The Light Ahead (1939) 1:34
directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
starring Isidore Cashier, Helen Beverly, David Opatoshu, Rosetta Bialis, Tillie Rabinowitz
One of Ulmer's Yiddish films, again shot in rustic Newton, New Jersey. I've got to find out where that is and make a pilgrimage one day. Or not.
It was pretty good. A cripple and a blind girl, both poor as dirt, love each other and wish to marry but don't have the money to do so. There is also some subplot about the city (the name of which I've forgotten already...something with a G) needing to use the treasury to procure a hospital and a doctor because the river nearby is filthy and cholera-infested. Beyond that... I couldn't tell you. In the end they get married after all, and the city, presumably, gets its hospital.
Befoer I forget: Isidore Cashier is Mendele; Helen Beverly is Hodel and David Opatoshu is Fishke. Hodel and Fishke are the lovers and are really good together. Ulmer gets a sensitive and touching portrayal of young love out of them.
'Jewish suffering and existential dread' reads the blurb in the Film Forum retrospective's flyer. It sure seems that way, watching penniless, crippled Fishke loping through the city with his gong, calling the Jews to the baths.
It's quite a dark movie, almost noirish in look, yet with all the shadows and all the Jewish suffering (I have to admit not detecting any Jewish existential dread) the tone of the picture is remarkably light. Not light-silly but light-not-depressing or oppressive. There are a few laughs, mostly coming from the scenes with Mendele, although he starts to get a tad annoying near the late middle/end of the movie.
You can quite obviously see Ulmer had at least a few bucks for the movie. There are several sets that are really as good as anything, better even, than you could usually hope to see in an Edgar G. Ulmer movie. Visually, it's got a bit more polish (not Polish) than Cossacks in Exile and is probably more of a real movie, a serious one; then again, you would expect it to be more serious, it's not a musical.
There's a funny scene where Mendele and the elders of the town (was it called...Glubsk? Glubst?) go to a town meeting where the legislators are already planning to use the 100,000 ruble budget to support their silly prayer societies. There's a bit of an argument and one of the legislators says something about one of the townsfolk, a 'Jew with no beard' who shoots back: 'Better that than a beard with no Jew.'
Funny. Also: I think the humor I also find in Fishke's springly limp due more to my own horrifically perverse sense of humor than to Ulmer's. Did I neglect to mention that Hodel and Fishke leave Glubsk for Odessa (the 'clean' city) so they won't forever be known as the 'cholera couple' (having been married, in a cemetery to appease the town's Judaic superstition that in order to 'purify' the town (as some girls had brought sin to Glubsk by bathing in the (cholera-infested) river on the sabbath, having been caught by the Rabbi's wife or something) of the cholera-causing sinfulness, the two poorest (and also, apparently, most crippled) people in the town would be wed. and their children known as 'cholera babies'. So they go to Odessa, where, Mendele tells the couple, a doctor may even be able to restore her eyesight! A happy ending is had by all.
Unfortunately, I've let several days lapse between my original viewing and the writing here in this book and, as I feared, it is no longer fresh enough in my memory to spur any further criticism beyond the mundane, literary kind of plotting, so I'm having a hard time talking about specific scenes in detail. So I'll just let myself be finished here, for what else can I say? It was well shot. Yes, that is true. It was well acted. True also.
Except Mendele just had too much screen time, especially for one as, well, not-quite-thoroughly interesting as he is. He himself really needed to be someone's foil, instead he's given a sub-plot all his own that he doesn't carry at all well, that of the city treasury and the need for a hospital; and he's also given one or two teary monologues at the moon, or at God rather, asking why must the Jews be persecuted so? Even though the movie isn't about Jewish persecution, or has anything to do with it, beyond persecution being a part of the basic Jewish geist, he's got these intense, emotional monologues that feel really out of place, to the ears of this erstwhile Gentile, in the flow of the film. At that point the movie is stopped dead, waiting to see when we get back to Hodel and Fishke's lives. Mendele just doesn't cut it, not for that leading-man stuff. He really does work well in the comic scenes he is given (like when a woman, coming up to his book-selling stand, asks him to read out loud a prayer for barren women out of one of his books. This he does, thinking she intends to buy, but she tells him she 'just wanted to hear how it sounded.' The look on his face is priceless, more so while he's actually reading though, visibly uncomfortable reading a prayer aloud that's intended for women who want to get pregnant.
Not that he's bad everywhere else, he juse doesn't have the oomph (especially with no one to play off) or the chutzpah (couldn't resist) or the magical charm that the couple, Hodel and Fishke, so easily so frankly so simply have.