Joseph Green is the Steven Spielberg of Yiddish filmmakers. During the 1930s, he directed four Yiddish-language films on location in Poland — lyrical Old World tales that depicted a culture in which “shtetl” and “samovar” were as recognizable as “Brooklyn Bridge” and “bagels” are to New Yorkers today.
On the occasion of the 12th Annual New York Jewish Film Festival, we present a 1978 interview with Green that took place in Green’s wood-paneled West 57th Street office at Globe Pictures, his film distribution company. Green, a dapper man with a soft face and voice, was in his late 70s at the time; he died in 1996. The interviewer, Rob Edelman, reports that the director’s brown eyes widened as he recalled life in Poland just before Adolf Hitler snuffed out his beloved yidishkayt .
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Green: My father, he loved the Jewish theater. When I was a boy, he would always take me to the Yiddish shows. I guess that must have left an imprint on me for the future. I was with an amateur acting group during the First World War and then enrolled in dramatic school. By that time, I knew exactly what I wanted. I was accepted as a performer with the Vilna Troupe [the group, organized in 1915, whose production of Shloime Ansky’s “The Dybbuk” in 1919 revolutionized world theater] …. In 1923, when the company was touring England, it was engaged by Harry Thomashefsky, son of the famous Yiddish actor Boris Thomashefsky, to play New York. So that’s how I came to the United States.
How did you become involved in filmmaking?
First, I became an actor with Rudolph Schildkraut’s acting company in the Bronx. He and his son Joseph were soon engaged in Hollywood to play in [Cecil B.] DeMille’s “King of Kings.” I followed them West. I had a bit in “King of Kings” and was in two scenes in a synagogue in “The Jazz Singer.” The process of motion pictures was strange to me, but I was impressed by talking pictures. Although I was only required for two days of shooting, I was on the set day and night for nine weeks. I felt that I would soon be making movies. And, being a young Jewish actor, my first thought was to make Jewish movies.
But you didn’t immediately become a director.
During the summer of 1932, I was engaged to perform on the stage in Lemberg, Poland. I took along a print of an Italian silent film that I’d dubbed with Yiddish dialogue, which I called “Joseph in Egypt.” Although Poland had over 4 million Jews, a Yiddish talkie had never played there. Some Polish producers who were Jewish tried to talk me out of showing the film because they felt it would create antisemitism. But I finally found two men who owned a theater and were willing to show “Joseph” at Passover…. [It] ran about 30 weeks in Warsaw and then toured all over Poland. In 1934, I brought another film over, “Bar Mitzvah,” with Boris Thomashefsky. It (too) was a success.
How did this lead to your directing?
I wanted to make a folktale about Jewish life in Poland. When you talk about folklore, you talk about song. So I decided to make a musical folk film. As the star, Molly Picon was the first name that came to mind…. Konrad Tom, the head of a political-satirical theater in Warsaw, came to me with a story about four musicians who played in marketplaces and at weddings. At one wedding, the bride cries because her family is poor and she has to marry an old farmer. So the musicians steal her. Molly Picon was not suited to play the bride, so I changed one of the musicians into a girl who is wandering with her father. Because it’s hard to travel with a girl, she dresses as a boy. This became “ Yidl Mitn Fidl ,” my first Yiddish film.
How would you describe your follow-up films?
“ Der Purimshpiler” is a Jewish fantasy about a man without roots who wanders about and falls in love. “ Mamele ,” also with Molly Picon, is about a young girl who is the mother to the rest of her family. “ A Brivele der Mamen” is about immigration — how the Jews go through World War I and the families spread, and how they try to find each other. I shot the latter two back-to-back, in 1938…. I thought I had to rush, that time was running out. [Green pauses, and takes a deep breath.] But who knew what was really going to happen in no less than a year? It’s sad that so little was recorded of that wonderful, sparkling Jewish life that once existed but is no more. And my films were just the beginning. If it wasn’t for [World War II], a whole Yiddish film industry would have developed in Poland. If it wasn’t for the war…
Rob Edelman, a lecturer in film history at the State University of New York at Albany, is the author, most recently, of “Matthau: A Life” (Taylor, 2002), which he wrote with Audrey Kupferberg.