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An international hit, and in Yiddish

Molly Picon starred in the 1936 film that took Yiddish cinema global. It gets a rare showing.

August 22, 2004|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

The film that put Yiddish cinema on the map nearly 60 years ago is getting a rare public showing next Sunday at Cinespace in Hollywood. Avada, a project of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, an organization that promotes Yiddish language and culture, is presenting the 1936 Yiddish classic "Yidl Mitn Fidl."

Between 1929 and 1950, 40 to 50 Yiddish films were produced in America and shown primarily in New York and other major cities along the Eastern seaboard with large Jewish populations. But the most successful Yiddish films were produced in Poland between 1935 and 1939.

And for good reason. The audience for these films was substantial. Before World War II, a third of the population of the big cities of central Poland was Jewish -- 380,000 Jews resided in Warsaw. And Jews made up 50% to 70% of the population of small cities, especially in eastern Poland.

The Polish Yiddish films "were made over a shorter period of time, but they were less marginal" than the American Yiddish films, says Village Voice critic Jim Hoberman, who wrote the 1991 history "Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds."

" 'Yidl' was one of the highest-grossing films in Poland in 1936, and it was successful in the U.S. Even more than that, it was an international hit. The predominant audience for it was a Jewish audience, but it did circulate throughout Europe, South Africa and Australia."

Molly Picon, star of the New York Yiddish theater, plays Yidl, a young, feisty fiddler who joins her father's band, which travels the Polish countryside. Because of concerns over the attention she will attract as a girl, the pint-sized Yidl disguises herself as a boy. But trouble ensues when she falls in love with the band's clarinet player.

Joseph Green, who was a Yiddish actor in America, directed the film. "He always had a good business sense," says Hoberman. "He became a producer and a business manager. He actually made a lot of money, relatively speaking, by dubbing some silent films into Yiddish -- silent films with Jewish themes. They were shown in the U.S., but he toured with them in Poland, where they had a much greater success."

Because of the popularity of these films, says Hoberman, Green got the idea of going back to Poland to make Yiddish films. "He realized your money went much further in Poland," says Hoberman. "The Yiddish films in the U.S. were all made in the margins of the industry, but in Poland they came out of the Polish film industry. So for not even that much more [than in America], he could make a movie with the best studios and technicians. In the late 1930s, Poland was trying to protect its own film industry. The production values in his films are comparable to the production values of any Polish films."

Green's strategy was to import American Yiddish stars to appear in his films. There was none bigger than Picon, a superstar in New York. "She was effervescent," says Hoberman.

"Shows would be written to showcase her. She was kind of a flapper, in a way, when she was young," he says. "She was not a traditional figure. She was contemporary in the context of Yiddish theater."

Picon, born in 1898, didn't make her first English-language film until 1963, in the comedy "Come Blow Your Horn." She is best known for her performance as Yente the matchmaker in the 1971 film version of "Fiddler on the Roof." Her last performances were on television's "The Facts of Life" and the TV movie "Grandma Didn't Wave Back" in 1984. She died at age 94 in 1992.


`Yidl Mitn Fidl'

Where: Cinespace, 6356 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: Next Sunday at 6:30 and 8:45 p.m.

Price: $10 at door

Contact: (323) 817-3456

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