A wealthy Polish-American businessman returns to the old country after a long absence. He brings along his spunky daughter (Yiddish stage legend Molly Picon), an irreverent practical joker and amateur pugilist. She wins the heart of a shy, dour Talmudic scholar (Picon’s real-life husband, Jacob Kalich) but when a mock wedding goes too far, they find themselves locked in an uncomfortable match. Will east and west ever find a way to bridge the divide?
All American girls box in their spare time. It is a proven fact.
When we think of silent and classic film, we often group the movies by country. That is understandable but it only accounts for the mainstream releases. In both the United States and Europe, there was a hidden industry: the films made by and aimed at minority groups. African-American filmmakers had been bringing their unique perspective to film, with Oscar Micheaux being the most famous director in this small club. Around the same time, the vibrant Yiddish theater began to experiment with putting its biggest stars on the screen.
Yiddish films (and, indeed, almost all minority-produced classic films) did not have the budgets of big studio offerings. Rather, they made up for lack of fancy sets and camera work with heart, humor, enthusiasm and, in the sound era, catchy songs.
East and West bears the distinction of being the earliest surviving Yiddish language film and the earliest recorded performance of Molly Picon. Casual viewers may recognize Picon as Yente the matchmaker in the 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof but she was also one of the most famous stars of the Yiddish stage.
An all-American girl, Picon’s beautiful singing voice, sprightly personality and tiny frame (she stood just 4’11”) had won her some notice in the United States. East and West was an Austrian production, how did she end up there? Well, Picon had journeyed to Europe in hope of improving her pronunciation. “The Yiddish I spoke was completely bastardized, and part of our plan was for me to learn correct Yiddish with its soft, guttural European accent.”
The plan worked. Picon’s fame grew in Europe and assured her of a warm welcome when she returned to America. She continued to split her time between her home country and the stages of Europe until the Second World War. In 1921, she made her motion picture debut in an Austrian production entitled The Jewish Girl. She followed it up with Watch for Your Daughters a year later. Both pictures are now considered lost. Her third movie was East and West. The plot is best described as The Oyster Princess meets Miss Lulu Bett with a dollop of Die Fledermaus. It also contained autobiographical details from both Picon and her co-star, husband-manager-author Jacob Kalich, whom everyone called Yonkel.
The story of immigrants making their way in America is an old one. Less common: Those same immigrants making good and then returning to their old country for a visit. This interesting clash of cultures is the center of East and West. Morris Brownstein (co-director Sidney M. Goldin) has shortened his name to Brown and has made a fortune as a clothing manufacturer. His daughter, Mollie (Picon), is a very American wild thing with three interests: Boxing, food and boys. In that order.
The Browns receive a letter from Morris’ brother, Mottel (Saul Nathan). It contains a wedding invitation. Father and daughter are ecstatic to visit Poland. But is Poland ready for them?
Once there, Mollie’s impish nature causes havoc in her uncle’s household. She reads paperback mystery novels during religious services, steals and eats the family’s chicken dinner when she is supposed to be fasting for Yom Kippur, dresses up as a boy and infiltrates men-only events, teaches the wedding choir to shimmy and shake, puts on her boxing gloves and punches the servants and then kind of ends up married…
You see, Mottel has offered lodging to a yeshiva scholar, Jacob (Kalich). Our young intellectual is brilliant but completely knotted up with shyness. He falls desperately in love with Mollie at first sight but hasn’t the courage or the social skills required to woo her and so he mopes. Our wild heroine has the attention of every last man in the vicinity and she doesn’t notice the dour fellow huddled in the kitchen with his nose in a book.
Mollie decides that she wants to try on a wedding for size and invites everyone to put on a mock ceremony. All they are missing is a man to stand in as the groom. Poor Jacob is targeted and hauled away from his books for the purpose. Mollie is having a grand time and demands that Jacob put the wedding ring on her finger.
What Mollie does not know—and Jacob does—is that once the ring is on the finger, the marriage is legally binding. It doesn’t matter if it was meant as a joke or not, it will stick. Jacob’s friends urge him to stop, the game has gone too far. Mollie is telling him to hurry with the ring. Jacob hesitates but impulse gets the better of him. He slides the ring onto Mollie’s finger.
Word quickly spreads that Mollie is now tied to a penniless scholar. Morris and Mottel demand an immediate divorce. The matter is brought before the rabbi and he concurs. Mollie had no idea what she was getting herself into but Jacob did. It would be unfair to hold her to such a marriage. To the surprise of all, Jacob refuses to grant a divorce. He refuses a payout from Morris, he disobeys the rabbi and he ignores the anger of his friends and neighbors. Jacob is in love with Mollie and he can’t give her up.
Of course, this is a pickle. Mollie doesn’t want to be married to Jacob and, to be honest, there is not much reason why she would. He is socially awkward, he hasn’t a bean and he has done absolutely nothing to win her love. The thing is, Jacob knows this too. He writes to his uncle in Vienna and asks to stay with him for a while. He leaves a letter for Mollie stating that he will give her a divorce in five years if she still wants one then.
So, can sophisticated Vienna turn our bookish misfit into the man of Mollie’s dreams? Well, this is a romantic comedy so…
The basic conflict of East and West stems from the differences between the brash Americans and the austere Poles. This war between secular and religious members of the same family would be used again and again in motion pictures, most recently in the 2004 German film Go for Zucker (Alles auf Zucker). That film concerns a former East German communist who is forced to share a house with his West German and highly devout brother in order to sit shiva after their mother dies. The problem? Our secular sibling has a huge pool tournament scheduled but religious customs dictate that he cannot leave the house of mourning except for matters of life and death. He spends the rest of the film faking heart attacks in order to escape his religious duties. The film was controversial in some circles and is quite tasteless at certain points. However, I tend to think that Molly Picon would approve.
As East and West was made in Austria, it is no surprise that Vienna is treated as the solution for what ails our odd couple. (Similarly, Hollywood productions of the period often solved everyone’s problems by having them move to America.) While the Americans are presented coarse and irreligious and the Poles are presented as humorless and starchy, the Austrians are presented as a sophisticated and able to balance religiosity with real world knowhow and elegance.
Jacob soon transforms himself from monkish nerd to poetic nerd. (I am glad he kept the nerd persona. Nerds need romance too.) I have to say that I found the movie’s treatment of Jacob’s reaction to his marriage to be refreshing. It doesn’t pretend that he did things the right way but it also does not make excuses for him. We are simply presented with how he deals with the matter. This echoes the sort of romantic comedies that Ernst Lubitsch was making in Germany with Ossi Oswalda (whom Molly Picon resembles).
The film also subverts one of the great tropes of the silent romantic comedy: The makeover. Many films in the ‘teens and twenties featured characters who lose their love (often their spouse) and are then spurred on by wise friends to do themselves over and win back the object of their affections. In East and West, Jacob is spurred to a makeover when he wins the woman of his dreams and the idea is all his own. His disagreement with the rabbi and the villagers helps him make the decision but the plan is his.
However, the solution to the problem is a little too pat. While I was willing to accept the deus ex machine of a convenient rich uncle in Vienna, I wish that the filmmakers had done a better job of showing Jacob’s makeover. I mean, one minute he’s a neurotic ‘fraidy cat and the next he is an urbane poet, a man of the world. I would have liked to have seen more of the process.
The same goes for his wooing of his own wife. Jacob uses his pen name to hide his identity and sets about chasing Mollie. She falls for him instantly. His dramatic before and after transformation makes this quite believable but I think a bit more time on the romance would have been nice.
The film’s low budget definitely shows but it is not distracting. As stated above, the main flaws could have been solved by adding fifteen minutes or so to the runtime. However, for the most part, this movie works very well.
While the supporting cast is generally very good (though Kalich overdoes his neurotic routine a bit), the show belongs to Molly Picon all the way. If you want to get technical, her character is not really the protagonist. Jacob is the character who moves the plot and he is the one who changes the most in the course of the story. However, just try to remember that as our energetic Picon straps on her boxing gloves and goes to war.
As I mentioned before, East and West contains some autobiographical details for Molly Picon and Yonkel Kalich. Like her movie counterpart, Picon was an American girl who knew next to nothing of traditional Jewish culture. She was touring with an English-speaking troupe when she found herself unemployed in Boston in 1918. The Spanish Influenza epidemic had closed theaters all over the city with one exception, the Boston Grand Opera House. The stranded Picon answered an ad calling for an actress to perform in one of the Yiddish productions being staged. She was granted an audition with the director and producer, Yonkel Kalich.
Like his movie counterpart, Kalich was a Polish intellectual who had pursued religious studies before being lured away by secular interests, acting in this case. He had immigrated to the United States and had continued his career in the theater.
Kalich hired Picon and a personal and professional partnership began. The pair married in 1919 and, other than one brief separation, remained devoted to one another until Kalich’s death in 1975. Yonkel Kalich and Molly Picon lived rich lives, full of creativity and good deeds. Their devotion to preserving the vibrant Yiddish language is perhaps their greatest contribution to world culture.
East and West is a darling film. While the plot flies off the rails near the finale, getting there is all the fun. Molly Picon is a dynamo and it is easy to see why she remains a beloved figure of the stage. This is a movie that manages to be both historically important and a smashing bit of entertainment. It is an ideal introduction to Yiddish cinema but it is also just an excellent comedy film.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
East and West was restored by the National Center for Jewish Film and is available exclusively through that organization. I should also note that the NCJF is doing wonderful work for silent film preservation and they are one of the few archives that makes almost all their content available to the general public. I strongly encourage silent film fans to support them in their efforts.