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From the Vaults -- 'Yiddle With His Fiddle'

April 11, 2011 |  1:55 am

  Yiddle With His Fiddle  

“Yiddle With His Fiddle,” a 1936 Yiddish-language production that was filmed in Poland and stars American actress Molly Picon, is -- at face value -- an  endearing movie with catchy tunes. But hovering over the gaiety is the specter of the Holocaust, and it is sobering to discover that there is no trace of many of the cast members, including one of the leads.

  Sept. 18, 1937, Yiddle

Sept. 18, 1937: The Times reviews "Yiddle With His Fiddle."


Although “Yiddle” seems like a folktale about a young woman disguised as a boy, it was based on a story by Konrad Tom with a screenplay by producer Joseph Green, a Polish Jew who immigrated to America. According to one of the supplementary interviews on the DVD, Green got the idea of making a film in Yiddish while working on the set of “The Jazz Singer,” where  Yiddish was frequently spoken. In the same way, the music sounds like traditional klezmer tunes but was written for the film by American composer Abraham Ellstein with lyrics by Itsik Manger.  

“Yiddle” has a slim plot, but it’s not without complications: A father and his daughter, disguised as a boy because “men will bother you,” set out as roaming musicians. They team up with another duo and as a quartet have several adventures. They become so successful that they are hired to play for a wedding, and during the celebration they flee with the unhappy bride, who joins the group as a singer. In the big city of Warsaw, they are discovered by theater producers who hire two of them, while another musician decides to settle down with his longtime sweetheart. It looks as though the father and daughter will be out on their own again, but destiny takes a hand and all ends well.

Much of the humor arises from Yiddle’s “trouser role” as romance and jealousy enter the picture, and in a surprisingly sophisticated dream sequence, Yiddle, dressed as a boy, chases after Itke, the female version of herself. Although not quite slapstick, much of “Yiddle” relies on physical comedy.

There are some sharp lines as well. After they are evicted, Itke tells Arye, “What can you do? Adam and Eve were also thrown out of paradise.”  His rejoinder: “I wouldn't call this such a paradise.” But although the movie is subtitled, it seems that not all the lines have been translated. Not that you need to speak Yiddish  to pick up common words like “meshugenah” (“crazy.”)

Because few people have seen “Yiddle” -- and it is worth seeing --  here’s a breakdown of the movie:

  Yiddle With His Fiddle  

“Yiddle” opens in the shtetl of Kazimierz, where the people gossip about Itke (Molly Picon), who supports herself and her father, Arye (Simche Fostel), by playing the violin in the village square. “It's a good thing her mother didn't live to see this,”  one woman says. 

  Yiddle With His Fiddle  

As Itke, Picon is a woman who can take care of herself when it comes to the unwanted attention of men. But when she and Arye take to the road as traveling musicians after being thrown out of their home, her  father has her dress as a boy to avoid trouble.

  Yiddle With His Fiddle  

Arye and Yiddle get a ride on a wagon full of hay, inspiring one of Manger and Ellstein’s catchy tunes.

  Yiddle With His Fiddle  

Upon arriving in the next town, Yiddle and her father discover that two musicians (Leon Liebgold as the violinist Froym and Maks Bozyk as the clarinetist Isaac) have already staked a claim to the klezmer trade, so at first, the two duos compete -- and all four of them get thrown out for making so much racket. Once they learn to cooperate, however, the money comes flowing in (relatively, anyway).

  Yiddle With His Fiddle  

With their new prosperity, the musicians find humble lodging, but the sleeping arrangements are problematic. It may be obvious to the audience that Yiddle is a woman, but the characters are oblivious to any telltale traces. (A boy with plucked eyebrows and a bust? You think?) 

  Yiddle With His Fiddle  

Yiddle falls for Froym, prompting another of the film’s songs. But Froym is oblivious to the fact that Yiddle is a woman, even when he rescues her, drenching wet, from a lake.

  Yiddle With His Fiddle  

The musicians become so popular that they are hired for the big wedding of wealthy businessman Zalman Gold (Samuel Landau) to Taybele (Dora Fakiel), an unhappy young woman who has been pushed into the marriage by her mother. During the wedding celebration, the guests are so caught up in dancing that they don’t realize the musicians have fled -- with the unhappy bride.

  Yiddle With His Fiddle  

There are flutterings of romance between Froym and Taybele, which makes Yiddle jealous. The musicians head for Warsaw and are taken in by Madame Flaumbaum (Chana Lewin), a wealthy widow who is Isaac's longtime sweetheart. Now they are five, with the addition of Taybele as a singer, and they come to the attention of two theater producers who want to put Taybele on stage and Froym in the pit orchestra. Isaac decides to settle down with the wealthy widow, leaving Yiddle and Arye on their own again.


  Yiddle With His Fiddle  

When Taybele elopes with her longtime love, Itke takes the stage and is an immediate sensation. Her first lines are to tell everyone to go home, there’s no show! A producer offers to put her on stage in the U.S., but when she insists on taking Froym, the producer says there are already enough fiddle players in America. Believing that he is hindering her career, Froym writes a farewell note on the mirror in her dressing room and  vanishes.

  Yiddle With His Fiddle  

Now a success, Itke and Arye leave on a boat for America, where she is to perform. But the happiness is tinged with sorrow that Froym is not there. Wait … the violin playing with the ship’s orchestra sounds familiar. Could it be?

Technically, “Yiddle” is fairly rough. The editing is choppy in places and some of the camera angles are odd, but does it matter that the music isn’t synced to the action and that the production values are Spartan? For me, all of this adds to the movie’s charm. What “Yiddle” lacks in polish it more than makes up with its big heart.


  Yiddle With His Fiddle  

But the impact of “Yiddle” today is much more than its story line. Consider this fellow with a long, white beard, one of the extras lending atmosphere to the opening sequence. Is it possible to watch “Yiddle” and not wonder what became of him and the rest of the townspeople? Not for me, anyway.

Although “Yiddle” has a happy ending, real life was apparently a bit different. Picon returned to the United States with her husband, Jacob Kalich, who was the art director on the film. According to IMDB, lead actors Liebgold and Bozyk immigrated to the U.S. Screenwriter-producer Green returned to New York and made three more films documenting Jewish life, the last being “Mamele” in 1938. Screenwriter Tom died in Hollywood in 1957.

Nothing is known of the fate of Fostel (Arye), Fakiel (Taybele), Lewin (Flaumbaum) and several other cast members. Jan Nowina-Przybylski, the co-director of the film, died in Warsaw in 1938. He was 35.