Flaunting It: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s “Nice” Jewish (Bad) Boys (Part 2)

Posted by J. Hoberman on 10.29.2011

Editor's Note: The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from the book Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting published by The Jewish Museum and Princeton University Press. The complete essay is being posted in four daily installments. J. Hoberman is co-programmer of the series Hollywood's "Jew Wave", which runs at the Walter Reade Theater from November 3 to 13.

A POST-GRADUATE CINEMA
(Previously: Part One)

Bye Bye Braverman
Bye Bye Braverman. Image courtesy of the Kobal Collection.

         Benjamin Braddock, a nice boy who acted badly in his bumbling sexual transgression and defiance of parental authority, was a crypto-Jew. There was, however, no mistaking the protagonists of Bye Bye Braverman (Warner Bros.) and The Producers (Avco Embassy), two comedies that opened in New York during the winter of 1968. Bye Bye Braverman was adapted by Herbert Sargent from Wallace Markfield's 1964 novel To an Early Grave, a roman à clef that imagined the response of various New York intellectuals to the untimely death of the Partisan Review writer Isaac Rosenfeld. Sidney Lumet, the son of Yiddish actor Baruch Lumet, and himself a child performer in the Yiddish theater, directed Braverman as the follow-up to his adaptation of a far more somber Jewish novel, The Pawnbroker, the most notable and controversial Hollywood treatment of the Holocaust between The Diary of Anne Frank (Twentieth Century Fox, 1959) and Schindler's List (Universal, 1994).

         The mode of Bye Bye Braverman is bleakly humorous. Having learned of Leslie Braverman's fatal heart attack (news delivered as a laugh line), a quartet of laboriously wisecracking intellectuals—George Segal, Jack Warden, Sorrell Brooke, and Joseph Wiseman—set off in a red Volkswagen on a journey across Brooklyn in search of their friend's funeral. Bye Bye Braverman is set in the totally Jewish world of a 1930s Yiddish talking picture, complete with Jewish black man. (Even the various couples are Jewish.) The credits evoke the principals' Lower East Side or Brooklyn childhoods and their formative experiences—catching an Italian neorealist film at a Greenwich Village movie house, attending a rally on the Columbia campus for Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas—before introducing them in the contexts of their current Manhattan neighborhoods.

         This neo-shtetl geography is scarcely Braverman's lone parochial element. The cast's heavy New York accents and Jewish inflections are close to kabuki. The dialogue is peppered with Yiddishisms, some of which—as when Wiseman's dour, sarcastic character refers to his son as a kocker [shit]--would have pushed the boundaries of then-acceptable English vulgarity. There are also numerous impossibly obscure references, at least for a Hollywood movie—not just to Franz Kafka and Søren Kierkegaard, but to (the pre-Portnoy's Complaint) Philip Roth, the collectivization of Soviet agriculture, and the “Tsadek [holy sage] of Lublin”--as well as an arcane debate on the morality of a Jew owning a German automobile.

         Wiseman, the group's self-appointed conscience, complains directly to God, while the bleak ending has the hapless Segal addressing a row of gravestones. These characters were something previously unseen on the screen. Confronted with a novel expression of ethnic identity, critics fell back on earlier models. Newsweek reviewer Paul Zimmerman bizarrely described Braverman's sexy, voluble widow (Jessica Walter) as “an imitation of Molly Goldberg,” while, in the Village Voice, Andrew Sarris imagined that Segal's guilty intellectual might once have been a role for tough kid John Garfield!

         A New York Times production story describes Lumet directing Wiseman in Yiddish before taking his cast out for “a nice dairy lunch.” Lumet informed the Times that his film was a new sort of Jewish comedy: “It's not the Molly Goldberg kind of humor...It's the irreverent but wholly universal humor of the bookish, Jewish intellectual.” Critics, however, found the movie to be both unduly insular and overly broad. Several reviews paraphrased the current Levy's rye bread ad campaign. The Catholic weekly Commonweal asserted that “you do have to be Jewish to appreciate Bye Bye Braverman.The Nation modified this position: “You don't have to be Jewish to love [Bye Bye Braverman] but it helps a lot to be a New Yorker.” Indeed, Newsday wondered whether “anyone west of the Hudson” could even understand the movie.

         Filled with the attention-grabbing bits that Jewish comedians called “shtick,” Bye Bye Braverman stops in its tracks for solos by two stand-up comics, Godfrey Cambridge as a black Jewish cab driver, and Alan King as a rabbi delivering a funeral oration. (As Sig Altman notes, King's performance was “an instance of the comedian-turned-rabbi-turned-comedian.”) From their pews, the boys irreverently comment on or kibbitz King's routine—a virtual Borscht Belt shpritz of one-liners—only to discover that they have wandered into the wrong funeral. Variety was put off by the “tasteless jokes, all at the expense of Jewish people,” and speculated that Bye Bye Braverman would “offend the sensibilities of many, and merely titillate the prejudices of others.” Others deemed the stereotypes to be accurate. Robert Hatch wrote in The Nation that he was “not going to let the Anti-Defamation League con me out of saying that modern urban Jewry has developed a gallery of personality styles that can be defined by fraternal caricature.”

         Reviewing the movie in the New Republic, Kauffmann cited his previous review of Markfield's novel: “These educated Jews slip into their exaggerated music-hall turns with an air of 'Who's kidding whom? Culture shmulture, this is what we are.'... Whether Markfield mocks these men because they are still too Jewish or are not Jewish enough is not clear.” The movie, however, made this point moot. The protagonists are recognizably Jewish and so are their attitudes. These characters “could hardly pass for intellectuals,” Pauline Kael wrote in the New Yorker, “but they have become even more 'Jewish'...they're Jewish comics.” In her dislike for the film, Kael recognized that Bye Bye Braverman had less to do with Jewish-American life than Jewish-American show business—or, rather, that the tropes of Jewish-American show business had come to signify Jewish-American life.

The Producers
The Producers. Image courtesy of Embassy Pictures / The Kobal Collection.

         This was even more true of The Producers, the first feature written and directed by Mel Brooks. The film's well-known premise has a seedy Broadway impresario, Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel), who finances his shows by romancing and bilking elderly widows, and a timorous, if ultimately crooked, accountant named Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), hatch a scheme to defraud their investors by overselling shares in a show so offensive to the Broadway audience that it is certain to close after one performance. To this end, the partners select Springtime for Hitler, a musical by an unreconstructed Nazi, Franz Liebkind. Bialystock and Bloom further guarantee their show's failure by hiring a dimwitted cross-dressing director Roger De Bris and bestowing the role of Hitler on a mind-blown method-acting hippie known as LSD. As ultimate insurance, Bialystock insults the drama critic from the New York Times by proffering him an opening night bribe. But, as terrible as Springtime for Hitler is, the audience takes it for a comedy—even a satire. The show is a hit and the swindlers wind up in jail. 

         “Springtime for Hitler,” The Producers' initial title until the distributor, Joseph H. Levine, prevailed upon the filmmakers to change it, was a gag that Brooks had nurtured for years—an ultimate Show of Shows skit, complete with a dialect role perfect for Sid Caesar, the TV star for whom Brooks had created countless comic German characters. Brooks—who himself played several comic Nazis in the comedy albums he recorded with Carl Reiner—promoted his idea in a Playboy interview published two months before the musical Cabaret opened on Broadway in late 1966.

         Unstinting in its comic aggression, The Producers gave the sense—not altogether uncommon in the 1960s—of putting something on the screen for the first time. Mostel's Bialystock is a sort of frenzied Groucho Marx (complete with asides to the audience) inflated to Falstaffian proportions--a fount of libidinal energy and rampant orality who not only chews the scenery and devours the camera lens but kisses everything in range. Staring out his office window, Bialystock spies another show-biz exit a limousine with a statuesque blonde and is moved to scream, “Flaunt it, baby! Flaunt it!”

         Although far less flashy in its technique than The Graduate, The Producers was, in its way, one more example of a Hollywood (as well as a Jewish) new wave. Brooks flaunted his own historical references by evoking the movies of the 1930s, predicting gags on knowledge of such Partisan Review heroes as James Joyce, Kafka, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky—as well as incorporating the sort of Yiddishisms that had been a leitmotif on Your Show of Shows. (Roger De Bris might be the name for an aristocratic mohel.) In its confrontational “bad boy” attitude, The Producers was also a manifestation of the “sick.” That financing was arranged by Sidney Glazier, Oscar-winning producer of a movie as dignified as The Eleanor Roosevelt Story (Allied Artists, 1965), seems like one of Brooks's bad-taste jokes.

         The words “Jew” and “Jewish” are never used in The Producers. Indeed, one of the best gags is the Nazi playwright's strategic obliviousness to the evident Jewishness of his producers. Not only are their names, professions, and demeanors stereotypically Jewish, their interpreters were as well. Having created the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof four seasons earlier, Mostel was a Jewish icon. In 1969, after Wilder was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor, Hollywood Reporter declared that he was now in “dueling contention” with Hoffman for the title role in a movie version of Roth's just-published Portnoy's Complaint.

         Not surprisingly, some found The Producers not only coarse, but also overly ethnic. The movie, Kael wrote in the New Yorker, “revels in the kind of show business Jewish humor that used to be considered too specialized for movies.” Kael attributed this new, brazen sensibility to the rise of Jewish stand-up comics and their appearance on TV. “Screenwriters used to take the Jewish out but, now that television comedians exploit themselves as stereotypes, screenwriters are putting the Jewish in, pushing it for laughs—and getting them.” (Interestingly, Kael had cited a similar phenomenon – the popularization of a hitherto in-group attitude—to explain why some people felt threatened by the seemingly nihilistic violence of the year's surprise hit, Bonnie and Clyde.)

         Far from self-deprecating in its Jewish humor, The Producers conveys considerable cultural confidence—loud and proud, it is a rebellion against invisibility, the equivalent of dancing on the Führer’s grave, a sort of twentieth-century Purim play with Hitler invoked as the absurd Haman. When the movie was reincarnated a third of a century later, in 2001, as a wildly successful Broadway musical, Brook's entire “Springtime for Hitler” concept became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!
I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! Image courtesy of the Kobal Collection.

         The original Producers was scarcely so popular. Embassy chose to first release the movie outside New York, premiering it in Washington and Philadelphia over Thanksgiving 1967. Turnout was sparse and laughter nonexistent. When The Producers opened several months later at a midtown Manhattan art house, it was greeted with mainly negative notices—including pans from New York's leading critics. The movie did, however, have a full-page endorsement from Peter Sellers, himself a Jew. “Those of us who have seen this film and understand it have experienced a phenomenon which occurs only once in a lifetime,” Sellers wrote. In fact, Sellers had some responsibility for getting The Producers released. He first saw the then-shelved movie in January 1968 as part of “the outrageous, hash-infused psychedelic-era screenings” held during the filming of his own new-wave Jewish comedy, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!, and was so impressed that he phoned Levine at 2:00 A.M. Three days later, Sellers took out an ad in Daily Variety in support of the movie (later repeated in the New York Times).

         Directed by TV refugee Hy Averback from an original screenplay by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, two writers for The Danny Kaye Show, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! (Warner Bros.) was released in late 1968. Sellers plays repressed Los Angeles lawyer Harold Fine, the neurotic scion of a nouveau riche Jewish family, former owner of a Brooklyn candy store. Annoying, accented, and obtrusive, Fine's mother (Jo Van Fleet) is the movie's most intense and stereotyped character. Perhaps concerned that he is marrying a version of his mother, Fine leaves his Jewish fiancée Joyce (Joyce Van Patten) flanked by the Twin Cantors under the huppah [wedding canopy], and subsequently takes up with a presumably Gentile flower child (Leigh Taylor-Young). Under her influence and that of her hashish brownies, the lawyer drops out and transforms his house into a hippie crash pad. “In my gantse lebn [whole life] I never saw such a mess,” mom exclaims before she and dad sample some brownies themselves.

         Like Bye Bye Braverman, Alice B. Toklas employs vulgar Yiddishisms.  (It also features a comic funeral to which Fine's brother arrives dressed as a Hopi Indian.) According to Mazursky, Warner Bros. initially feared the movie was “too Jewish” and hence a commercial risk. What seems equally striking is its tolerance for drugs and the counterculture. Released without a rating, but with the proviso “for mature audiences,” I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! was compared (usually unfavorably) to The Graduate, not the least in the ending in which, having abandoned Joyce for the second time under the huppah, Harold runs out into the streets of Los Angeles, still expressing his own alienation with the hope that “there's got to be something beautiful out there.”

Previously: Part One
Next: Roth's Complaints

©J. Hoberman
Originally published with notes and illustrations in J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler's, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting (Jewish Museum/Princeton University Press, 2003).

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