Musicians Gabriel Thibaudeau and Devon Oviedo after performing live accompaniment to the silent film, “Humoresque” / photo taken by Rachel Mauro
Literature, film and music combined on Sunday afternoon, the last day of the 19th annual Washington, DC Jewish Music Festival. In partnership with AFI, the festival hosted a screening of Humoresque,
the 1920 silent film based on a short story of the same name by Fannie Hurst.
Canadian composer and pianist Gabriel Thibaudeau was joined by local violinist Devon Oviedo for the performance. Thibaudeau explained in a short q & a afterwards that he had his grandmother in mind as he cobbled together the score from popular music from the time. Principal among that was the song that the story was named after–Humoresque by Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák. In addition, he used the beginning of Kol Nidre, the liturgy that begins the Yom Kippur holiday, which was also part of the plot.
The story involves the son of a Jewish family living in the New York tenements around the beginning of the 20th century. He begs for an expensive violin for his birthday, which his mother indulges, much to his father’s chagrin. But ten years later, the boy, Leon, is living his ma’s dream by being internationally famous. The family moves out of the slums and onto Fifth Avenue. Leon even begins courting a girl from the neighborhood with a similar trajectory. But just as his life seems to have hit its stride, the Great War starts and he feels compelled to enlist. The written story ends on an ambiguous note, with Leon playing the happy and sad “Humoresque” before reporting for duty. The movie extends beyond that to give a more conclusive ending.
I loved the acting in the movie, particularly that of the mother, Sarah Kantor as played by Vera Gordon. At one point we could see a tear staining her eye, so the cinematography is also commendable. I like how, in the tenements, which the movie just went ahead and called “the Ghetto,” everyone looked much more traditional with their house dresses, and caftans and yarmulkes for the men. We even got to see Abrahm Kantor kiss his mezuzah and Sarah visit the synagogue. But once they made it big, it was all evening gowns and tuxedos and slicked back hair. It reminded me of reading a novel with similar rags-to-riches Jewish characters in the 1930s, called Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown.
But the narrative cards in the film were much more melodramatic. Much better was when it stuck to the comedic and anxious dialogue of the characters. Otherwise I found myself missing Hurst’s complex descriptions of life, like:
Beneath where even in the August noonday, the sun cannot find its way by a chink, and babies lie stark naked in the cavernous shade. Allen Street presents a sort of submarine and greenish gloom, as if its humanity were actually moving through a sea of aqueous shadows, faces rather bleached and shrunk from sunlessness as water can bleach and shrink. And then, like a shimmering background of orange-finned and copper-finned marine life, the brass-shops of Allen Street, whole rows of them, burn flamelessly and without benefit of fuel.
I also noticed how the love interest was delegated from a singer in her own right to a generic side character, though I suppose that would have been a distracting subplot in the film. The adaptation also changed the reason why the Kantors fled Russia—because of anti-Jewish pogroms—to the more universal idea of cruel autocracy, which spurred America’s involvement in the War. Then again, I was surprised that parts of this 1920 film could be so blatantly Jewish in the first place.
The modern musical addition, however, left nothing to be desired. It flowed so seamlessly into the emotions portrayed on screen that I could hardly consider the film existing without it. I did enjoy a few little flourishes, like Oviedo’s bad violin playing for kiddie Leon and later for his nephew, and Thibaudeau’s trill on the piano when Abrahm tugged Leon’s ear. Quite the enjoyable performance.
Though the music festival has concluded, AFI’s Silent Cinema Showcase will continue through November 26. Click here for more information. And check out my past coverage of the Washington DC Jewish Music Festival under the “annual events” tab.