9th 04 - 2013 | 23 comments »

Taxi! (1932)

Director: Roy Del Ruth

James Cagney Blogathon

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This post is part of the James Cagney Blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector.

There aren’t many actors with as defined and recognizable a screen persona as James Cagney. From his eccentric dancing in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) to his maniacal boast “Made it, Ma. Top of the world,” from White Heat (1949) and his star-making turn as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1930), which contained his most indelible moment—shoving half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s kisser—Cagney stands out like the genius performer he was to even the most casual film fan. Many people are familiar with the line “You dirty rat,” a stand-by for impressionists doing their best to imitate Cagney. That line, always misquoted, was actually “You dirty, yellow-bellied rat,” and it came from the film under consideration here, Taxi! The film is fairly typical fare from Warner Bros.: action-packed, urban, socially conscious, a scrappy central love affair between the lead performers, a comic secondary love affair between two character actors. Yet it has some interesting characteristics well worth closer examination: the toolbox of acting techniques Cagney developed from real life, the Irish-Jewish connection so common in the early decades of cinematic history, and scenes that harken back to the days before moving pictures talked.

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The story of Taxi! borrows from Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928), but instead of the consolidation of New York’s street cars, Taxi! concerns itself with the attempt of a taxicab company to drive independent cabbies out of business. As befits the pre-Code 1930s, Taxi! is more violent. In Speedy, the streetcar company merely tries to make Pop Dillon break his city contract by missing a day’s run, whereas Consolidated Cab, under orders from strong-arm boss Buck Gerard (David Landau), actually wrecks rival cabs—the film’s opening scene shows a metal worker fitting a Consolidated cab with steel beams under the wheel fenders to use as battering rams. Taxi! is also more topical, with Cagney’s character Matt Nolan preaching violent retaliation to an assembly of independent cabbies against the pleas to negotiate union-style terms by Sue Riley (Loretta Young), the daughter of a cabbie (Guy Kibbee) who went to prison for shooting the man who wrecked his cab. The fireworks of disagreement fan the attraction between Sue and Matt, and the two eventually marry.

What is so interesting about Taxi! is that it presents the complete Cagney: the tough guy, the lover, the dancer, and the mime. The latter isn’t something one necessarily thinks of when reviewing Cagney’s career, but his dancer’s background makes him a great physical actor. Director Roy Del Ruth, a silent film veteran, enjoys focusing on the wordless chemistry between Matt and Sue. Early on, Sue runs up the steep stairway to the elevated train, away from Matt, his friend Skeets (George E. Stone), and his brother Danny (Ray Cooke). The camera focuses on the backs of her legs, her stocking seams pointing toward parts more interesting, until Skeets finally says what our eyes have told us, “She’s got a great set of pins!”

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When Sue and Matt have a fight, a pantomime routine brings them back together. Matt throws his hat through Sue’s open door. She looks at the name in the hat band and signals to her friend Ruby (Leila Bennett) with just a nod that she will see him. Matt comes in. Sue turns away, as Matt silently cajoles. When they break their silence, Sue says something rude to Matt. He grabs her by the neck, puts a fist near her face and says, “If I thought you meant it,” and then kisses her. The last gesture was taken straight from Cagney’s father, one of many appropriations the actor would make from people he observed.

Perhaps to contrast the elegant simplicity of these gestures, Ruby is a chatterbox with one of the world’s most annoying voices. Methinks Del Ruth was making a bit of a comment on the annoyance of shooting with sound. Nonetheless, the director knew how to use sound economically to great effect. In a scene of two cars motoring urgently toward the hideout of Gerard—one bearing Matt to kill him for murdering Danny and the other carrying Sue, racing to try to prevent it—all we hear are the different pitches of the car engines in quick cross-cutting that builds to the film’s climax.

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Del Ruth had a sophisticated approach to his material that favored realism even while giving audiences what they wanted. He knew how to position the camera to show Cagney in all his fury, shooting him straight on with the pitiless look in his eyes the public craved. He shot a musical number, but avoided the usual production number obviousness that might have come from fellow director Mervyn LeRoy by making it a nightclub act and cross-cutting with Matt and Sue canoodling at a table as they celebrate their marriage earlier in the day. He also inserts a dance contest where Sue and Matt lose to a young woman and her dance partner (George Raft, in his screen debut), offering a bit of music while establishing Matt’s hot temper, which will drive a wedge between him and Sue and lead to tragedy.

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In an unusual tip of the hat to realism, an early scene has Matt listening to a Jew speak in Yiddish to an uncomprehending Irish cop. Cagney went to school with Jews and was fluent in the language. When he cuts in to the conversation and susses out what the man wants, he says to the man in Yiddish, “Did you think I was a gentile?” and replies to the cop’s skeptical question, “Nolan! What part of Ireland did you come from?” with a Yiddish-inflected, “Delancey Street,” a street Jews settled when they came to New York. At the time this film was made, Jews and Irish shared a similar experience as working-class immigrants who were near the lowest rung of American society, and as such, they were often paired in movies to suggest a social milieu audiences would identify immediately. With a plot built around the plight of the independent worker in a society that was fixed to favor big business, this suggestion of working-class solidarity would have driven home the social message with the subtlety that distinguishes this film and makes it relevant today. There is even a divorce to wrestle with.

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Cagney and Young are a very attractive couple who run hot and cold with believable intensity. Any actress who can hold her own with Cagney has my respect, but in fact, Young was making pictures before Cagney ever set foot on a sound stage (she has a cameo in Her Wild Oat [1927]). Some of my favorite character actors, like Guy Kibbee and David Landau, turn in affecting performances, and there is even a treat for fans of The Public Enemy. Matt and Sue double-date with Ruby and Skeets to see “Her Hour of Love,” a dummy film starring Donald Cook, who lost the part of Tom Powers to Cagney, settling for the part of Tom’s brother instead. When Sue praises Cook’s romantic technique, Cagney bests him again by giving Sue a passionate kiss that would curl anyone’s toes. The whole scene is a bit of a commercial for Warner Bros. (they also advertise John Barrymore’s The Mad Genius [1932] with a poster and a bit of dialogue) and a vintage bit of insider referencing for cinephiles that I adored.

James Cagney has a huge body of work, but for me, his work in the ’30s is unparalleled. The roiling social conditions, the frontier aspects of working with sound for the first time, and the pre-Code freedom filmmakers took full advantage of make many ’30s films unique treasures. Taxi! is one of them.


4th 09 - 2011 | 8 comments »

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (2011)

Director: Joseph Dorman

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Regular Ferdy on Films readers will know of my ongoing struggle with my Jewish heritage and identity. An atheist, I nonetheless feel an attachment, if not to my religion, then to the unique cultural background of Ashkenazi Jewry that I have only a glancing knowledge of through my first-generation American parents and relatives. I become impatient with those whose pity for the Ashkenazi Jews who perished in the Holocaust tends to cast Jews as eternal victims. Yet, my awareness of Jewish vulnerability through the centuries is entwined with my own family history—I lost the whole Polish branch of my family in Auschwitz, and my mother used to tell me stories about her “skinny bubbie,” who used to share her childhood bed and scream in her sleep as she warded off the shadows cast by the pogroms she suffered in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe. Try as I might, I have found myself too far removed in time and temperment from the seminal experiences that defined modern Jewry to really make sense of what it means to me to be Jewish.

That changed, swiftly and painfully, as I watched the unlikely documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness. I say unlikely because the film’s subject, Sholem Rabinovitz, aka Sholem Aleichem, born and raised in a Jewish shtetl under Tsarist rule, lived from 1859 to mid 1916—definitely not in the sweet spot for a cinematic documentary. That director Joseph Dorman not only decided to go ahead anyway, but also found some strategies to help bring this story alive has resulted in a film that packs an emotional wallop.

Sholem Aleichem is the nom de plume and persona of the most famous Yiddish writer in the world, as well as the person who made writing in Yiddish acceptable. Writing in Yiddish, he said, was meshugeh (crazy). Jewish writers felt that only Hebrew was proper, and Sholem Rabinovitz was an admirer of the great Russian literature of his time, particularly Tolstoy and Turgenev, and aspired to its heights. Yet, Yiddish was the language of his heart and the only suitable way to address his subject matter. Through his countless short stories and novels, he became the chronicler of shtetl life and ushered in a golden age of Yiddish expression that even won favor in the atheist and anti-Semitic Soviet Union, until Stalin’s paranoia brought it to an abrupt and tragic end in the 1950s.

Even if you have never read a word by Sholem Aleichem, you know his most famous creation—Tevye the Dairyman. This pious character confused by changes to his traditional way of life was the center around which composer Jerry Bock, playwright Joseph Stein, and lyricist Sheldon Harnick built the wildly popular musical Fiddler on the Roof, often using the language of the writer himself to tell the story. Dorman begins his documentary with a clip from the 1971 film of the musical, with Topol dancing down a dirt road singing “Tradition.” I doubt anyone who chooses to see this film needed this prompt about Sholem Aleichem as a figure of wide significance, but Dorman cleverly returns to this film and an earlier Yiddish version from 1939 to show how alterations to the original story reveal how the Jewish community was redefining itself over time.

The life and times of Rabinovitz are recounted with a surprising thoroughness for a 93-minute film. Rabinovitz’s childhood in the Pale was a happy one—his father was prosperous, and Sholem felt confident and accepted as a result. Unfortunately, his father was swindled by a business partner, and the Rabinovitz family lost everything; at age 13, Sholem also lost his mother in a cholera epidemic. His father found a new woman, but afraid to reveal that he had 12 children, he parceled them out to relatives and recalled them to his home slowly during the first year of his second marriage. Sholem’s stepmother seems to have been a shrew, but she was a great source of epithets, which he gathered into a glossary of curses that would serve him well when he became a writer.

As a young man, he was hired to tutor the only daughter of a wealthy Jewish land owner. When the pair fell in love, Sholem was dismissed. He and Olga eloped after Sholem found steady work and settled in Kiev; their financial circumstances became more secure after Olga’s father died and left her his fortune. Nonetheless, Sholem was attracted to the thrills of playing the stock market and ended up losing everything, declaring bankruptcy, and fleeing the country. His mother-in-law agreed to settle his debts so that he could return to Kiev, but she never spoke to him again.

To support his large family, he wrote short stories at the rate of one or two a week for publication in the Yiddish newspapers that spread his fame throughout the world. At the same time, Jews were scapegoated after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, with vicious pogroms taking lives, destroying property, and sending frightened Jews scattering out of the Pale. In 1905, Sholem and his family went into hiding for three days to escape a pogrom in Kiev; he left for the United States with his wife and youngest son soon after, where he was determined to be a successful playwright of the Yiddish theatre. Instead, his plays were scathingly attacked by young Jews who could not relate to his tales of the shtetl, and he left New York, vowing never to return. A peripatetic life in Western Europe would be his lot until he was forced to flee Germany when World War I broke out; he reluctantly had to return to New York, where he died. His funeral was the largest for a private citizen the city—and the country—had ever known, with his coffin wheeled through every Jewish neighborhood in the city.

We get this chronology, but it is filtered through Sholem Aleichem’s writing. Dorman chooses still photos of two nameless Jews to stand in for Sholem Aleichem’s first enduring characters, Menahem-Mendl and Sheineh-Sheindl, as actors narrate bits of the stories he wrote. Menahem-Mendl and Sheineh-Sheindl are a married couple whose outlooks on life are amusingly opposed. Menahem-Mendl is a cockeyed optimist who has left his wife and family back in the shtetl to make his fortune in the big city. Loaded with enthusiasm, he writes of one great business venture after another, rarely mentioning that they never pan out, while his wife’s letters are filled with skepticism and scolding even as she tries to prop him up in his darkest hours. It’s clear that the couple has more than a few parallels with Sholem and Olga, but they face their hardships with the kind of humor that forms the subtitle of Dorman’s documentary.

The commentary about Tevye zeroes in on the changing attitudes to marriage among modern Jews. Tevye acquiesces to his first daughter Tzeitel’s rejection of the husband he has chosen for her so that she can marry for love. He speaks constantly of how unfair it is that some people can be rich simply because of who they are or what they are (Russian) while he has to slave to eke out a living. His second daughter Hodel takes his harmless complaints seriously and runs off with a Marxist, which stands as a lesson that children will listen to their parents but may act in ways their parents never intended. Third daughter Chava’s break from tradition is too much for Tevye. When she marries a Russian and must, by law, convert to Christianity, Tevye sits shiva for her and refuses to speak with her again. Interestingly, the 1939 film Tevya shows her Russian suitor to be a fine young man, and the 1971 film actually has Tevye break his silence to say “And may God be with you” to the couple as the entire town prepares to leave the Pale. The changes in this story show the gradual acceptance of intermarriage, and underlines the rapid transformation of the Ashkenazi Jewish community in trying to adapt to new countries and customs.

The most poignant parts of this film are also the most personal for me. Dorman makes use of still photos of Jews killed by the pogroms that are perhaps more shocking than any from the Holocaust—bodies laid out side by side include small children and even a couple of infants. “Tales of a Thousand and One Nights,” called a precursor to Holocaust literature, communicates the horrors of the pogroms suffered by its main character, who is on board a refugee ship in the North Sea with the character Sholem Aleichem as they try to find safety in the United States. These pogroms are the reason I was born an American and one of the reasons that the way of life my grandparents and great-grandparents knew was extinguished. And that is the second poignant part of the film, the realization by Jews who left the Pale and adopted different ways of life for themselves and their children that they were now the only link to a murdered way of life. If shtetl values and traditions were to be preserved, these Jews would have to take up the mantle. Sadly, even Sholem Rabinovitz’s children grew up speaking and reading Russian, with no knowledge of lowly Yiddish. This universal language of Jewry, which my parents always called “Jewish” (a much better name for it), is struggling for survival.

Dorman used what little film exists of shtetl life and photos to illustrate both Sholem’s life and his stories. He offers a vocal track of Sholem reading from one of his stories while on his standing-room-only lecture tours, and his expressive Yiddish is music to my ears, a reminder of the occasional pepper my parents and relatives would use to flavor their speech. Yiddish scholars Hillel Halkin, Dan Miron, David Roskies, and Ruth Wisse, as well Sholem’s granddaughter, writer Bel Kaufman, provide informative and spirited commentary that puts Sholem Aleichem’s legacy into a larger context without skirting the pleasures he offered his millions of fans. Reading aloud the new Sholem Aleichem story in the Jewish newspapers that were delivered on Friday became a Sabbath ritual in many, many Jewish homes. It’s a tradition Tevye might not have approved of, but one I would love to see resurrected, a mitzvah to the next generation.


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