Rosie is a girl living in New York who falls for Tom, the boy next door. Neither family is thrilled with the romance but what can you do when two crazy kids just want to fall in love? Well, in this case, the answer is to engage in slapstick and as many ethnic stereotypes as will fit into the runtime. This film is part of a very curious subgenre, one that helped create copyright law as we know it.
Why, we can insult twice as many people this way!
One of the things I love about watching old movies is spotting patterns and fads. For example, the Russian Revolution Romance craze of the twenties and thirties, the “bumpkin trying to break into pictures” comedies, the dozens of variations of Die Fledermaus starring everyone from Emil Jannings to Charley Chase… Well, here’s one you may never heard of. Have you heard tell of the great stampede for Irish-Jewish wedding films?
The formula is simple. Take two nice New York kids in their late ‘teens or early twenties, one Irish and the other Jewish. Have them fall in love (or have everyone believe they are in love) and watch the fireworks from their appalled families. Because our young things always have families who exist solely to display as many ethnic stereotypes as can be jammed onto the frame.
How common was this plot? Well, just take a gander at these films.
First, we have Viola Dana playing an Irish girl whom everyone believes is dating a nice Jewish boy in Kosher Kitty Kelly (1926), produced by Joseph Kennedy. He also produced Clancy’s Kosher Wedding the following year. The plot should be fairly obvious from the title. In Private Izzy Murphy (1926), our hero is passing as Irish and falls for an Irish girl but must fight for his love when his Jewish background is revealed. The Cohens and Kellys (1926) was all about more feuding families and kids in love. This movie proved to be so popular that it was deemed worthy of five sequels. I will be discussing what spawned this extremely specific fad but first let’s examine the film being reviewed.
The Shamrock and the Rose was released in 1927 by Chadwick pictures. This is the same crew that brought us the 1925 version of The Wizard of Oz. Oh dear. (Contrary to popular belief, Chadwick was not bankrupted by Oz. The film did pretty well for an independent production but it could not overcome the block booking stranglehold that the major studios had implemented.)
The story involves two families living next door to one another in New York. The Kellys are Irish and own a hot dog business. The Cohens are Jewish and own a sweet shop called Ice Cream Cohens. (Okay, that’s actually cute.) The oldest kids of the two families are Rosie (Olive Hasbrouck) and Tom (Edmund Burns) and they have fallen in love.
Our young couple keeps their romance a secret because they know that their parents will not approve. Mr. Kelly (Mack Swain) and Mr. Cohen (William H. Strauss) are particularly antagonistic with Cohen setting up booby traps for his neighbor and Kelly keeping a Yiddish dictionary in his pocket so that he can figure out when he has been insulted and seek appropriate revenge. (Okay, I also grant that the dictionary joke is cute.)
Mrs. Cohen (Rosa Rosanova) is always ready to come to her husband’s defense with her trusty broom, while Mrs. Kelly (Dot Farley) nurses a soft spot for Mr. Cohen, which doesn’t sit well with any of the other spouses.
Finally, each family is blessed with a bratty younger son. Sammy (Leon Holmes) is a supervillain in the making while Mickey (Coy Watson) follows his lead. The pair discover their older sister and brother canoodling by the lake and immediately engage in petty blackmail. A dime for their silence, not a penny less!
Of course, the secret soon gets out and there is the usual “I have no son/daughter!” business on both sides. The sage advice of Rabbi Naser (Otto Lederer) and Father O’Brien (Maurice Costello) is ignored and estrangement abounds. Can our young couple win over one another’s respective families?
The story is a one-joke premise that quickly runs out of steam, with all the best gags (and the term is relative) used in the first ten minutes and nothing remaining to sustain the other three-quarters of an hour that remains. The entire climax of the picture relies on the Cohens not noticing that one of their next-door neighbors is with child. Given the way the families are obsessed with one another, I find the scenario highly unlikely.
The dull pace would be bad enough on its own but it is punctuated with some truly tacky humor. Some samples of the title card writer’s so-called wit:
Matters are made worse by the shameless mugging by some of the performers. Someone in the silent era was spreading the notion that if one is playing a Jewish character, one most hold an open hand to the face and roll one’s eyes while rocking the head back and forth.
We get scenes of Sammy obsessing over money and actually kissing a quarter at one point, then we see Mr. Kelly struggling to read a simple telegram and being taken by a conman. Just for good measure, we also get a bit of humor at an African-American extra’s expense. Why no jokes about Finns, movie? How could you leave Yugoslavia uninsulted? You didn’t want to take a stab at, say, Samoans or the Masai? What’s wrong with you?
Seriously, it’s like someone had a Stale Ethnic Joke (SEJ) quota and was trying to stuff in as many offensive gags as they could manage. The Jewish family bears a slightly larger share of the ethnic humor, with wildly offensive title cards and weird dialect pushed into their mouths. We get jokes about Jewish characters being cheap, dishonest, greedy… In turn, the Irish are presented as illiterate, ignorant, violent and more than a little dim.
(Why does Rosie’s little brother “speak” with a heavy accent while she has none? She is a good decade older and one would think she would have more of the old country’s ways. Oh, sorry. I was looking for logic.)
The few jokes that do work are either reasonably neutral puns (Ice Cream Cohens) or are based on linguistic coincidences (Kelly and Cohen arguing over whether a song is about Erin or Aaron) but generally, the film takes the easiest, laziest gags it can lay its mitts on.
Coy Watson is darling as Mickey (I highly recommend his memoirs, The Keystone Kid: Tales of Early Hollywood, by the way) and I always like Mack Swain, even though his part is thinly written. The rest of the cast gets buried by the script and intertitles, even the usually very good Rosa Rosanova.
The entire movie is clearly a low budget affair. New York City is represented by the storefronts of our two families and their back yards. Other than one scene in a park, the entire movie takes place at the homes of the Cohens and Kellys or at the hospital. The hospital actually looks like a redressed parlor set. Of course, low budgets can be forgiven if there is something else to compensate. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t have anything to offer besides jokes that were hoary in 1907, let alone 1927.
The craze for Irish-Jewish wedding pictures can be traced directly back to a play that had all of New York talking, and not in a good way. Abie’s Irish Rose opened in 1922 and told the tale of a sweet Irish girl who marries a nice Jewish boy and the difficulties both encounter with their respective families. Finally, a priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into the house… No, really, that’s how things get settled! Everyone’s holy man takes a hand and it’s happily ever after.
The concept of building an entire movie or play around the “Jewish and Irish families intermarry, hilarity ensues!” plot device was a shopworn property when the play opened in 1922. From the 1900s on, dozens of humorous sings dealt with misalliances between Irish and Jewish lovers. These songs had one-joke titles like Moysha Machree (1916), My Yiddisha Colleen (1911), Abie Sings an Irish Song (1913), and at least nine songs named after Abie’s Irish Rose, the play that transferred the Irish-Jewish wedding fad to the movies. Inexplicably popular, Abie’s Irish Rose ran for five years and thousands of performances. (You can read more about the song fad in Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish: How Yiddish Songs and Synagogue Melodies Influenced Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood.)
While the play was a solid hit, the critics tore into it ruthlessly. In fact, the most creative thing to come out of the simmering stew of ethnic clichés was the collection of capsule reviews by Life theatre critic Robert Benchley, whose exasperated quips against the play included “The comic spirit of 1876” and “Will the marines never come?” Harpo Marx helpfully added that the play was “No worse than a bad cold.” Benchley and Marx were not in the minority. The play was roundly savaged as unoriginal and skating on the edge of offense.
This lack of creativity came back to bite playwright Anne Nichols. When Universal made a very close imitation of Abie’s Irish Rose called The Cohens and Kellys, Nichols sued them for copyright infringement and a couple of trials followed. An appellate court found in Universal’s favor and Judge Learned Hand (real name) delivered quite a wicked burn to Nichols:
“It is indeed scarcely credible that she (Nichols) should not have been aware of those stock figures, the low comedy Jew and Irishman. The defendant has not taken from her more than their prototypes have contained for many decades. If so, obviously so to generalize her copyright, would allow her to cover what was not original with her. But we need not hold this as matter of fact, much as we might be justified. Even though we take it that she devised her figures out of her brain de novo, still the defendant was within its rights.”
In other words, her characters are so stereotyped and unoriginal that she can hardly claim ownership of them. Ouch.
The case is actually very important as it lays down general guideline of what can and cannot be copyrighted. That’s why direct-to-video copycats of major motion pictures are able to be released. Archetypes, stereotypes, tropes, genres and well-known plot devices cannot be copyrighted because to do so would be claiming ownership over something that was not invented by any one entity. This is why lawsuits filed against prominent authors and movie studios rarely succeed, even when there seems to be some merit to the plaintiff’s claims.
Simply put, the bar for infringement is set pretty high and for good reason. As publishers and studios get unsolicited works sent to them all the time, not to mention producers and directors having friends and total strangers alike shove scripts their way, it is inevitable that some coincidental overlap in content will occur. (And this, by the way, is why unsolicited scripts are usually returned unread.)
But back to that creaky, profitable play! What was next for Abie’s Irish Rose?
The inevitable occurred during the sound transition. The play that started the film fad was finally turned into a part-talkie in 1928 with Buddy Rogers as Abie, Nancy Carroll as his rose and Victor Fleming directing. (The Library of Congress has an incomplete 35mm print of the film and the BFI archive is listed as holding footage as well, though it does not specify whether or not their print is complete. In any case, the film adaptation came near the end of the Irish-Jewish wedding movie fad.)
What flew in 1928 (barely) did not go over so well in 1946 when Abie’s Irish Rose was remade. The film prompted protests from moviegoers and activists, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, who were in no mood to see the old immigrant tropes trotted out. Abie’s Irish Rose, along with Disney’s notorious Song of the South, were targeted by Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. as being racially insensitive and “a black eye” for the American film industry. He called for New York police to close down showings of both films. (You can read more about the events surrounding the controversy in Disney’s Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence, and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South.)
The film was Joanna Dru’s first. It was very nearly her last. I have not seen it (few have, from what I can tell), it has not been released on home media and seems to be rarely if ever screened at festivals. The only copy I can find a record of (and keep in mind that not all archives put their lists of holdings online) is on 16mm and held by the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
The Shamrock and the Rose is mostly interesting because of the history that surrounds it. The film itself is a copy of a copy of a badly-written collection of ethnic stereotypes. The seams show. There are a few cute puns to be had, the kids are darling but much of the humor is just too coarse, hackneyed and racist to fly with modern viewers. Before we get the usual bleating of “think of context!” I refer you back to Mr. Benchley. These ethnic clichés were not welcome in the 1920s. They are even less so today.