NEW YORK — “All of our ancestors came from somewhere,” actress Carol Kane said at Manhattan’s Film Forum after a rare 35mm projection of her star-making 1974 independent film “Hester Street.” With a smile she added a quick reminder to a specific person not in attendance: “Mister Trump!”
It was the only direct reference to part of what made the evening so extraordinary. Here was a 42-year-old film that in itself seems preserved, somehow, from a time before cinema. And it spoke in direct contrast to the peculiar xenophobia poisoning one side of the rhetoric of this election campaign.
Joan Micklin Silver’s adaptation of Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novella “Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto,” despite a minuscule budget and rushed production schedule, remains one of the most insightful and essential films of the immigrant experience.
“The street scenes aren’t much different than the ones in ‘The Godfather Part II,'” Brian Rose, professor of Film and TV at Fordham University, and the evening’s moderator, gushed after the closing credits.
Kane, better known for her daffy persona on shows like “Taxi” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” was quick to tell how the movie was shot on such a shoestring they only had one horse. “You see it multiple times, but they painted it with food dye to make it look different each time!”
Kane was just north of drinking age when the film was made, and she received a surprise Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Gitl, a straight-from-the-shtetl immigrant who, with her young son, joins her husband (Steven Keats) who is already halfway assimilated in New York’s Lower East Side. The push and pull between tradition and change drive the story to its bittersweet conclusion.
In 1975 it was almost unheard of for an unknown lead in an independent film like this (in black and white and half in Yiddish, no less) to get a shot at an Oscar, but Kane explained how it was something of a pet project for a retired Hollywood macher.
“We had an advocate in Max Perkins [former publicity head at Warner Bros.]. He was a gambler and he said ‘I love a dark horse.’ He personally brought the heavy film cans to Rosalind Russell’s house and Frank Sinatra’s house and set up screenings.” When director Silver called Kane at 6 am to say she’d gotten the nomination, Kane was certain someone had made a mistake.
The industry stamp of approval meant a lot to writer-director Joan Micklin Silver, who later made “Crossing Delancey,” and her husband, Raphael (Ray) Silver, a first-time producer who built synagogues but “believed in his wife” enough to finance and self-distribute the movie. The result is quite likely the most honest and realistic appraisal of the late 19th century immigrant experience.
Its genius is the focus on detail. Much of the first act is worrying about where to find furniture, or a place where two lovers can find privacy in a tenement building, or the way one asks a street peddler for an item some might consider embarrassing. More to the point of the film, there’s the ridicule seasoned immigrants from Poland, Russia, Lithuania and elsewhere have for “greenies” right off the boat. There’s a camaraderie in the community, but a lot of friction, too.
During the Q&A, a well-read member of the audience pointed out that Cahan’s original text wasn’t quite so focused on Gitl’s point of view. This was a change that Silver made while adapting the novella, though not something that anyone made a big deal about while filming.
“I never thought much about her being a ‘woman director,’” Kane said. “I hadn’t worked with one before and, sadly, they are still uncommon, but never once did anyone feel this was different because of that.”
In addition to working with a coach from the Yiddish theater (her character speaks the most Yiddish of all) she read archives of the Jewish Daily Forward’s “Bintel Brief” — the now-revered advice column for new immigrants published by Abraham Cahan’s newspaper. The nuances show in her performance, like the way she won’t catch another man’s eye, the way she touches a mezuzah, how uncomfortable she feels showing her hair or how she packs salt in the pockets of her son to keep away the “evil eye.”
The most enjoyable scenes feature feature the nosy neighbor Mrs. Kavarsky (Doris Roberts) whose good intentions mixed with garbled English feel as if we’ve somehow gone back in time to capture the source of later caricatures. Also notable is the Talmudic scholar (and eventual white knight) Mr. Bernstein, played by Mel Howard, who was not an actor at the time.
“Harris Yulin had to drop out at the last minute,” Kane explained, “and people knew Mel because he was a production manager. But he knew Yiddish, so he got the part.”
So maybe things were chaotic off-screen, but what ended up in the final cut has only gotten better with age. Fittingly, “Hester Street” will have another life soon. In the audience (amidst some of Kane’s colleagues like Christopher Lloyd, Ellie Kemper, Taylor Shilling, Jane Krakowski and Natasha Lyonne) was producer Ira Deutchman, who is adapting the film into a Broadway production.
While it won’t be a musical, it will include music, which means the dance hall scenes (with the “No Yiddish Spoken Here” sign) will likely be included. It will be interesting to see, just as in the film, how something from one world adapts to another.