Director: Max Nosseck
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the annals of American independent filmmaking, there is little that is as rare and distinct as A.N.O. Productions’ Singing in the Dark. The production company initials are taken from the last names of the three principals who decided that 1956 America needed a real post-WWII Jewish movie—Joey Adams, Max Nosseck, and Moishe Oysher. These three star-struck Jews had comfortable, but fairly marginal careers in show business, and the experiences of each would find their way into the structure of this somewhat confused, but fascinating film that was only the second American film to have a Holocaust survivor at its center.
Adams (nee Abramowitz), who produced and stars in Singing in the Dark, was a writer and comedian who worked in vaudeville, the Borscht Belt circuit, and nightclubs, and attained some notoriety in New York for his “Strictly for Laughs” column in the New York Post. Nosseck, a German director who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, spent most of his career on Poverty Row making crime films—Dillinger (1945), for Monogram Pictures, is perhaps his best-known film. Last, but certainly not least, Oysher was one of the first celebrity cantors, unkosher in his hambone inclinations toward the stage and screen and jazzy inflections of cantorial repertoire; despite his desire for a big Hollywood career, he mainly recorded and toured, one foot in the secular and one in the sacred, and labored in Yiddish films, including one directed by a landsman well-known to cinephiles—Edgar G. Ulmer. Singing in the Dark is his only English-language film.
So what would you expect from a team like this? A lot of singing, a lot of Jewish-style humor, and some American-style gangsters to please the larger American public. What you’ll also recognize, particularly if you are Jewish, is a certain kind of feeling about Jewishness that I have not found in any other Holocaust-related film I’ve seen. These Jews don’t feel sorry for themselves. They may need help, but they accept it like normal people, not like supreme victims. And Oysher’s survivor is filled with a kind of generosity that cheers people up and attracts them to him; he is the personification of a benevolent god that Jews did not forsake even when they were so forsaken themselves.
The film begins in Germany. Stock footage shows the mass arrests and terrors of Nazism in a frenzied montage. Eventually we see a line of Jews being told to go left or right by a concentration camp guard. A man goes one way, the way toward life, and must watch his mother move toward death. His struggles to reach her earn him a beatdown off camera.
The film flashes forward to the end of the war. An American aid worker, Ruth (Phyllis Hill), is processing refugees who want to go to the United States. When she asks one man about himself, he stands quietly and shakes his head. Another man who was with him in a concentration camp says the man has no memory of who he is, and he and his fellow prisoners called him Leo. Ruth gives Leo an understanding look and says she’ll sort it out. The next scene shows a ship sailing toward New York. Leo and Ruth, now his girlfriend, step onto American soil together.
Leo gets a job as a desk clerk at a second-rate hotel with a failing nightclub called Luli’s Gypsy Paradise. Luli (Kay Medford) is seeing Joey Napoleon (Adams), a third-rate comic with a weakness for gambling. Joey, always hard up for money and owing a tough bookie named Biff Lamont (Lawrence Tierney, who also played the lead in Nosseck’s Dillinger) a lot of money, evades two of Lamont’s muscle men (Mickey Knox and Dave Starr) by telling them Leo is a millionaire and will pay off the debt. When they insist on getting Joey’s story confirmed, Joey tears Leo away from a dinner at the nightclub with Ruth and her uncle (Henry Sharp), a psychiatrist who has been helping Leo try to regain his memory. Leo, nervous about lying to the two thugs, starts drinking for the first time in his life. Lo and behold, he discovers he has a great singing voice that he can unleash when drunk. Joey, seeing a gold mine, signs on as Leo’s agent with a handshake and a quickly scrawled contract.
Leo becomes a headliner at Luli’s, garners rave reviews, and starts packing in the customers. Lamont demands that Joey hand over his napkin contract with Leo to square the debt, and then becomes worried that Leo, who is making progress with his amnesia, will stop singing if he learns the truth. Lamont plots to have Leo conked on the head to erase whatever he’s learned, but in an odd twist of circumstances, Lamont is mugged by his own enforcer (hilariously played by Abe Simon), and Leo, accidentally hit on the head by Joey, remembers everything.
The cheap and ugly sets and silly, threadbare plot certainly make this film far from a masterpiece. The vaudeville shtick, for example, Al Kelly doing his very impressive gibberish routine to the befuddlement of everyone in the film, as well as the audience, offers a bit of Marx Brothers anarchy. Joey Adams isn’t very funny, though I liked his banter with Medford, at her best as a hardbitten dame. Hill has little to do but gaze admiringly at Oysher while he sings and be a prim and proper girlfriend and wife as befits the characteristic prudishness of Jewish audiences.
Singing in the Dark is well worth seeing, however, for the singing and moving performance of Moishe Oysher. The film seems built around his nightclub performances of popular music, which are entertaining, if rather badly served by the cheap surroundings and limited camera work, and his flickering memories. In one powerful scene, Leo lays on the psychiatrist’s couch after receiving sodium pentathol, his eyes closed, his forehead beaded with perspiration, and tears welling in the corners of his eyes. He relates a memory of walking with his father to a place alit with candles, and a blackout takes us to this place, and an outline of a cantor (Oysher playing his own father) standing in the bima and singing a prayer Leo translates as one of peace. Leo remembers that he also sang in the same place for his proud parents, and how “they” came, took him away, and how he never saw his parents again. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this scene.
Scenes such as this, as well as an early one of Leo wandering through a bombed-out temple, were filmed on location in Berlin in the soon-to-be-razed Levetzow Synagogue by none other than Boris Kaufman, who filmed On the Waterfront and who only rarely gets a chance to stretch his skills in this film. Seeing this grand ruin, used as a Nazi deportation center during the war, powerfully and economically sums up the destruction of European Jewry. The temple’s fate under Allied bombs seems a fitting one for a place so defiled that it was a blessing to be put out of its misery.
It is only at the end of the film that the darkness lifts enough for Leo to see the Star of David on the wall of the great building and remember that his name is David and that he was a cantor. When he gives up show business to return to his sacred work with the happiness of knowing who he is, he seems serene, untroubled by his harrowing experiences. While this is rather simplistic, and out of step with Oysher’s real career that toggled between the theatre and the synagogue, I felt rather exhilarated to see a Holocaust survivor find comfort in the one thing that made him a target for annihilation. It has always seemed such a paradox to me that centuries of persecution and murder had not turned Jews away from their beliefs long ago, but this film offers a glimpse of how life-sustaining those beliefs could be. I’m not a believer myself, but I rejoice in the beauty of Jewry this dedicated group of filmmakers unself-consciously revealed to the world.