What’s a Jewish film? My definition is quite simple. It is a film that deals with Jewish subject matter. Thus, Woody Allen does not make Jewish films. In truth, Hollywood movies that do deal with Judaism are quite rare. Take a look at the subject headings in Netflix. There is no category for Jewish films.
However, there are now quite a few interesting indie films on Amazon Prime and Netflix that deal seriously or humorously with Jewish subject matter. But those movies will be the subject of a future blog post. I’m also planning a blog post about Yiddish films, a fascinating genre.
For now, I’d like to bring your attention to a few obscure Jewish Hollywood films that can usually be found on TCM. And if you’re lucky, some may show up on You Tube.
1. Hungry Hearts, 1922, is based on the short stories of Anzia Yezierska, the first writer to bring stories of American Jewish women to a mainstream audience. This is the story of the Levin family who emigrate from Eastern Europe to New York City’s Lower East Side. Abraham, the religious father, is hopeless when it comes to making a living. His daughter Sara scrubs floors in order to earn money and “become a somebody.” The mother Hannah, scrimps and saves to paint her dingy kitchen only to have the cruel landlord raise the rent because of the improvements.
This fascinating, early silent film was produced in a Hollywood studio but the street scenes were shot on location on the Lower East Side in New York City.
2. The Jazz Singer is the landmark 1927 movie starring Al Jolson that was Warner Brothers first sound film, an adaptation of a hit Broadway musical. This is a film that is greatly appreciated by fans of classic film—it features the Yom Kippur liturgy. It also feature Al Jolson in black face which might start a riot if ever screened on a college campus.
3. The Younger Generation, 1929, a silent film directed by the great Frank Capra. Story of a social-climbing Jewish man, played by Ricardo Cortez, b. Jacob Kranz, and his old-world parents who are heartbroken by their son’s rejection of family and Judaism.
4. The Yellow Ticket, a 1931 film directed by Raoul Walsh starring Laurence Olivier, Lionel Barrymore and Elissa Landy, is the story of a young Jewish woman from a shtetl who must secure a Yellow Ticket in order to reach St. Petersburg to visit her dying father. But the Tsarist issued Yellow Ticket is only given to prostitutes, and Landi plays a virginal school teacher. This film is rarely screened but is a must-see for those who are interested in the image of Jews in Hollywood movies.
5. Symphony of Six Million, 1932, again starring Ricardo Cortez, with Irene Dunne before she emerged as a brilliant screwball comedienne. Based on a novel by Fanny Hurst this is the story of a brilliant Jewish doctor—is there any other kind—who turns his back on his poor Jewish patients in favor of uptown society swells. The six million of the title refers to Manhattan’s population at the time the film was produced. This film is notable for including a scene of the Pidyon Ha-Ben, Redemption of the First Born, the only time, to my knowledge, this ancient Jewish ritual has appeared in a Hollywood film.
6. Straight is the Way, 1934. Franchot Tone as tough Jewish kid who gets out of prison and tries to go straight on the crime-ridden Lower East Side. This is a gangster film with a Jewish conscience. Look for the scene where Tone’s mother lights the Shabbat candles.
7. The Juggler, 1953. One of the earliest Hollywood films shot in Israel starring Kirk Douglas, b. Issur Danielovitch, This is a lovely and wrenching film that depicts the drama of a Holocaust survivor who moves to the newly formed state of Israel where he glimpses his wife and children—who were murdered by the Nazis.
It’s important to remember that the founders of the American movie industry were poor Jewish immigrants who brought their memories and experiences to the fledging art form thereby paying homage to the struggle and identity of the 20th century Jew.