Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Edward Sloman & Sophie Solomon... His People (1925), London Barbican

George Lewis and Blanche Mehaffey
Edward Sloman’s silent films are mostly lost and to see one on the big screen is a rare treat, especially when it’s accompanied by a new live score.

Made in 1925, His People, was rated by Sloman as his personal favourite, when tracked down by Kevin Brownlow, and it was also one of his most successful films. Presented here as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival, the film was introduced by “Ted’s” Great Nephew, Anthony Sloman, who also happens to be a respected and multi-skilled film figure. Tony was sound producer of In the Company of Wolves and many other films and is a noted critic and film historian. He recalls that no one in his family had really mentioned his great uncle’s trade, the Sloman family invariably being tailors…but, no doubt, very talented ones!

If self depreciation whilst in possession of considerable talent is a Sloman family trait, Anthony’s great uncle certainly seemed to share it. He came across as humble in the Brownlow interview and this film, alongside the others I have watched, displays great visual control and superb narrative economy. Sloman moves the viewer and his actors effortlessly around the screen and everyone is always in action even when they’re not the centre of attention.

Rosa Rosanova , Rudolph Schildkraut and Albert Bushaland
There’s a moment when the Cominsky family are sitting down for their Friday night meal and we suddenly notice Sammy’s sweetheart through the window in her apartment across the block, we follow his gaze… she’s intruding in the story and that’s what he wants.

The opening scenes, set when the Cominsky boys were just boys…is a whirl of rapid cutting and movement showing the hectic life of the ghetto and introducing the characters as they interact with this rough and tumble world. Morris hides behind his books whilst Sammy takes life by the scruff of the neck – honest and brave. He fights his brother’s corner against an older boy and in winning gains a dollar from a boxing gym owner, thereby triggering a life-long interest..

Their father David Cominsky (a quite superb Rudolph Schildkraut) is a Russian émigré who was an academic back home… he sees learning as the way forward and naturally favours the bookish Morris. His wife, Rosie (Rosa Rosanova another excellent performer), holds them all together, seeing the good in Sammy but deferring to her husband.
Rosa Rosanova and Rudolph Schildkraut
They live in a crowded tenement block and their next door neighbours are the Shannon family, culturally different but very much in the same boat. Kate Shannon (Kate Price) is the matriarch and has to keep her gossip mongering husband in check. Their pretty daughter Mamie is already the apple of Sammy’s eye.

Move forward a decade and the boys are fully grown. Morris (Arthur Lubin) is training to be a lawyer with eyes set on the daughter of the judge who runs his law firm. Sammy (George Lewis) is still chasing money from boxing but tells his folks he’s selling newspapers… The family dynamic is little changed with pop favouring Morris and continuing his disappointment with Sammy. But his younger son is happy and in love with the grown-up Mamie (Blanche Mehaffey)… another disappointment in the eyes of his strict father.

There are serious issues in the slums, there’s little money and life’s a struggle, but the family and the film are funny. The intertitles are witty and the timing of the leads is impeccable: I heard more laughter in this film than in any silent features I can recall outside of straight-ahead comedies.

Blanche Mehaffey and George Lewis
But gradually, the family drifts apart. David learns from Mr Shannon that Sammy is boxing under an assumed Irish name and kicks him out whilst Maurice also leaves to pursue his upward mobility. So ashamed is he of his background that he claims to be an orphan to impress his intended Ruth (Virginia Brown Faire) and her father – his boss – Judge Nathan Stein (Bertram Marburgh). It’s a sad moment and drew some gasps from the audience (honestly people… what happened to your cynicism?).

But Morris needs money and forces his father to sell his prized bearskin coat in exchange for a formal dinner suit… his father catches a cold in the snow en route and falls ill. Morris – who threw the suit away as all he really wanted was money – is too busy seeing his intended to visit his sick father.

Sammy is mistaken for Morris by his delirious father and it seems like this will be a kind lie to end his father’s life… But, the old man pulls through remaining none the wiser, however, the doctor informs Rosa that he must be moved to a warmer climate if he is to carry on much beyond six months. There is no money but in desperation Sammy persuades his trainer to let him fight for a big purse against a much more experienced boxer… he has little chance and as the fight begins, Mamie brings Rosa along to watch…

At the same time Mr Shannon (tellin’ tales again!), shows David a newspaper announcing the engagement of “orphaned” Morris Cominsky – who has made his own way in the world – to Judge Stein’s daughter. Horrified, he resolves to find out the truth and visits the Judge’s house yet, in one of the most moving scenes in the film, Morris claims not to know his father who lets his son off the hook… if this is the way he has chosen then he is willing to let him go.

Meanwhile things look very bad for Sammy as he is battered from pillar to post… think Rocky in the opening rounds only more one sided! Just as things look hopeless as he lies senseless on the canvass and Rosa comes to him shouting encouragement. He bounces up and within a few blows has sent the champion unconscious to the deck!

They have the money to save David and now Sammy goes and drags his brother away from his society friends and home to face a reckoning…

Rudolph Schildkraut and George Lewis
His People is good family fun and a film which is strong on the simple benefits of family, friends and community. To all immigrants it seems to be saying, help each other and make your way however you can, whether it’s via a profession or through your wits. This was very much a welcome message for the thousands of struggling émigré families in the United States and elsewhere: opportunistic flexibility even if this meant moving away from traditional values…or reinterpreting them.

The improvised score from Sophie Solomon was energetically inventive throughout without ever over facing the film itself. She is a highly-skilled violinist (and Artistic Director of the Jewish Music Institute), and was ably accompanied by Quentin Collins (trumpet), Ian Watson (accordion) and Grant Windsor (piano and occasional percussion!).

Some live scores can counter-point a silent film – rubbing modernity up against the old - but others support and move in tandem. Solomon’s group gave one of the best examples of the latter I’ve seen this year (up there with Stephen Horne and The Manxman). My uncle was a pro violinist, playing for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic for 30 years… he loved Jascha Heifetz and I am sure he would have loved Ms Solomon’s playing – strongly emotional and yet never sentimental with a line of steel resilience throughout and more than a hint of gypsy wildness!

Blanche Mehaffey and George Lewis
Sight and sound combined with a receptive and knowledgeable audience to produce a worthy tribute to a classic director and the culture he helped celebrate.

The UK Jewish Film Festival continues until 18th November and is an annual event: more details here.
His People is available on DVD from the US National Center for Jewish Film and no where else as far as I can see. Let’s hope for wider Sloman releases sooner rather than later!

Edward Sloman discusses the script with Rudolph Schildkraut

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