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January 07, 2006

Yiddle with a Fiddle

Yidl Mitn Fidl
Joseph Green and Jan Nowina-Przybylski - 1936
Ergo Media DVD

My mother was the second-string film critic for The Denver Post about twenty years ago. Being the kind of person who almost never turns down the chance to see a movie for free, I'd see films with her as my schedule would permit. One of the films we saw was Cannonball Run, back when Burt Reynolds was the top star in Hollywood. We both liked the previous film Reynolds had done with director Hal Needham, Hooper, a tribute to movie stuntmen. The description of the new film sounded funny, with an all-star cast in a cross-country car race, featuring Roger Moore as Seymour Goldfarb, Jr., a guy who thinks he's really James Bond. Then we actually saw the movie.

It's been almost twenty-five years so my memories of Cannonball Run are a bit faint. But what I do remember is that after a sort of dumb but sort of funny beginning, there is a scene with Moore and his mother, played by Molly Picon. I recall Picon doing the stereotypical nagging mother bit, ending with Moore turning around to say, "Mother, you're too Jewish". A few people in the audience laughed. I wasn't one of them. My mother stayed in her seat out of professional obligation. As hard as he tried, Dom DeLuise as masked superhero Captain Chaos, couldn't save this movie.

At the time I saw Cannonball Run, I really had no idea who Molly Picon was, other than as a character actress seen in the film versions of Come Blow Your Horn and Fiddler on the Roof. I learned much more about her in J. Hoberman's book, Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds. Not unlike Bruce Lee, who went to Hong Kong in order to be a movie star, or Selena, who had to learn Spanish before "crossing over" with her first English language hit song, Molly Picon went to Europe to establish herself as a star of New York City's Yiddish theater. At the height of her Yiddish theater stardom, Picon turned down invitations to work on Broadway.

Yiddle with a Fiddle is one of two Yiddish features that Picon made. While I don't know enough about stories of girls disguised as boys being typical of Yiddish literature, the film shares some similarities with Yentl and was released not long after the first novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer. As Hoberman explains, Yiddle was something of a showcase for Picon as part of her stage act was to pretend to be a boy, do broad physical comedy and of course, sing. The slight story concerns Picon pretending to be the son of her poor musician father. Homeless, the two strike out as traveling musicians who form a quartet with two other musicians. Picon falls in love with the handsome Froym who thinks his new friend is an effeminate male. Yiddle is silly and sentimental, with an ending that can be anticipated not long after the movie starts.

The reason to watch Yiddle is to get a glimpse of Picon as a performer. The film is also something of a documentary, having been shot on location in Poland. With parts of the film taking place in the country, where horse drawn carts were the only mode of transportation, I almost forgot that Yiddle was taking place in what was then the present day Poland. The DVD includes audio interviews with Picon and co-director Green, most of which are included in Hoberman's book.

Bridge of Light is simultaneously a history of Yiddish language films and a history of those Jews who primarily spoke Yiddish in Eastern Europe and New York City. In part, I felt like I was reading about the history of my maternal grandparents who continued to speak Yiddish to each other. (When I made her upset, my grandmother would share a few choice Yiddish words with me.) If there is a lesson from Hoberman, it would be that even films thought marginal for artistic or commercial reasons can still be of great value as part of one's own history.

Posted by peter at January 7, 2006 06:39 PM