Artykuły

"Pleograf. Kwartalnik Akademii Polskiego Filmu", no. 5/2019

 

Joseph Green – A One-Man Film Industry

Aleksandra Wierzba 

 

The Polish interwar film industry has not exactly had much international success. This is reason enough to highlight those filmmakers from the period who managed to succeed on both sides of the Atlantic. Between 1936 and 1938, in the brief "golden era" of Yiddish cinema, Poland was the second most prolific producer of the genre, eclipsed only by the United States. That would not have been possible if it weren’t for a singular figure – producer, director, screenwriter, and distributor all wrapped into one; a man whose films were screened across the globe, in the US, Europe, Australia, Hong Kong, even in Nazi Germany – with special permission from Joseph Goebbels himself. The man in question is Joseph Green, a man quite aptly labeled by one author as a one-man film industry[1].

Józef Green

Joseph Green (in the middle, white shirt and suspenders) and Molly Picon (sitting next to him)
with the film crew of Yiddle With His Fiddle, source: Fototeka FINA

Although Green was not the first to bring to the screen a Yiddish film produced entirely in Poland – the Goskind brothers, owners of the Kinor film studio, released their 1936 feature For Sins (At Chejt) nearly six months before Green unveiled his debut, Yiddle With His Fiddle – it was his work that drove the efforts of fellow producers and ultimately shaped the Jewish film industry in the United States. He owed this dominant position mostly to the fact that he alone managed to formulate, present and implement the core precepts of highly artistic Jewish cinema. The formula he devised – and which eventually brought him success that no other filmmaker was able to achieve, before or since – may even serve as inspiration to producers working today.

From the Stage to the Cinema

Joseph Green’s path to filmmaking was nothing if not roundabout. He began his career in the theater and his involvement with the Wilner Trupe took him overseas to the United States. There, he had his first professional encounter with the film industry, an experience that would go on to change the course of his future. Green was fortunate enough to experience the industry in the middle of its great transition from hulking mute to singing chatterbox. Although his career was mostly focused around acting at the time, he spent most of his free time hanging around film studios and cinemas, taking in most of the industry’s output. Green was also involved with one of the most pivotal moments in filmmaking history – hired as an extra, he was featured in the synagogue scene in The Jazz Singer (1927)[2]. Although his part took only two days to shoot, he ended up spending nine weeks on set[3]. He once said that his dream of producing the first Jewish sound film was borne out of the time he spent on film sets, where he often overheard conversations between crew members and ended up realizing that they spoke in Yiddish much more often than in English[4].

1932 was meant to be a pivotal year in Green’s career. He returned to New York where he found employment as a dialogue writer and Yiddish lector in the Italian silent film Joseph in the Land of Egypt (Yoysef in Mitsraim, dir. George Roland, 1932). These so-called compiled movies – produced as silent with sound mixed in later – proved very popular with the public, providing profits to people involved with dubbing. Green was given a copy of the film as payment[5], allowing him to try his hand at distribution. He first realized the intensity of the demand for sound films in Yiddish when he took his copy of Yoysef on a tour across Canada. Screened in Toronto and Montreal, the picture was the first ever Jewish sound film shown to Canadian audiences. The premiere took place on Rosh Hashana and the film proved so popular with moviegoers that the screenings averaged around $4,000 per week in profits. For Green, whose weekly income from acting topped out at $150[6], the distribution profits were almost beyond comprehension. The success of Yoysef only reaffirmed him in the decision to embrace film and filmmaking as a career[7].

In 1933, Green returned to Poland with a copy of the dubbed movie. Yoysef in Mitsraim was the first sound movie in Yiddish to be available to audiences in Poland. I made so much money, I didn’t know what to do with it, Green said later[8]. His attempt to introduce a new product to the market carried considerable risk, but most of his successes stemmed from the fact that he was often the first to do something. After coming back to Poland for good, he opened his own company which operated to great success on the Polish and American markets, first handling distribution and later, more importantly, expanding its efforts to include production, up to the outbreak of World War II. The Green-Film Filmmaking Office, headquartered in a tenement on 24 Jasna Street in Warsaw, also had an overseas branch office – the Sphinx Films Corp. – located in the Paramount Building on 1501 Broadway Street in New York City[9].

It is important to note, however, that at this point in his career, Green was primarily a businessman rather than a filmmaker, and that the choices he made with regard to production efforts were informed primarily by a business perspective. When picking movies for distribution, he usually bet on more "ethnic" pictures that would help him set himself apart from other distributors. Green’s roster for 1936, when he opened his production business, was strikingly broad-ranging. It is important to note here, and that is again directly related to his future film production endeavors, that already at that point Green’s interests exceeded distributing only Jewish pictures. His company’s portfolio included pictures aimed at Polish or, more precisely, Catholic viewers. Examples include Night of Miracles (Le Drame de Lourdes) or Don Bosco (dir. Goffredo Alessandrini, 1935), the latter released alongside Green’s early productions in Yiddish[10]. Green had a good working relationship with Catholic clergy – after releasing Bar-Mitzvah (dir. Henry Lynn, 1935), the follow-up to Yoysef that managed to repeat the commercial success of its predecessor, he even held a special late-night screening for two hundred clergymen.

We Charged Ourselves with Producing a Good Movie

In 1936, Green was all set to make his dream from the sets of Hollywood a reality. Without relinquishing his distribution efforts, he decided to produce his own films. In total, between 1936 and 1939, Green ended up producing four pictures: Yiddle With His Fiddle (Yidl mitn fidl, 1936), The Jester (Der Purimspiler, 1937), Mamele (1938), and Little Letter to Mama (A brivele der mamen, 1938). But Green was interested in more than just investing his hard-earned cash – he wanted control over the creative aspects of the production. And because he had considerable experience and expertise accrued over his time as distributor, he ultimately ended up overseeing the entirety of the creative process: from developing the idea, through principal photography, to making the final cut. He also supervised the distribution and marketing efforts. He simply couldn’t risk the film failing to meet his expectations due to creative recklessness, thus endangering its box office prospects.

Green devised his own unique production formula – thus building a bridge between the budding Polish film industry and American filmmaking professionals and audiences. The rules were simple. By distributing foreign films in Poland, and making good money off it, Green could attract top talent by offering both prestige and financial incentives. As a visitor from the far-off, profoundly idealized United States, he automatically became a respected figure. He made extensive use of his access to creative personnel, acting talent, technical resources, and the plethora of locations available across the Second Polish Republic territories. This, in turn, brought down production costs considerably. In 1935, the average cost of producing a full-length feature film in the US was $209,000[11]. In Poland, a similar effort would cost only 140,000 PLN[12] which, with the exchange rate at about 5.3 PLN/USD[13], translated to a price tag that was about ten times smaller. Even low-budget American pictures, which Green estimated cost about $100,000 to produce, would still cost around four times less if shot in Poland[14]. It was cost-effective, therefore, to shoot a film in Poland and then sell it abroad, to American cinemas. When negotiating sales, Green had an ace up his sleeve – aside from quality, he could guarantee the film’s success among Jewish audiences in the old countries of Europe. This was made possible primarily by the common language shared by American and Polish Jews. He further exploited this highly favorable situation by inviting Jewish creative and acting talent from abroad to work in Poland, ensuring both the interest of local audiences as well as success in markets abroad. Finally, he took great care in designing lengthy and distinctive marketing campaigns for his pictures and often released his productions on the American market rather soon after their domestic premieres in Poland.

Yidl mitn fidl

Molly Picon and Symcha Fostel in Yiddle With His Fiddle, source: Fototeka FINA

In 1936, while working on Yiddle With His Fiddle, Joseph Green sat down for an interview with Literarisze Bleter. This was still prior to the release of his production debut, but the interview nevertheless painted him as a consummate professional, savvy about the ways of the market and the needs of the audiences. As a fully-formed producer ready for domestic and international success, he felt confident enough to reveal in the interview his own artistic program and the attendant economic aspects of his production efforts. Years later, Green said that his ambition at the time was to establish a Jewish film industry that would make films for international audiences, rather than just specific, rather insular communities[15]. In 1936, Green laid out his vision for the four basic characteristics of a Jewish film:

A lot of money went into this picture, because we charged ourselves with producing a good movie. At the same time, we had to maintain its commercial viability and that’s why we were forced to produce a movie that the broadest possible audience would respond to. A typical Jewish picture usually pulls in a limited number of viewers, so we had to take care to attract non-Jewish audiences. Thus, I set the following goals for myself:

  1. Pour every effort into the technical aspects of production in order to bring the picture up to an appropriately high level of production values.
  2. The storyline should be Jewish-oriented, but universal enough to appeal to a mass audience. Take the utmost care to avoid Jewish stereotypes: no galut Jews in well-worn kapoteh, but leave just enough traditions, folklore, and ethnic details to give the whole a Jewish "flavor". I’d also prefer that social injustices be portrayed using pure art means rather than screeching political agitation. Emotion such as joy, pain, experience transcend society and are universal to all mankind.
  3. The film must set itself apart with high cultural values, impeccable Yiddish, and its folklore and ethnic elements, while still remaining a piece of entertainment. Considerable emphasis should also be placed on music; the film should have lots of background music, folk melodies as well as more contemporary pieces.
  4. The acting should be good enough as to not detract from the picture’s artistic value.[16]

The notions outlined above are a good starting point for a more in-depth analysis of the factors that drove the international success of the films produced by Joseph Green. Let’s start with the narrative layer.

In an interview given over half a century later, in 1991, Green reaffirmed his words from 1936: The first film I resolved to make, I decided to fill with folklore, tradition, music, song, and humor. When I came to Poland, I found all of that among the people. All of it was simply there, waiting for someone to come and use it. Life over there was so colorful, you couldn’t have imagined a more vibrant place[17]. Although somewhat fleeting and difficult to define, Green considered that particular atmosphere a fundamental factor, alongside financial issues, in the selection of the place where the production would ultimately take place. American Jewish audiences, made up primarily of European-born immigrants, yearned for the things and the people they left behind, their lives in the Second Republic and elsewhere, a semblance of which were nowhere to be found in America. Green only had to film it. His greatest advantage lay not in his choice of locations, but rather in his ability to accurately portray the lives that played out against them – giving the viewers a chance to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of places they saw on the big screen. Thanks to Green-Film productions, American audiences had the ability to see their home countries once again and show their children and grandchildren where they came from. All this emotional payoff just for the price of admission. The actress Molly Picon said that during a screening of Yiddle With His Fiddle at New York City’s Ambassador Theatre, she heard an elderly man sitting behind her sigh deeply. ‘Real corn fields,’ he said. ‘For forty years I haven’t seen corn fields, and, besides, when can you see such corn in America?’[18].

In Poland, such evocative locations were dime a dozen, so to speak, whereas attempts to find similar spots in the US, and American producers undertook many, were ultimately doomed to fail, proving too costly most of the time. But by shooting pictures in Poland and selling them overseas, Green had much more leeway. Never minding the costs, he sent his crews to shoot on location – filming in places such as Kazimierz Dolny, Krakow, Łódź, Ciechocinek; and when that wasn’t enough, he didn’t hesitate to erect a studio facility in Warsaw’s Grochów neighborhood which could stand in for a little Jewish shtetl whenever necessary. Green’s crew worked in the best equipped ateliers in Warsaw, including the legendary Falanga. Green spared no expense. The average size of the cast on his movies ranged between 100 and 120 people[19], the score for Little Letter to Mama was recorded with a sixty-piece orchestra, he even hired a whole circus to work on The Jester.

Green attached considerable importance to the script and often personally involved himself with screenwriting work. Individual scenes were to come together into a coherent whole which was then supposed to be faithfully recreated on set. Intent on maintaining complete control over the end result, Green was wary of improvisation, the only exception being the wedding sequence from Yiddle With His Fiddle. Green was so bent on recreating the ritual as faithfully as possible that he hired the local indigents to work as extras in the wedding hall the production rented for the scene[20]. The locals in Kazimierz were eager to work with the crew, seeing the production as a way to make money. The whole city of Kazmierz not only helped to film Yiddle With His Fiddle, they practically directed the picture; and, when a call was sent out for a hundred extras at two zlotys a day, all the near-by villagers turned out and it began to look as though we were in for a super-super production, à la Hollywood. Business in the town came to a standstill, as two zlotys a day was much more than what they customarily earned by the daily toil[21], wrote Molly Picon, the lead in Yiddle, in her report from the set. Every effort was poured into making the interior of the reception venue look as authentic as possible. The same degree of care went into recreating the ritual and the decorations. The crew managed to procure local tables, linens, and tableware used for weddings, while the food was prepared by a local cook that catered most of the weddings in the area[22]. Years later, Molly Picon said that most of the "guests" at the wedding had no real idea what they were participating in. Still, the extras got into character so well, that the reception – that is shooting the scene – took twenty-eight hours in total, ultimately producing a highly convincing portrait of a wedding on the screen.

Jewish religious observance, social mores, and "ethnicity" were all important elements of Green’s formula for Yiddish films that was supposed to make it successful not only with diaspora Jews across the world but also with non-Jewish audiences. In a 1936 interview with Mieczysław Sztycer for Film magazine, the producer emphasized that European-made pictures could only be successful at the American box office if their artistic values were complemented by novel and original storylines, distinguishing them from movies produced in the US. If the plot is too generic, it won’t stand a chance against other domestic and European pictures. The average American viewer is drawn to the exotic unfamiliar and is more likely to watch a film that emphasized such exoticism, Green said. A Jewish picture does not generally enjoy better prospects than other European films. To appeal to a broader American audience, however, it needs to meet certain conditions[23]. Green, therefore, strove on the one hand toward universalism and adapting the storylines to appeal to the broadest possible audience, including non-Jewish viewers, but on the other still set his movies against the backdrop of holidays and religious rituals – precisely in order to set his productions apart from the average American movie fare. A Jewish viewer saw these elements as inherent parts of their identity and heritage, whereas the rest of the audience saw the other, the exotic, unfamiliar identity; in both cases, it was the elements that made the movies genuinely "Jewish" that attracted the prospective viewer.

Moreover, the approach seemed to tie into the new Kulturdrang, the emergence of which was described in 1936 by J.M. Neuman, the Warsaw correspondent of the Menorah Journal who would later go on to serve as literary director on another of Green’s features, Mamele. In his opinion, the changes they were witnessing were driven by a desire for a return to true Jewish life, a rejection of assimilation efforts, and a passionate quest for Jewish values[24]. Thus, in Yiddle with a Fiddle, Jewish traditions are represented by the wedding. As evidenced by the title (literally "the Purim jester"), The Jester is inextricably linked with the Purim holiday, Mamele depicts the traditions and rituals associated with the Sukkot, while the last picture that Green produced, Little Letter to Mama, features a depiction of Pesach.

Yidl mitn fidl (Yiddle With His Fiddle)

The wedding scene from Yiddle and his Fiddle, source: Fototeka FINA

These elements rarely make up the main thrust of the storyline, but serve as a rich backdrop for the relationships between the characters – which weren’t too removed from the contents of typical Polish-language productions drawing on popular culture. The plot of Yiddle With His Fiddle is based on a popular interwar storytelling trope where one character would deliberately dress up as either the opposite gender or a member of a different social class. In his bearing, dress, and expression, Yiddle, walking the earth with fiddle in tow, resembles Charlie Chaplin, a figure that was immensely popular at the time, also with Jewish audiences. Likewise Zygmunt Turkow’s performance of the titular jester–wanderer offers a reinterpretation of the chaplinesque wanderer trope. In Mamele, the story of a poor girl that finally finds happiness, film critics recognized strands of a Cinderella-like narrative. Finally, Green’s only "sad" movie, Little Letter to Mama, produced amidst the increasingly tense atmosphere of the prewar years, is a classic melodrama about separation and the pursuit of a better life.

These narrative devices helped address the pictures to a broader audience, but Green also took care to include elements that would facilitate reception on both sides of the Atlantic. He consistently weaved American elements into his storylines. Yiddle With His Fiddle ends with the main characters meeting on a boat sailing for the US. In The Jester, the life of a simple cobbler is transformed by an inheritance bequeathed to him by family living in the States. In both cases, America is portrayed as the land of milk and honey, particularly in comparison with strife-stricken Europe. In Little Letter to Mama, Green went even further: the American subplot was expanded and ultimately became the foundation of the storyline.

We should note, however, that although Joseph Green shot all of his movies within the borders of the Second Polish Republic, Poles themselves do not play any significant roles in the narratives. If they appear on the screen at all, their presence is at most incidental – like that of the local superintendent in Yiddle With His Fiddle, chasing two musicians about to fight each other out of the courtyard under his care. Placing Poles solely in the background ties directly into the specific thematic scope of Green’s films – all of which deal with familial relationships, take place within the private sphere, its borders defined by the homes of the protagonists. The home, the family, and the sphere of the ritual are all private, uncoupled from other areas of life, reserved exclusively for members of the diaspora, and thus devoid of Poles[25]. The elimination of Polish characters may also have been driven by Green’s desire to universalize his stories and have them potentially take place at any place in Eastern Europe – as the majority of Green’s immigrant audiences hailed from that part of the continent. These backdrops of the pictures, however, also feature elements of the broader context – like an ad for Wedel chocolate portrayed in Yiddle With His Fiddle.

Another pillar on which the quality of Green’s movies rested was cast selection, an instrument which well served the concept of transnational cinema, a bridge spanning two continents. Meticulous attention to artistic values and acting skill is what set Yiddish film produced in Poland apart from those produced in America. Green, by virtue of being an actor himself, knew the ins and outs of the acting trade. Directing his movies, he worked with the actors directly on set. The vibrancy of the Jewish theater community in Poland worked to his considerable advantage: in the late 1930s, there were fifteen theaters performing in Yiddish in the country[26]. Thus, Green could easily pick his future cast out of their abundant actor ranks. At the same time, the actors, acting as a bridge between Jewish film and Jewish theater, appealed to theater audiences and drew new viewers into the cinema. When talking about acclaimed actors working the stages of Jewish theaters in the interwar period and selected by Joseph Green to act in his films, we would be remiss not to mention Zygmunt Turkow, the lead in The Jester. His was the only lead role in a Green-Film-produced picture that was not taken by an American actor.

Green consistently internationalized his casts. To balance out his use of Polish locations, infrastructure, and technical resources, and maintain an international character of the production, a portion of his cast and creative staff was always drawn from US nationals. His efforts to hire inside the States were facilitated by the extensive network of contacts he managed to develop in the years he spent there acting. When he began developing his production debut, he knew from the very start that the lead role would be entrusted to Molly Picon, the script was even drafted with Picon in mind. Green first worked hard to give his American talent "superstar" status in Europe and then gave them leading roles to play in his movies. A cast studded with American performers also served as a marketing device and its international makeup was often highly emphasized in Green-Film’s promotional efforts. This was a very effective strategy, particularly when it came to reception abroad. The actors, easily the most prominent and recognizable members of the film crew, would be the biggest draw for American audiences. Obversely, the presence of faces previously unseen in the United States was considered an added benefit – in tandem with the locations, these "old-fashioned European types" elicited in the viewers a nostalgia and longing for their home countries[27]. European audiences, on the other hand, were hungry for American talent and Western "movie stars", which the producers eagerly exploited, highlighting the actors’ illustrious careers abroad.

That’s why it’s nearly impossible to discuss Joseph Green’s oeuvre without mentioning Molly Picon – the diminutive star of the Jewish filmmaking scene who was ultimately Green’s gateway to his later career. Even before arriving in Poland to put her considerable acting skill to use in Yiddle With His Fiddle, Molly Picon was already an internationally acclaimed actress[28]. Performing on stage since childhood, Picon quickly rose to fame, later playing the lead in East and West (dir. Ivan Abramson and Sidney M. Goldin, 1923), and eventually opening her own theater stage in New York in 1931[29]. Her remarkable blend of vocal, dancing, and comedic skills made her the perfect candidate for the lead role in Green’s debut feature, which was to be a musical comedy. Certain that Picon would guarantee its success, he didn’t hesitate to offer her a salary that far exceeded typical incomes in the Polish film industry. Green initially offered her $10,000 for Yiddle (an offer he later supplemented with a profit-sharing agreement)[30], which accounted for a whopping 20% of the movie’s budget. Per the then-exchange rate, the offer translated to 53,000 złotys[31]. For comparison, Adolf Dymsza, at the peak of his own acting career at the time, averaged a salary of about 10,000 złoty for a leading role[32]. Green’s investment paid off handsomely, as audiences went crazy for the American actress. Critics were similarly ecstatic. Picon later appeared in another Green feature, Mamele, once again demonstrating not only her comedic chops, but also her surprising vocal range, to critical acclaim both in Poland and abroad.

Green did not stop at Picon and continued to "import" acting talent from the US for his subsequent filmmaking efforts. In 1937, before starting principal photography for The Jester, he arrived in Poland with Miriam Kressyn and Hymie Jacobson, both of whom were regulars at the Jewish theater on New York City’s Second Avenue[33]. The movie’s marketing campaign introduced the pair as the "Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of the Jewish acting scene". Famous American actors were eager to work with Green, as after Yiddle, his name was more or less a guarantee of high artistic value. The very opportunity to perform songs written and composed by the Manzer–Brodszky duo was enough to convince Miriam Kressyn to cross the Atlantic[34]Little Letter to Mama, produced alongside Mamele, featured Lucy and Mischa Gehrman, an acting couple that frequently performed together on theater stages across the US. Green had an eye for acting talent, but he did not necessarily give his hires free rein when it comes to character interpretation – he remained in constant control over their performances. This tendency of Green’s seems to be corroborated by an anecdote about the scene in which the character played by Lucy Gehrman learns of her husband’s death. Seeing Gehrman insist on her interpretation and knowing that he’d be unable to convince her otherwise, he simply let her do it her way. When she saw herself "screaming" through the scene, she said: 'That's terrible', and Green agreed, knowing that his problem solved itself[35].

Jacobson Hymie w filmie Błazen purymowy, źródło: Fototoeka FN

Hymie Jacobson in The Jester, source: Fototeka FINA

"Universally Acclaimed" Artists

Green surrounded his acting talent with remarkably skilled crew members. Unlike the cast, for whom Yiddish was a requirement, the rest of the crew were not divided along language lines. Green was able to tap the same resource and labor pool that was used by the Polish film industry, composed largely of assimilated people of Jewish descent. Although he co-directed all of his movies, he usually focused primarily on matters related to acting, and entrusted "technical" matters to a select group of crew members with extensive experience in producing Polish-language movies, including Jan Nowina-Przybylski, Konrad Tom, or Leon Trystan. His frequent collaborators also included the pre-eminent Polish camera operator of the interwar period, Seweryn Steinwurtzel, set designers Jacek Rotmil and Stefan Norris, and poet and screenwriter Anatol Stern.

In his own often repeated words, Green placed considerable emphasis on music and composer selection. Consistently, he entrusted the scoring of his movies to widely acclaimed foreign composers. Yiddle With His Fiddle, Mamele, and Little Letter to Mama were all scored by Abraham Ellstein, a young American and one of the "Big Four" who scored most of the plays staged in New York City’s Jewish theaters[36]. Despite their ostensibly folkish sound, the scores were all original compositions[37]. To write the music for The Jester, however, Green hired the "universally acclaimed" Nicholas Brodszky, then living in Vienna. Green’s uncanny sense for finding yet unrecognized but highly talented collaborators seems to have been confirmed by Brodszky’s later career – soon after completing his work for Green, he left for the United States and began a relationship with MGM.

Most of the writers who coauthored the screenplays with Green were also from overseas.

And the Audience?

After production was completed, Green was left to handle distribution and marketing. The latter usually involved a consistent and long campaign. Viewer interest was stoked first with news of American "movie stars" arriving on set and later with reports about the films’ excellent reception abroad. The marketing was based primarily on the "movie stars" and artists associated with the production, but that doesn’t mean that Polish involvement was ignored in advertising efforts. The promotion also exploited the locations the movies were shot on. Journalists were invited to visit the set, given the chance to conduct "unplanned" interviews with the cast and crew.

Flashy premieres, held at the distinguished Sfinks Cinema in the Luxenburga Gallery at 29 Senatorska Street, rounded out Green’s promotional efforts. The venue seated 1,500 people and was one of the largest and most modern in all of Europe[38]. It was located in downtown Warsaw, specifically that portion of downtown that neighbored the Jewish quarter. This specific choice of cinemas straddling, so to speak, the line between Polish and Jewish neighborhoods was repeated in other cities where premieres were set up, such as Krakow or Lviv. The premiere of The Jester took place in a less glamorous venue, but one that was still quite spacious – the Fama cinema, with 900 seats[39], previously screened Yoysef in Mitsraim, to great commercial success. Fama also sat on the edge of the Nalewki neighborhood, the very heart of the capital’s Jewish community. Green also consistently selected premiere dates adjacent to important Jewish holidays. Additionally, Green-Film added Polish subtitles to its movies to further boost their reception.

And so, Yiddle With His Fiddle was enthusiastically received by Warsaw audiences and enjoyed a 25-week-long run[40], probably across a number of cinemas. According to Jerzy Toeplitz, the film ultimately found itself among the three most popular films to be screened in Poland in 1936[41]. Because Green decided that his pictures would be distributed across both Europe and America already during production, he left for the States usually immediately after finishing the film’s domestic run to begin distribution overseas. In most cases, however, the domestic run was already profitable enough to allow him to recoup the production budget[42]. In the case of Green’s first three films, the Polish and American premieres were separated by about three months, whereas the premieres of Mamele took place six months apart. Green’s overseas efforts set him apart from other film producers working in Poland – as films shot and produced in Poland rarely ever went into American distribution. In 1936, they amounted to barely 2.25% of all imported foreign pictures[43].

Green also revolutionized the exploitation of films in Yiddish. Before Yiddle With His Fiddle, Jewish films were mostly screened in venues specializing in a more "ethnic" repertoire – usually located in minority neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Green deliberately chose New York’s Ambassador Theater, located smack dab in the middle of the Broadway Theater District[44]. Yiddle was the first movie in Yiddish to be shown in the neighborhood. Although the film was initially contracted only for a two-week run[45], it played to packed audiences on for a whole six weeks[46]. All of Green’s movies were commercially successful both in Poland and abroad, and garnered critical and popular acclaim on both sides of the ocean. They eventually made their way to cinemas all over the world, appearing wherever there were members of the Jewish diaspora.

Joseph Green’s plans were unfortunately undone by the outbreak of the Second World War. He had a lot of ideas for movies in Yiddish, one of them being a musical, Grine Felder, based on a drama written by Peretz Hirschbein and its American movie adaptation[47]. He was also asked by the Polish Ministry of Culture[48] to shoot a film in Polish that could also be intended for exploitation overseas. A couple of years earlier, he was briefly involved with Polish-language film as a consultant on Ryszard Orłowski’s 1928 adaptation of Adam Mickiewicz’s  Pan Tadeusz (Sir Thaddeus). So, the producer acquired motion picture rights to Irena Zarzycka’s bestseller novel Dzikuska (Wild Girl)[49]. The outbreak of war, however, shattered those plans, while the Holocaust resulted in the annihilation of the Central and Eastern European Jewry. Green hasn’t produced a single movie after 1939. He also never returned to Poland after the war, although he stayed involved with the American film industry. Green’s US-based company, Globe Pictures, distributed foreign pictures on the American market[50]. He finally died in 1996, deeply proud of the four films he produced until his final days[51].

In September of 1939, while Americans were flocking to the cinemas to see the latest picture produced by Green-Film, Poland was trying to repel the Nazi invasion. The landscapes and colors that years prior have inspired Green to capture them on film, were no more. Green’s films, however, remain a priceless token, a snapshot of Jewish life and culture that flourished in the Second Polish Republic. The films are also a testament to the life and work of a remarkable, singular figure – their producer, director and distributor, unsurpassed in his ability to manage both the commercial and artistic aspect of movie production. Green remained the driving force behind each of his four movies – he was involved with scriptwriting work, casting, directing, marketing, and distribution. He also developed a unique production system, one that, by definition, bridged Polish and American film industries; to make that system work, he hired foreign acting talent and foreign filmmakers, while crafting the narratives of his movies in a way that would make them equally appealing to European and American audiences – Jewish and non-Jewish. All of this allowed Joseph Green to achieve a success so great that no one in the history of Polish filmmaking has been able to repeat it.

 

 

Translated by Jan Szelągiewicz


[1] Ch. Pevner, Joseph Green. The Visionary of The Golden Age [in:] When Joseph Met Molly. Reader on Yiddish Films, ed. S. Paskin, Five Leaves Publications, Nottingham 1999. [back]
[2] J. Hoberman, Bridge of Light. Yiddish Film between Two Worlds, Museum of Modern Art–Schocken Books, New York 1991, p. 236. [back]
[3] R. Elliott, Joseph Green. Preserving the Polish Shtetl On Film, "Baltimore Jewish Times" 22 (1985). [back]
[4] G. Wigoder, Interview with Joseph Green, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Oral History Division, Jerusalem 1979. [back] 
[5] J. Hoberman, Bridge of Light... op.cit., p. 236. [back]
[6] ibid., p. 237. (In an interview with Goldman, he says that he made $125 per week; cf. E.A. Goldman, Visions, Images and Dreams. Yiddish Film Past and Present, Holmes and Meier Publishers, Teaneck 2011, p. 173.) [back]
[7] ibid. [back]
[8] ibid. [back]
[9] J. N. Goldberg, Laughter Through Tears. The Yiddish Cinema, Associated University Presses–Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, London–Madison 1983, pp. 104-105. [back]
[10] Green-Film promotional materials, "Film" 17 (1936), p. 17. [back]
[11] E. Zajiček, Zarys historii gospodarczej kinematografii polskiej. Kinematografia wolnorynkowa w latach 1896–1939 [Outline of the Economic History of Polish Filmmaking. Free Market Filmmaking Between 1896-1939], PWSFTviT, Łódź 2008, I:36. [back]
[12] ibid., I:337. [back]
[13] Nowy Dziennik 105 (1936), p. 12. [back] 
[14] E.A. Goldman, Visions... op.cit., p. 185. [back] 
[15] The Yiddish Cinema, dir. R. Pontius, Hanover–Waltham: National Center for Jewish Film, 1991. [back]
[16] "Literarisze Bleter" 39 (1936), p. 91. As quoted in: N. Gross, Film żydowski w Polsce [Jewish Film in Poland], Rabid, Kraków 2002, p. 75. [back]
[17] The Yiddish Cinema... op.cit. [back]
[18] M. Picon, Fiddling in Old Kazmierz, "The New York Times", Jan. 17, 1937, p. 157. [back]
[19] G. Wigoder, Interview... op.cit. [back]
[20] J. N. Goldberg, Laughter Through Tears... op.cit., p. 106. [back]
[21] M. Picon, Fiddling... op.cit., p. 5. [back]
[22] E.A. Goldman, Visions... op.cit., p. 184. [back]
[23] Możliwości filmu polskiego w U.S.A. Rozmowa z dyr. Józefem Greenem [Possibilities for Polish Film in the US. A Conversation with Joseph Green] "Film" 16 (1936), p. 4. [back]
[24] S. Blumenfeld, Człowiek, który chciał być księciem [The Man Who Would Be Prince], trans. M. Żurowska, Świat Książki, Warszawa 2008, p. 49. [back]
[25] O. Sobański, Więcej niż fascynacja [More Than Fascination], "Film" 27 (1988), p. 17. [back]
[26] W. Stradomski, Film żydowski w międzywojennej Polsce [Jewish Film in Interwar Poland] "Iluzjon" 3 (1985), p. 34. [back]
[27] Film Reviews. Der Purimspieler, "Variety" 128, no. 13 (1937), p. 17. [back]
[28] G. Wigoder, Interview... op.cit. [back]
[29] Molly Picon biography on IMDb, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0682000/bio[back]
[30] J. Hoberman, Bridge of Light... op.cit., p. 238. [back]
[31] "Nowy Dziennik" 105 (1936), p. 12. [back]
[32] E. Zajiček, Zarys historii... op.cit., I:339. [back]
[33] N. Gross, Film żydowski... op.cit., p. 84. [back]
[34] The Yiddish Cinema... op.cit. [back]
[35] R.F. Shepard, FILM; 'The Dybbuk' Rises From the Ruins, "New York Times", Sept. 10, 1989. [back]
[36] cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Ellstein[back]
[37] E.A. Goldman, Visions... op.cit., pp. 179–180. [back]
[38] Kalendarz Wiadomości Filmowych [Polish Film Almanach], Polski Związek Producentów Filmowych, Warszawa 1936, p. 177. [back]
[39] Kalendarz... op.cit., p. 221. [back]
[40] E.A. Goldman, Visions... op.cit., p. 181. [back]
[41] E.A. Goldman, Visions... op.cit., p. 82. [back]
[42] ibid. [back]
[43] "Wiadomości Filmowe" 3 (1937), p. 3. [back]
[44] J. Hoberman, Bridge of Light... op.cit., p. 242. [back]
[45] "The New York Times", Jan. 7, 1937. [back]
[46] News of the Screen, "The New York Times", Feb. 3, 1937. [back]
[47] G. Wigoder, Interview... op.cit. [back]
[48] In the interview, Green used the term “Ministry of Culture”. What he probably meant was the Art and Culture Section, an office of the Ministry of Religious Denominations and Public Enlightenment. The Ministry of Art and Culture was merged with the MRDPE in 1922. [back]
[49] G. Wigoder, Interview... op.cit. [back]
[50] The author’s own telephone interview with Eric A. Goldman conducted March 17-18, 2015. [back]
[51] ibid. [back]

 

 

Joseph Green  A One-Man Film Industry

The author analyses the activity of Joseph Green, a producer, a director, a distributor, who was the primary creator of the Golden Age of Yiddish Cinema in Poland (1936–1939). He was an author of four films: Yidl Mitn FidlDer PurimspilerMamele, and A Brivele der Mamen. The author explains how the artist arrived at the decision to make his first film, and describes the elements of his production formula, which made possible his success on both sides of the Atlantic.

Keywords: Yiddish movies, Joseph Green, Molly Picon, Yidl Mitn Fidl, film production

Aleksandra Wierzba  a graduate of the Film Art Organization Department at the Film School in Łódź. Currently an assistant at this Faculty. Ona daily basis she works in a film production department. The article was based on her master's thesis Joseph Green  a creative producer. Film production activity in the interwar period (1918–1939) written under the guidance of prof. Edward Zajiček.

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