewhere.

Somebody needs to turn this into a play. Maybe I will. After all, I have the background in Jewish poultry farming.