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Film Report: Yiddle with his Fiddle

Your Humble Blogger watched Yidl mitn Fidl the other night. It’s the classic Yiddish film, the most commercially successful talkie in Yiddish, with not one but two songs that became klezmer standards (or at least very popular songs to play and record), and of course, the defining role for Molly Picon, the Yiddish Helen Hayes (Helen Hayes, when hearing the title, said she always wanted to be the shiksa Milly Picon). So. I finally watched the movie. And it was… interesting.

OK, first of all, there’s a lot of great stuff. Molly Picon was wonderful— she’s playing a teenage (or so) young woman who spends most of the movie pretending to be a boy, and she is funny, sexy and utterly charming. So that’s all right. The two great songs (the title song and Oy, Mama, bin ish farlibt) are great songs, but the demands of the movie make the sound and performances less terrific than some of the other recordings. This is a common problem with songs that can be lifted out of shows, not just in Yiddish but in a lot of the early musical movies. Anyway, they are great songs. There’s also a terrific scene where the musicians help a bride run away from her arranged marriage, with the wedding guests dancing ecstatically and making so much noise that the klezmorim are able to slip away unseen (and more important, unheard). There’s also a lovely running gag with the clarinet player trying to tell stories of when he was in Vienna, or Tel Aviv, or Constantinople, when everybody knows he has never been out of Masovia. The clarinet player is a marvelous character, actually, though I had the impression that neither he nor the bass player (who is Yid’l’s father) had ever seen their instruments being played and had no idea what the process what supposed to look like. Also, neither of them were given enough to do, except in the drinking scene.

That drinking scene, by the way, is wonderful as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough: when Yidl gets up and totters across the room, I readied myself for an extended comic dance, but she just totters across the room and out of the scene, and then totters off to sleep in a haystack. Similarly, when Yidl makes her accidental theatrical debut, she tells a few jokes and reprises a few bars of the title song, but we would certainly have gone along with a full fledged song-and-dance. Given that Ms. Picon was more than capable of it, the disappointment was substantial.

Here’s another thing about the movie, a thing I have to admit I didn’t notice at all until I read a note about it later: there’s no anti-Semitism in the movie. Which, you know, given that it is set and filmed in Warsaw in 1936, is pretty remarkable. But then, there aren’t any non-Jews in the movie at all, and I’m pretty sure that not only does nobody speak any language other than Yiddish, there isn’t anything written in any other language. Not only are there no Poles or Russians or Austrians in the shtetl, which you might expect, there aren’t any in Warsaw! I can’t remember now, but I’m pretty sure that even on the boat to America (all movies end on a boat to America, don’t they?) the signs were in Yiddish.

I’m not sure that counts as an alternate universe, but it surely must have been escapism.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,