A Jewish family living in New York must cope with an empty nest when their two sons leave home, one to be a lawyer and the other, much to his father’s chagrin, to be a boxer. A modernized Jacob and Esau tale, this sensitive film is also one of the finest family dramas to come out of the silent era.
I will also be reviewing the 1935 Yiddish film Bar Mitzvah, starring Boris Thomashefsky. Click here to skip to the talkie.
Silent movies are often thought of as melodramatic and action-packed affairs, full of chases, escapes and villains. While there certainly were melodramas and adventure to be had, there were also quieter films that focused on more realistic events.
His People is one of those quieter films. Designed to cash in on the fad for Jewish characters (brought on in part by the painful hit play, Abie’s Irish Rose), the film manages to rise above the crowd thanks to some very fortunate casting.
David Cominsky (Rudolph Schildkraut) was a man of learning back in Russia but the only work he can find in America is as a pushcart peddler. He has two sons. Morris (played as a child by Albert Bushaland) is the apple of his eye, a dedicated student. Sammy (played as a child by Robert Gordon) is the spunkier of the two and is constantly getting into fights.
Rose Cominsky (Rosa Rosanova) understands that Sammy often fights to save Morris’s neck and she manages to shield him from his irritated father. (The sweet portrayal of the mature marriage of Rose and David is one of the highlights of the film.)
Sammy has grown so adept at fighting that he has come to the attention of Nolan (popular character actor Edgar Kennedy), a local boxing promoter. Soon, Sammy is earning a living with his fists.
A decade passes. Morris (now played by Arthur Lubin) is still the intellectual favorite of David and Sammy (now played by George J. Lewis) continues to be the family’s primary bread winner with his newspaper business. Well, that’s what he calls it. In fact, he has been fighting in matches arranged by Nolan and is slowly working his way up the ranks of welterweight boxers. He is also actively romancing Mamie (Blanche Mehaffey), an Irish girl who lives next door with her mother (Kate Price). She returns his affections with interest.
Morris has done well in the world, thanks to Sammy’s money. He has graduated from law school, is in the employ of a former judge, Nathan Stein (Betram Marburgh) and is romancing the daughter of the house, Ruth (Virginia Faire Brown). He has not yet introduced Ruth to his family and when pressed, he blurts out that he is alone in the world, an orphan, and he paid his own way through school.
Kevin Brownlow points out in Behind the Mask of Innocence that the names of the Stein family indicate a Jewish family of German origins. In short, immigrants from an earlier wave who might find the Cominsky family’s Russian roots and Lower East Side address to be an unsavory connection.
Morris decides it is time to move into his own place. His announcement comes on the heels of David discovering Sammy’s true profession (under the name Battling Rooney no less) and throwing him out of the house. David and Rose now have an empty nest.
As Morris continues to move up in the world, he comes back home only when he needs money. Sammy, meanwhile, is living at the boxing club and sends almost all of his wages home to his parents. Still, David favors Morris. In fact, when he falls deathly ill, he asks only to see his older son. Morris is busy with the Steins and refuses to come. It is Sammy who receives his delirious father’s deathbed blessing.
David recovers, believing that Morris came to see him and that his presence gave him to the will to live. However, matters are dire. David must relocate to a warmer climate or he will be dead within a few months. Sammy decides to risk a match with a higher ranked fighter in order to win the money his parents need to move.
Meanwhile, David discovers a small newspaper item mentioning Morris and stating that he is an orphan. He decides to go to the Stein’s house and discover the truth for himself.
So, will Sammy win his match? Will Morris grow a conscience? See His People to find out.
The film takes a classic family drama plot (a growing gulf between parents and their adult children), merges in the story of Jacob and Esau and comes up with a very good film. Okay, so the plot is hardly original and we can see the end coming from miles away. That doesn’t really matter as getting there is all the fun. Contemporary audiences seemed to agree. A solid hit for Universal, His People remains the best of the Jewish films that were so popular in the twenties.
The appeal of His People can be attributed to the universal nature of its story. Conflict between parent and adult child, between grown siblings is something that most people experience at some point in their lives.
The general message of His People is pro-assimilation, a topic that was quite controversial among immigrant groups. (Still is, as a matter of fact.) Happiness is attained through understanding and coexistence but some cultural identity is sacrificed along the way. The question of whether this sacrifice is worth the reward continues to be debated with each new wave of immigrants.
The film displays a rosy view of immigration, with all misunderstandings resolved and the families set to live happily ever after as productive Americans. It is likely that this was at least in part a response to automaker Henry Ford’s vile anti-Semitic rants and conspiracy theories, which he regularly published in newspaper columns, books and “educational” films. (Ford was finally forced to apologize in the wake of a libel suit brought by one of his targets but his books remained in print.) Ford was not the only racist with power in the ‘teens and twenties but he was certainly one of the most vocal and influential.
There are indeed ethnic stereotypes in His People. Kate Price’s Irishness is played to the hilt and beyond; you can practically smell the potcheen. The Cominsky’s neighbors are similarly overdone, with the requisite “put your hand on your cheek and rock your head from side to side” gesture that is supposed to signal a Jewish character. Alrighty then.
That being said, I thought the Cominsky family was very well done and that the movie does not hinge on them being Jewish. Instead, it creates an interesting family that happens to be Jewish. There is an enormous difference. Many “ethnic” films of the silent era would line up a set of stereotypes (many of them offensive) and then build a plot around including as many of them as possible. Irish in the bar! Chinese in the laundry! Australians starting their day by tossing boomerangs at kangaroos! Jewish people gesture and haggle! Aren’t we having fun?
(Remember, it is possible to enjoy entertainment while still being critical of its problematic elements. Bringing up these elements is not always a call for censorship or a blanket condemnation of a genre or period.)
There seems to be this ridiculous notion that we need to view these films “in context” and let all these things go. “That’s the way things were back then, think of the context and don’t say a word.” Hogwash! Baloney! For the “context” folks, it seems that they think the entire world loved these stereotypes, had a good belly laugh and went on their innocent way. (In a particularly grating video introduction, Lillian Gish appointed herself spokesperson for all minorities and smugly assured viewers that this was indeed the case. I love Gish as an actress but if I were stuck in a room with her for more than five minute, I would likely start pelting her with M&Ms.)
Let me spell this out: The minority groups in question did notice, did complain and did sometimes force studios and censor boards to cut offensive material. This happened with The Cheat. Many Japanese-American viewers objected to being portrayed as branding iron-wielding rapists. With Castles for Two, Irish-American activists protested being portrayed as drunkards and liars. The NAACP made its displeasure at The Birth of a Nation abundantly clear. These are just a few examples.
In short, acting like these tropes and stereotypes were accepted and beloved by one and all shows an appalling lack of historical awareness. The people protesting these portrayals were not time travelers from our enlightened modern world. They were silent era moviegoers who objected to racism, classism and xenophobia.
Really, it’s a question of whether or not the studios took these protests seriously. Sometimes they did but it is true that racial and ethnic stereotypes were a popular way of getting laughs in the silent era, often over the complaints of those being made the butt of jokes. Because these stereotypes were so commonly used in place of character development, His People is a welcome breath of fresh air. I’m not saying that the film is free of tropes and stereotypes. As mentioned above, it certainly has its share. Rather, I am saying that the stereotypes used do not overwhelm the main characters, particularly the Cominsky parents. Further, the film has great affection for its characters. They are not treated as one-joke punchlines.
You see, that is the biggest problem with stereotypes; they rob characters of a chance to be human and to drive the story. Positive stereotypes may seem less offensive on the surface but they still reduce a character to what they are rather than who they are.
David Cominsky could have easily fallen into that trap. He is the central figure in the story, everything revolves around him and the audience’s belief that he is a beloved figure in his community. If the actor playing him had not been up to the task, he could have come off as unlikable or an overdone cliché. Instead, Rudolph Schildkraut takes the undiluted schmaltz and plays it with the delicate touch of an experienced performer.
His People marked his American film debut. It could hardly have been a better part. A round man with tiny feet, Schildkraut brings a cuddliness to his part. It’s easy to see that his bark is worse than his bite, though his sons do not seem to realize this. Schildkraut skillfully layers his performance, showing us David’s pride, his kindliness, his overzealousness in his quest to give his sons the best life he can. David is judgmental, hot-tempered and he doesn’t see the forest for the trees but he has a good heart underneath it all. I doubt a lesser actor could have juggled all these aspects.
(Spoiler) Schildkraut’s finest scene comes when he confronts Morris at the Stein’s home. He asks for his son to acknowledge him. Instead, Morris says that he has never seen him before in his life. The fiery David has no words or emotion capable of coping with the blow. He apologizes for coming to the wrong house and walks out, shell-shocked. Schildkraut expresses David’s pain eloquently through his eyes, his numb movements and his deflated posture. Director Edward Sloman recalled that even the most jaded members of the cast were reduced to tears. The scene is just as powerful today. (End spoiler)
Rudolph Schildkraut’s background is actually more akin to Sammy than David. He had grown up in a relatively religious household but had made his way to Vienna to become an actor. There he met his future wife, a rabbi’s daughter who had run away to the city to open a sandwich shop. After a slow start and nearly getting killed by an angry mob at a passion play when they discovered that the actor playing the Christ was Jewish (hey, no one said mobs were very bright), Schildkraut became one of the most celebrated Shakespearean actors of the German stage.
Schildkraut’s first known film role was in 1913. After that, he split his time between stage and screen in both Yiddish and German. Schildkraut’s only child, Joseph, had followed him into the acting business in Europe but was the first to appear to American movie audiences when he won the leading role in Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921). The elder Schildkraut appeared on the American stage a year later in The God of Vengeance, which he also directed. (The Schildkrauts had made several appearances in the Yiddish theaters of New York in the 1910s but the 1920s dates are often described as their American debuts.)
His People was Schildkraut’s first film in four years but he made quite an impression and his career was assured. He likely would have been one of the stage-trained talents to benefit from the coming of sound but he died of a heart attack in 1930 before he had a chance to appear in a talking film.
(You can learn more about Rudolph Schildkraut’s life in Joseph’s affectionate memoir, My Father and I.)
Director Edward Sloman later recalled that Schildkraut was a dream to work with. He instinctively understood what every scene needed and if he was growing a bit too hammy, Sloman would just say “Tighter, poppa, tigher,” and Schildkraut would rebalance his performance to hit the perfect note.
The cast of His People is absolutely stuffed with people who would enjoy long careers after the coming of sound. The most recognizable is probably venerable character actor Edgar Kennedy, who battled Harpo and Chico Marx in Duck Soup and who delivered some of the most Sturges-esque dialogue in Preston Sturges’ underrated ode to classical music and adultery, Unfaithfully Yours. However, Mr. Kennedy is not the only cast member who enjoyed a long career.
George J. Lewis is a bit dull as Sammy but he continued to work steadily in movies and television until 1969. Born in Guadalajara and bilingual, Lewis had major roles in English language B-films, serials, as well as leading roles in Spanish language pictures. In between these appearances, he often had small supporting roles in A-picture. How small? For example, he is credited in Casablanca as Haggling Arab Monkey Seller. A heavy of many a serial, he also played the hero’s father in Disney’s television version of Zorro. He is one of the most prolific “that guy” actors of the Golden Age.
Arthur Lubin overacts as Morris and is definitely the weakest performer in the main cast. Fortunately, he seemed to realize this as he soon abandoned acting for directing and was kept busy helming Abbott and Costello pictures, the Francis series and the Mister Ed television show. Best known for comedy, Lubin also tried his hand at horror (the 1943 Phantom of the Opera), orientalist fantasy (1944’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves), live action/animation hybrid (1964’s The Incredible Mr. Limpet), as well as a large share of westerns. He also awarded some guy named Clint Eastwood his very first movie contract.
As you can see, the background of the cast is almost as interesting as the film itself. Almost.
His People is a beautiful and touching film of family, loyalty and love. It presents an idealized view of the immigrant experience but the affectionate way it draws its characters is a welcome change from some of the stereotypes of mainstream studio released. Rudolph Schildkraut’s performance is one of the finest of the entire silent era. This movie is not to be missed.
Where can I see it?
His People was released on DVD by Grapevine, this release features an organ score.
So, we have discussed a mainstream studio film that concerns the loves and conflicts of a Jewish family with a noted stage star in the lead. Why not enjoy the same again, only this time the film is a talkie produced independently for Yiddish-speaking audiences.
Bar Mitzvah was made in 1935 and is the only surviving motion picture appearance of Boris Thomashefsky, often described as the founding fathers of the Yiddish theater in America. He was also an intriguing individual who may be described as colorful, to say the least. A boy soprano of note in Ukraine, he immigrated to America with his family as a child. While still a teenager, young Boris produced the first Yiddish theater presentation in the United States. He was the mastermind and chorus master. When the female lead pulled out at the last minute, Thomashefsky stepped in and took over her role as well.
As an adult, Thomashefsky possessed a beautiful baritone, he was equally at home playing men and women and he always put on his productions in the grandest style imaginable. (His wife, Bessie, later recalled that she learned everything she knew about being a seductive woman from Boris and his female roles.) The best was just good enough for a Thomashefsky production and his audience adored the glamor that went along with his productions. He owned his own theaters, where he put on productions that ranged from crowd-pleasers to fine art. (Never one to be humble, his credit for Hamlet declared that he had “translated and improved upon” Shakespeare’s original.) When Thomashefsky opened the first Yiddish theater to be located on Broadway, Schildkraut was one of the stars of the show.
Both Thomashefsky and Schildkraut were acclaimed for their acting but they were also famed for their womanizing ways. If you run into comedians of a certain age, you can still hear some of the jokes. (This is not an invitation to drag them out of the mothballs. We are a family friendly website.)
The Yiddish film industry had been plugging along for at least two decades at this point. It’s hard to place an exact marker on when it began as many records (not to mention the films themselves) have been lost. The earliest surviving film is a 1923 Austrian production, East and West, but there were films made for Yiddish-speaking audiences well before. Thomashefsky himself tried his hand at the movies in the mid-teens but none of his early work survives and very little information is available.
Bar Mitzvah is about a wealthy Polish businessman, Israel (Thomashefsky), who has just remarried. His first wife, Leah (Regina Zuckerberg, Thomashefsky’s longtime mistress), was lost at sea years before and has been declared legally dead.
Before you can say “Enoch Arden” it turns out that Leah is alive and returns on the eve of her son’s bar mitzvah. She is ready to depart again in order to avoid scandal but there is dirty business afoot. The new wife, Rosalie (Anita Chayes), plans to bleed Israel dry and escape with her lover. The fiend!
All is not tragic, though. Israel’s daughter has an eager suitor from America (Sam Colton). He speaks little Yiddish, she speaks even less English but they are determined to get married. They are darling.
In one particularly droll scene, Sam tries to ask Israel for his daughter’s hand in marriage and the traditional marriage blessing. Unfortunately, his Yiddish skills are not up to the task and he ends up instead asking for a flaky pastry, among other things.
Friendly and cute language jokes based on the mistakes of a novice speaker? Yes, please! Those are hilarious in any language. (Fun fact! English speakers learning Korean regularly ask for a nose bleed when they think they are ordering coffee.)
This is also as good a point as any to recommend Born to Kvetch by Michael Wex, a perfectly delightful and accessible introduction to Yiddish language and culture. It was a New York Times bestseller for a reason. Get it if you have any interest in Yiddish. Heck, get it even if you don’t. It’s absolutely hilarious.
The rest of the film concerns Leah having hysterics, Rosalie getting into a hilarious verbal sparring match with her new mother-in-law that ends with her being declared a Cossack, all while everyone else just trying to get through the bar mitzvah. It’s not giving much away to say that all ends with wine and song.
While Thomashefsky’s stage productions were pricy affairs, Bar Mitzvah has a rather low budget and boy does it show. The same walls are redressed again and again for different scenes. The acting is also a mixed bag, with Colton and Thomashefsky knocking it out of the park and Zuckerberg… well, not doing so well. Poor Benjamin Schechtman, who plays Yudele the bar mitzvah boy, is just painful in all his scenes.
The story relies heavily on coincidences and doesn’t seem committed to its own genre, the musical. Characters are going about their business when they suddenly turn around and say something like, “Hey, why don’t you sing me a Jewish song?” Literally. That is how the songs on introduced. Well, it’s direct anyway.
For all its issues, though, Bar Mitzvah is a great deal of fun to watch. There is just so much enthusiasm and warmth. While a few of the cast members are not up to par, the rest more than make up for this with their witty and lively performances.
The biggest flaw in the film is that it does not have nearly enough Thomashefsky. He only has one song and after hearing his rich, golden voice, I was hungry for more. Alas, more is not in the offing and we must content ourselves with what we have. What does he sound like? The nearest I can come up with is if you took a big bar of dark chocolate and somehow taught it to sing, it would sound like Thomashefsky.
Just have a listen for yourself:
Okay, here’s where I have to cut myself off. Boris Thomashefsky and his wife, Bessie, were instrumental in establishing the Yiddish theater in America. Both played innumerable roles, including Hamlet. (Are they the only husband/wife acting team that had BOTH spouses play the famous Prince of Denmark? Intriguing.) They lived big in every imaginable way.
In fact, they are so interesting that there is no way to fit their exciting lives into just a few paragraphs. If you are interested in knowing more, I highly recommend the glorious multimedia documentary/tribute created by their grandson, noted conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. It has authentic singing, dancing, humor and intriguing tales of the early days in the Yiddish theater. The whole thing is narrated by Thomas, whose adoration for his grandmother (his grandfather died before he was born) gives the production warmth and humanity. Good stuff and certainly the most entertaining education you will ever receive.
As for the film itself, Bar Mitzvah is a cornball but it’s a tasty cornball. Its plot is nuts, the direction is primitive but it cannot possibly be described as boring. This delight is definitely worth tracking down.
Availability: Bar Mitzvah is available on DVD exclusively through the National Center for Jewish Film. The organization is dedicated to the recovery and preservation of Jewish cinema from all over the world. They have rescued and restored quite a few silent films and early talkies and their DVD sales help them support this effort. Further, the NCJF is wonderful about making their collection available to the general public, something that is all too rare in film preservation circles. For these reasons, I highly encourage all fans of silent film to support this fine organization by making purchases or donations or by spreading the word.