Saturday, May 5, 2012

Hungry Hearts (1922)

Nobody’s a somebody before he can earn money in America.

Now there’s a line that sums things up. Whatever being a somebody means to you, you can’t be one unless you possess, or do, a thing someone else will pay for.

I’m enough of a capitalist to find this inspiring. Part of understanding the American Dream (which applies far beyond America’s borders) is to realize that it’s meant to punish the idle and self-indulgent. Only someone born to power should expect fealty for doing nothing; or, for that matter, the free time to produce something nobody else cares about.

It’s not that simple, of course; but this is the sort of belief that brought so many people to North America to pursue something better. To be somebodies. The idea crossed all cultures: Hungry Hearts, a melodrama about a family of Jews who emigrated from Czarist Russia to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, could have been about a lot of people, in lots of different decades. So long as its characters remained driven by the dream of personal advancement through hard work and talent, it would have rung true.

I liked Hungry Hearts more than I expected to. Descriptions of it worried me: a family fleeing hardship of one kind in the Old World and encountering another in the New; a story adapted from the work of Anzia Yezierska, an author known, even in her own time, for romantic excess. I feared schmaltz. But more than that, I feared predictability. Hungry Hearts is indeed over the top, but predictable, it’s not.

We first meet the Levin family: Abraham, Hanneh, and their children, living in a one-room Russian shack. Abraham (E. Alyn Warren) is the bookish sort, and socially conscious; he likes to gather the village children together at his dinner table and teach them to read. A Cossack, out to put a stop to such things, kicks in the Levin’s door; telling Abraham, for the last time, to quit promoting literacy. Then he steps on Hanneh’s fresh loaf of bread.

I had a History professor who told me that bread was the only prepared food that every society, everywhere, had managed to develop on its own. Meaning that, whether your bread is tall or flat, light or dark, bland or spicy, it represents you. Viewed in light of this, the squashing of Hanneh’s loaf beneath the Cossack’s boot carries a bit more weight.

The Levin’s decision to move to New York City is predicated, as is usual in stories like these, on great hope; fuelled by a lack of eye-witness accounts. The truth surprises them: American streets are not paved with gold. American lodgings are not gigantic; though the family’s new tenement space, which opens onto a dedicated kitchen, is a step up from their shack. Their landlord, Rosenblatt, played by the dependably diabolical George Siegmann, proves a heartless penny-pincher with no sympathy for new arrivals, even though he was one himself, once.

The Levins struggle to get ahead—that’s expected in a film like this. But there’s a subversive element to their troubles that keeps things interesting for us. Abraham, a born pedagogue, proves ill-suited to the only work can he find in America: selling fruit. “Somebody stole from me the pushcart,” he’s soon moaning to a friend. He wasn’t turning a profit anyway. Abraham isn’t lazy, or foolish; he is an intellectual, and a driven one. What are we saying here?

Soon Hanneh (Rosa Rosanova), and the eldest Levin child, Sara (Helen Ferguson), are pitching in. Hanneh, a burly, non-nonsense Russian mom, finds work scrubbing floors in a rich woman’s house. She’s agog at what her employer possesses, but it produces neither envy nor bitterness in her; only motivation. Sara, a less forceful personality than her mom, finds factory work. Her beauty is her greatest asset.

In time, Sara will attract the attention of a young Jewish lawyer named David (Bryant Washburn). David owes his education to Rosenblatt. This provides us with one of the film’s best lines, uttered (really, muttered) by the older man: “See what it cost me—your diploma. I could buy for less a Cadillac—anyhow a Ford.”

I saw Hungry Hearts in a full theatre and I’ll tell you: that one cracked us up. There are a lot of funny lines in Hungry Hearts; most of them rooted in the naivety of the characters and the distinctive ways that Yiddish-speaking immigrants construct sentences in English. “Ach! The white beautifulness of your kitchen! It lifts me, like on wings in the air!” cries Hanneh to her boss. This isn’t mockery. Not the cruel, uninformed kind, anyway. The material, based on the work of an author who was herself a Polish Jew who immigrated to New York, feels honest and authentic; even familiar. Even to me. It gave rise to a branch of American comedy that practically everyone knows well today. If these lines don’t make you laugh, you don’t know from jokes.

About that white, beautiful kitchen: It’s pretty important. Soon after seeing it, Hanneh—broke and frustrated—decides to jumpstart the Levins to a better life by parroting the one part of her workplace she’s sure she can emulate without spending much money. She buys a can of paint and paints her kitchen white as an eggshell. Every inch of it.

An academic would have a field-day with this scene. And with what follows. Rosenblatt, upon discovering Hanneh’s self-directed upgrade, decides that the value of the property has now increased; so he doubles the Levin’s rent. Hanneh, infuriated by this, takes a cleaver in hand and hacks her kitchen walls to pieces. I remember, clearly and with much sympathy, Hanneh’s face pressed against the white wall in the moment before she swung the blade—her look of despair, smothered first by obstinacy, then by rage.

Sometimes we’ll criticize a film by saying that its reach exceeds its grasp. Hungry Hearts’ grasp exceeds its reach, if that’s possible. There’s more here than the simplistic, formula plot would seem to allow; or its producers, perhaps, intended. But that’s good for us. When so many pieces of a film stay with you, average though the film might otherwise be, it has earned your dime.

Where to see Hungry Hearts:
I saw Hungry Hearts on April 29, 2012, at Toronto’s Al Green Theatre; one of two screenings held by the Toronto Jewish Film Society. Live accompaniment was provided by pianist Jordan Klapman.

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