The Jazz Singer at 90, Part IV (Jewish subjects on film before 1927)

Cohen’s Advertising Scheme (1904)

The Jazz Singer marked the first time many American Gentiles were exposed to Judaism. Sure, it promotes assimilation over religiosity, and the characters are a bit stereotypical, but by 1927 standards, this was a huge step forward.

Many prior Jewish characters typified all the worst, ugliest, most anti-Semitic stereotypes. Legendary director Edwin S. Porter’s Cohen series was a prime example of the “scheming merchant” stereotype.

Cohen’s Fire Sale (1907)

In Cohen’s Advertising Scheme, a grotesquely stereotyped shopkeeper tricks a passerby into buying a coat on which he’s hung a large sign advertising the store.

In Cohen’s Fire Sale (1907), Cohen is once again grotesquely made up like an ugly anti-Semitic stereotype. When a shipment of hats is accidentally picked up by rubbish collectors, Cohen chases their wagon through the streets of New York in hot pursuit.

After the hats fail to sell, Cohen reviews his insurance policy, sets a fire, and holds a fire sale. The film ends as Cohen reads the insurance policy and gives his wife a ring.

In Cohen Saves the Flag (1913), directed by the legendary Mack Sennett, popular comedian Ford Sterling plays Union Sgt. Cohen. He and Lt. Goldberg are bitter rivals for Rebecca (Mabel Normand). Yet again, Cohen is made up as a grotesque, ugly, anti-Semitic stereotype.

However, Cohen turns the tide of battle when he throws back an enemy grenade and raises a fallen flag. The film also contains impressive battle scenes, and a positive portrayal of a Jewish woman.

Goldberg tries to get Cohen shot by firing squad, but Rebecca rides to the rescue and conveys the truth about his battlefield heroics. Cohen is now hailed as as hero, and gets revenge on Goldberg.

Another early depiction of Jewish life was D.W. Griffith’s A Child of the Ghetto (1910), set on the Lower East Side’s Rivington Street. After Ruth’s mother dies, she supports herself as a seamstress. Then the son of the factory owner steals some money, and she’s accused of the crime.

Ruth flees the city and hides in the countryside, where a young farmer takes her in, and they fall in love. At the time, few other films dealing with Jewish subjects suggested moving from the city to the country might improve people’s lives and offer a better future.

Griffith’s Romance of a Jewess (1908) is also set on the Lower East Side. Professional actors commingle with real street vendors and locals. Again, the protagonist is named Ruth, and played by Florence Lawrence, “The Biograph Girl.” She was also known as the first American moviestar, and was very popular before people even knew her name.

The story involves not only romance, but the conflicts between different generations, representing the Old and New World.

Old Isaacs, the Pawnbroker (1908) was one of Griffith’s very first films. Though it does contain more stereotypically-made up characters, it features a pawnbroker as a humanitarian hero. A little girl goes to the Amalgamated Association of Charities to get help for her sick mother, but all the red tape makes it impossible.

She then goes to a pawnbroker to beg for help. First she offers shoes, which his assistant rejects. When she returns with her doll, the manager’s heart melts, and he stops the goons trying to evict the family. He also pays their rent, gives them food and medicine, and buys the girl a new doll.

Hungry Hearts (1922) is based on Anzia Yezierska’s stories about Lower East Side Jewish women’s lives. She was the first writer who brought such stories to a mainstream audience.

This film tells the story of the immigrant Levins. Janitor Sara falls in love with landlord Rosenblatt’s nephew David, who teaches her to write and read. David dreams of opening his own law office and getting out of his uncle’s clutches, but his uncle breaks them up and raises the Levins’ rent.

Mrs. Levin goes crazy from the stress, and damages the walls. When Rosenblatt takes them to court, David defends them. He and Sara reunite, and the Levins move to suburbia.

From Germany came a Golem trilogy, of which only the last installment, The Golem, is known to survive in full. These films are devoid of stereotypes like hook noses, money-grubbing, and nefarious scheming.

The Jazz Singer is no Left Luggage or Ushpizin, but it was a positive step forwards. Progress never comes overnight, all at once. It has to start somewhere.