It is rare that I have the opportunity to blog about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Literally. This morning though, for a couple hours anyway, I experienced a piece of film I thought I would never see on the big screen in my entire life and the experience had personal ramifications for me.
The 80th Anniversary showing of Mamele by the Jewish Film Festival of Atlanta, shared with its audience an obscure Yiddish film from 1938 that has the distinction of being the last Yiddish movie produced in Poland before the start of WW2. The production starred famous American Jewish actress/singer, Molly Picon, and was directed by Joseph Green and Konrad Tom.
The movie has special significance for me because I use the production of the movie in a script I just finished. Little did I realize that two weeks after finishing the draft of the script, I would have a chance to see the film on a big screen. The film was restored in 2013 and for all I know, this is the first time its been shown in Atlanta since then. I wasn't kidding about that once-in-a-lifetime thing.
Now, I admit, I figured that a 1938 Yiddish film no one had heard of, with an 11 a.m. Sunday morning showing, was probably going to sell only half-dozen tickets to die-hard film buffs. Man, was I wrong! Forty minutes before screening and the line of ticket holders wound around the cinema lobby. That the film was practically sold-out brought unexpected cheer to me because in a way, I knew people in my script were being honored at that moment, even if the audience didn't realize what befell the cast and people behind the scenes who were involved with this movie.
The movie itself - which I had never seen before - proved a gem. What you saw was a glimpse of life before the war. Green had a tendency to try and film in real locales and to use locals as extras. He was based in Warsaw, (though this story takes place in Lodz), and they would trot all over Poland to capture the feel of the script. The effort here was successful and with the city overview at the opening, I realized I was witnessing places and culture that a year later would be totally destroyed.
There is a real Chaplin feel to this movie and Picon used her Vaudeville chops to the hilt as she played a younger daughter who runs her family of six after her mother dies. The rest of the family gives her little thought and treats her more as a servant until she falls in love with a neighborhood boy and leaves. Along the way, part of the family is tricked by a mobster and other relationships go stale. Humor keeps the drama light and moving, including one bit where Picon uses a fallen off door knob to pretend she has a gun to get the mobster to write a confession. It had the audience laughing.
Picon was known for her voice as much as her acting. This really isn't a musical but there are about half-dozen songs scattered through the movie, including a rather beautiful duet with the co-star her character falls in love with along the way.
The music also leads to one of the most brilliant pieces I have seen in a while. Somewhere along the two-thirds mark, Picon is looking at a photo album when she breaks into a song. But Green uses the opportunity to zoom in on the pictures (of Picon being her mother) and at different ages she sings about the passing of life and dancing. At eight she was dancing with her feet. At 21 with her hips. At forty-something with her hands and in her eighties with her mind. I could feel the audience around me being emotionally moved by this poignant rendition. The ingenuity and timing of that scene stood out from the rest of the film. It was brilliant for its time and would have shone in a movie shot yesterday.
I had few complaints about this movie-going experience. Characters in my script, that I had hoped to see, weren't in this restored edition. I do know there are short outtakes in Warsaw that can be seen at tourist sites there. That hope of capturing them while they were alive in the background somewhere was a long-shot from the start.
It would have been nice if the Jewish Film Festival had given more details about the film when presenting it. The lady doing the introduction was fine - don't misunderstand me - but I would've liked to known more about the film itself, like how it was saved or restored, maybe which actors survived the war and who didn't. That TCM kind of trivia movie buffs like me eat up. There were no details shared and that was a shame.
If you would like a glimpse into pre-war Poland, particularly Jewish life, this is the film to see. It is delightful and can be bought (I do believe) off Amazon. I give it a 5/5. This was definitely a highlight of my year.