For Your NFR Consideration: Robin Williams

FYNFRC: Robin Williams

Last week would have been Robin Williams’ 70th birthday. Like many of my generation, I grew up watching and admiring the man: my childhood hearing his voice-work in “Aladdin” and “Ferngully”, my teenage years enjoying his talk show appearances and raunchy stand-up, and my adult years discovering his more serious fare such as “Good Will Hunting” and “Dead Poets Society”. From his high energy comedy to his subtle dramatic chops, and everything in between, Robin Williams left his mark on the world, and I am one of many who miss him immeasurably. 

For someone so ingrained in our popular culture, it’s amazing that Robin Williams doesn’t have a single movie on the National Film Registry. Here are a few of Robin Williams’ more significant movies that I feel would fit right in on this list of noteworthy American films:

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987): Yes, there’s “Popeye” and “The World According to Garp” if you want an early Robin appearance, but “Vietnam” is when Robin Williams went from stand-up/sitcom actor trying to be in the movies to bona-fide movie star. Playing real life Armed Forces DJ Adrian Cronauer, Williams is offered the perfect vehicle to display his rapid-fire comedy style on the big screen. Plus, an NFR designation for “Vietnam” would serve as representation for director Barry Levinson, also conspicuously absent from the list (and God help us all if “Rain Man” makes the cut)

Dead Poets Society (1989): This is where all that Julliard training comes in handy. With “Dead Poets Society”, Williams still gets to do funny voices and era-appropriate impressions (at last, an excuse for his Brando in “Julius Caesar”), but he also effectively highlights his dramatic skills as an unorthodox professor who inspires a group of prep school students, including Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Josh Charles. “Dead Poets Society” still resonates with anyone who ever had a great teacher, and “carpe diem” is the only Latin most people will ever know.

Aladdin (1992): While not quite at the same level of “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Lion King“, “Aladdin” is still an undeniable classic from the Disney Renaissance of the early ’90s, and a lot of that credit goes to Robin Williams. The marriage of Williams’ energetic voice-over and Eric Goldberg’s Hirschfeld-inspired animation is truly one of the holiest matrimonies, and makes this movie a rewatchable experience for multiple generations, even if your kids don’t know who William F. Buckley was.

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993): The last of the truly great classic drag comedies, “Mrs. Doubtfire” is another great showcase for Robin Williams, this time as a divorced, unemployed voice-over actor who poses as an elderly Scottish woman and gets a job as his kids’ nanny. Williams’ improvisational energy carries over to the rest of this strong ensemble (even the usually serious Sally Field is hilarious), and “Doubtfire” is still one of the funniest, and most quotable, movies ever made. And if that weren’t enough, at its core “Doubtfire” is also a genuinely sweet movie that destigmatizes the impact divorce has on a family.

The Birdcage (1996): Like “Doubtfire”, “Birdcage” is an instantly quotable comedy classic (“Sweetie, you’re wasting your gum.”). Unlike “Doubtfire”, it takes the drag comedy to its next evolutionary step, where the drag isn’t a comic device, but rather a way of life for these characters. The film is a plea of tolerance for our LGBTQ+ community, and while Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria have the showier parts, Williams is the straight man (if you will) in the center keeping it all together. With a sharp script from Elaine May, “Birdcage” may not be the most nuanced take on homosexuality in American film, but it is an important (and hilarious) stepping stone.

Good Will Hunting (1997): You like apples? How about the movie that finally nabbed Robin Williams his Oscar, made overnight stars of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and gave Gus Van Zant the confidence to remake “Psycho”? How do you like them apples?

Other Robin Williams movies I would consider NFR worthy, but only after the above movies make the cut:

  • The World According to Garp (1982)
  • Awakenings (1990)
  • Hook (1991)

NFR worthy movies that Robin Williams appears in, but that I wouldn’t label a “Robin Williams Movie”:

  • To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)**
  • A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
  • The Aristocrats (2005)

Bonus Consideration: Equally shocking, Robin Williams isn’t on the National Recording Registry either! In a list that includes stand-up recordings from Bob Newhart, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Steve Martin, any of Williams’ albums would feel right at home in the NRR. His 1979 debut album “Reality…What a Concept” is a natural choice, and I have a fondness for his “Live 2002” recording, but 1986’s “A Night at the Met” is the definitive Robin Williams stand-up performance.

As always, you – yes YOU – can be the change you want to see in this scenario. It is your God-given right as a human with internet access to submit movies for National Film Registry consideration (as well as the National Recording Registry). Once you’ve submitted all of Robin’s great work, check out this list of notable movies not yet on the list and see if any of your other favorite stars could use some representation. As Robin Williams once said, “God gave men a brain and a penis, and only enough blood to run one at a time.” I know that has nothing to do with any of this; I just really like that line.

** “To Wong Foo” actually predates “The Birdcage” in its appreciation of drag culture, but for our purposes here “Birdcage” works better as a Robin Williams NFR contender.

#45) Toy Story (1995)

#45) Toy Story (1995)

OR “Pixar Upper”

Directed by John Lasseter

Written by Joss Whedon and Andrew Stanton and Joel Cohen & Alec Sokolow. Story by Lasseter & Stanton & Pete Docter & Joe Ranft.

Class of 2005

This is a revised and updated version of my original “Toy Story” post, which you can read here.

The Plot: “Toy Story” is, well, a story about toys, specifically the ones who belong to Andy (voice by John Morris), and come alive when he’s not around. Led by pull-string doll Sheriff Woody (voice by Tom Hanks), the toys are anxious when Andy receives a new toy for his birthday: spaceman Buzz Lightyear (voice by Tim Allen), a somewhat delusional action-figure who quickly surpasses Woody as Andy’s favorite. Woody’s jealousy causes him and Buzz to become stranded in the outside world, falling into the hands of Andy’s sadistic neighbor Sid (voice by Erik von Detten). Together, Woody and Buzz must set aside their differences, return home to Andy, and finally answer the question “What if toys had feelings?”

Why It Matters: The NFR gives “Toy Story” its credit as the first full-length computer animated feature, and that it “changed animation’s face and delivery system”.

But Does It Really?: I always forget just how great a movie “Toy Story” is. There’s a certain high-level of quality that we’ve become accustomed to with Pixar, but it all started here, with a creative story that tapped into our collective imagination, aided by a clever script, some outstanding performances (both vocal and animated), and some major breakthroughs in computer technology. Not since “Snow White” has one animated film been such a big game changer, and “Toy Story” hits all of the NFR’s requirements for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.

Everybody Gets One: Among those making their only NFR appearance are Pixar mainstays Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton, screenwriter Joss Whedon (yes, that Joss Whedon), actors Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Laurie Metcalf and Penn Jillette, and – most surprisingly – composer Randy Newman.

Shout Outs: References and allusions to fellow NFR movies “The Wizard of Oz“, “Night of the Living Dead“, “The Exorcist“, “Star Wars“, “Alien“, “The Shining”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark“, “The Lion King“, and fellow Pixar films “Luxo Jr.” and “Tin Toy”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mostly the early CGI look of the mid-90s, and the plug for the film’s CD-ROM tie-in during the end credits. Also: themed restaurants, remember those?

Seriously, Oscars?: The highest-grossing film of 1995 at the US box office, “Toy Story” received three Oscar nominations: Best Original Song, Original Musical or Comedy Score, and Original Screenplay (the first animated film to receive a writing nomination). While it lost all three awards (two to Disney’s “Pocahontas”), John Lasseter received a Special Achievement Oscar for “the development and inspired application of techniques” that created “Toy Story”.

Other notes

  • The success of Lasseter’s short “Tin Toy” caught the attention of Disney, whom Lasseter had worked for a decade earlier. Through a series of tense negotiations between the two companies (exacerbated by Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg’s self-confessed “tyrant” behavior), an agreement was made for Disney to distribute a film made by Pixar. With computer technology finally reaching a point in the ’90s where a feature length film was feasible, a proposed “Tin Toy” TV special morphed into what became “Toy Story”. While Katzenberg was the one who suggested the film be an odd-couple buddy picture, he also pushed for edgier humor, and for Woody to be more mean-spirited. This culminated in a disastrous November 1993 screening dubbed the “Black Friday Incident” by those in attendance. Production was shut down, and the next three months were spent extensively re-working the movie more to Lasseter’s original version. Pixar’s then-owner Steve Jobs (yes, that Steve Jobs) funded production with his own money during the shutdown.
  • For starters, “Toy Story” succeeds on sheer premise alone. Stories of toys coming to life are nothing new (even Hans Christian Andersen wrote about them), but “Toy Story” brings it into a modern setting. There’s no “Once Upon a Time” or magic spell; it’s 1995 and toys are alive, let’s go. 
  • If Randy Newman’s songs seem out of place, that’s because they stemmed from a compromise Pixar made with Disney. Disney wanted the film to be a full-blown musical (they were in the midst of the Disney Renaissance after all), but Pixar felt that it would feel out of place for these characters to sing. An agreement was reached in which Randy Newman would compose and perform songs that would comment on the action, a la Simon & Garfunkel in “The Graduate“. Apparently Newman wrote the film’s most iconic song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” in one day.
  • Yeah, you can definitely see the Katzenberg influence on this movie. With its share of wordplay and adult innuendo (most of it involving Annie Potts’ Bo Peep), “Toy Story” acts as a presage to the kind of animation Dreamworks would be cranking out in a few years time.
  • All of the supporting roles are cast with performers whose typecasting is played to the movie’s advantage: Wallace Shawn as a neurotic, R. Lee Ermey as a drill sergeant, Jim Varney as a well-meaning redneck, John Ratzenberger as a vaguely-Bostonian know it all, Don Rickles as…Don Rickles (I barely get the hockey puck reference).
  • It’s funny how many little references in this movie that were put in for world building now read as foreshadowing to the sequels: Mrs. Potato Head, Al’s Toy Barn, and Combat Carl come to mind.
  • “Toy Story” also succeeds in its presentation of scope. There’s plenty of POV shots and wide angles to suggest that the toys’ world is far larger than just a kid’s bedroom.
  • Wow, Woody really is a jerk in this movie. You’re lucky Tom Hanks is so charming, smoothing out the character’s envy to make him more the Salieri to Buzz’s Mozart.
  • We have a Wilhelm! “Toy Story” is one of at least eight films on the NFR to feature the famous Wilhelm Scream.
  • It’s so odd trying to watch this movie as its own entity, and not part of a larger franchise. Even the aliens in the claw machine are iconic! 
  • I’ve known my share of kids who were similar to Sid, and while they’re not as goody-two shoes as Andy, they’re more fun to hang out with.
  • Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyer drunk on Darjeeling is possibly my favorite moment in the movie: “You see the hat? I am Mrs….Nesbitt!”
  • It’s so interesting to watch a Pixar movie that hasn’t quite fallen into the tropes. There’s no big ugly cry moment, though Woody’s impassioned “You are his toy” monologue comes close, as does the cathartic climax of our two leads flying.
  • Honestly, I didn’t take a lot of notes towards the end, mainly because I was just enjoying the movie. The screenplay is so well constructed. The stakes are always clearly conveyed (typically through inventive visuals), and once we hit the third act it starts rainin’ payoffs!
  • Thanks to his duet with Randy Newman in the closing credits, this counts as an NFR appearance for Lyle Lovett. Also noteworthy in the credits: Pixar’s tradition of listing “Production Babies”, who are now all Gen Z-ers in their mid-20s.

Legacy

  • “Toy Story” exceeded all expectations, becoming a runaway hit with audiences and critics, and plans for a sequel began immediately. Like many Disney sequels at the time, “Toy Story 2” was going to be released direct-to-video, but early story reels (as well as the return of the original cast) indicated that this should be a theatrical release. The result is one of the rare sequels arguably better than the original.
  • Like every Disney product (then and now), “Toy Story” was placed in the Mouse House’s perpetual synergy machine, with tons of merchandise and promotional tie-ins upon its release. In the ensuing quarter century, the “Toy Story” characters have continued to appear in a countless array of theatrical shorts, TV specials, theme park attractions, video games, and other media. The phrase “To infinity and beyond!” has also endured as a catchphrase and popular movie quote.
  • The contentious relationship between Pixar and Disney (specifically Steve Jobs and Disney CEO Michael Eisner) continued until the mid-2000s, when Pixar announced that it would no longer distribute its films through Disney. When Eisner stepped down and Bob Iger became Disney’s President and CEO, one of Iger’s first tasks was to patch things up with Jobs, culminating in Disney’s purchase of Pixar in 2006. These business deals delayed “Toy Story 3” for several years, with Disney’s original version being scrapped entirely.
  • 2010’s “Toy Story 3” and 2019’s “Toy Story 4” both did the impossible and were sequels worthy of their successors. And I’m willing to admit that both of them made me ugly cry upon my first viewing.
  • Pixar is still thriving today (albeit without John Lasseter after some sexual misconduct allegations in 2017), cranking out plenty of high-quality animated movies that continue in the “Toy Story” vein of good characters, strong writing, and making you feel all the feels.
  • No need for a remake, because in 2012, Jonason Pauley and Jesse Perrotta made a shot-for-shot fan recreation of “Toy Story” using real toys. An impressive feat two years in the making!
  • And thank god, in 2022 we will receive a Buzz Lightyear movie, specifically the Buzz Lightyear movie in the “Toy Story” universe that the action figure was created for. Hollywood has officially run out of ideas.

#588) Notes on the Port of St. Francis (1951)

#588) Notes on the Port of St. Francis (1951)

OR “Filmin’ on the Dock of the Bay”

Directed by Frank Stauffacher

Based on text written by Robert Louis Stevenson

Class of 2013

No clips I could embed here, but you can watch the whole film at the Bay Area Television Archive website, courtesy of my alma mater, San Francisco State University.

The Plot: San Francisco gets the city symphony treatment in “Notes on the Port of St. Francis”. As Vincent Price narrates Robert Louis Stevenson’s various musings of The City, Frank Stauffacher’s camera captures the many natural and manmade wonders of San Francisco: from waves splashing against the coastline to the impressive structures of the Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower, from the old world charm of North Beach to the celebrated traditions of Chinatown. Together, Stevenson’s words and Stauffacher’s images paint a well-rounded portrait.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “[i]mpressionistic and evocative” and praises Stauffacher’s “organization of iconic imagery”. There’s also an essay by film professor and AMPAS scholar Scott MacDonald.

But Does It Really?: I’m always biased towards San Francisco footage on this list, but if the NFR can devote entry after entry to New York City, they can throw SF a bone every once in a while. While not as monumental in the history of experimental film as some of his successors, Frank Stauffacher is still an important part of that history, and there’s plenty of room for his well crafted love letter to Fog City on the NFR.

Everybody Gets One: Frank Stauffacher spent the late ’40s and early ’50s at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as the head of “Art in Cinema”, an organization he ran with the hopes of not only educating the Bay Area on experimental film, but also encouraging a continuation of said experimentation. Inspired by Steiner and Van Dyke’s “The City”, Stauffacher wanted to make a “City Symphony” about San Francisco. He also made a film about Sausalito, but who cares about them?

Everybody Gets One – Source Material Edition: I didn’t realize how big a role San Francisco played in the life of Robert Louis Stevenson. By the late 1870s, the future “Jekyll & Hyde” author was romantically involved with Frances “Fanny” Van de Grift Osbourne, an American woman living in Grez-sur-Loing, France after a separation from her unfaithful husband. When Fanny returned to the Bay Area in 1879, Stevenson made the trek out to her; the extensive traveling doing wonders for his creativity, but little for his lifelong bronchiectasis. Within six months of his arrival, Stevenson’s health had greatly improved, Fanny’s divorce was finalized, and the two married, honeymooning in Napa Valley. Stevenson wrote about San Francisco with some regularity for the rest of his life, including the short essays “A Modern Cosmopolis” (1883) and “The Old and New Pacific Capitals” (1880).

Wow, That’s Dated: The one main giveaway in Stevenson’s text is the “wooden houses” he saw in San Francisco. Most of the wooden houses were destroyed in the fires that followed the 1906 earthquake.

Other notes on the Port of St. Francis

  • At this point in Vincent Price’s career he had already made a splash in such ’40s noir as “Laura” and “Leave Her to Heaven”, and was oscillating between the lead roles in the B-pictures and the supporting roles in the A-pictures. Price was also a regular on serial radio dramas at this time, so it’s no surprise that he would lend his smooth voice to this film. It’s Vincent’s second best piece of narration on the Registry, behind, of course, “Thriller“.
  • It is nice to see San Francisco represented on this list in footage that wasn’t taken immediately before or after an earthquake. It’s also nice to see picture perfect 1950s San Francisco without it serving as a backdrop to Jimmy Stewart stalking Kim Novak.
  • “Notes” gives thanks in its credits to the Maritime Museum, which I’m happy to say is still around, tucked away right next to Aquatic Park. I went there once for a wedding!
  • Ah, bumper to bumper traffic and 1 Hour Parking signs. Some things never change.
  • There’s a montage of a car trying to drive up a steep hill, intercut with children sliding down a street on little cars, as well as a cable car careening down another street. I don’t know what it means, but it looks great!
  • At one point Stevenson writes of the “mingling of races” as one of the city’s unique qualities. Within the context of this film the – wait what!? “Mingling of races”!? Oh noooooo. Just say “diversity”. That’s all you had to do.
  • The MacDonald essay mentions the film’s segment on “Fisherman’s Wharf when it was a fisherman’s wharf”. Touché, MacDonald. You’re just lucky you weren’t there when Bushman was alive.
  • There’s mention of an indigenous legend that San Francisco rose from the ocean and may sink again. Brother, you don’t know the half of it.
  • It’s a shame the film doesn’t explore the rest of the city, staying mostly in the downtown/North Beach/Chinatown area. Though to be fair, that is where the ports are. Stevenson didn’t write “Notes on the Avenues”.
  • At one point Stevenson describes the streets of San Francisco as “the narrow arteries of the city”, which is maybe the best description I’ve ever heard in regards to navigating this damn town.
  • If Robert Louis Stevenson had lived to the 1930s he could have come back to San Francisco to visit Treasure Island.

Legacy

  • Tragically, Frank Stauffacher died in 1955 at the age of 38 from a brain tumor. According to the MacDonald essay, Stauffacher was an influence on a number of Bay Area experimental filmmakers. Among them, Bruce Baillie, Nathanial Dorsky, Larry Jordan, and Gunvor Nelson; all of whom have their own films on the National Film Registry.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson also died tragically young, in 1894 of a possible cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 44 in Samoa. San Francisco was one of the last places Stevenson travelled to prior to settling down in Samoa, and there are still plenty of memorials and tributes to a man who fell in love with “the most interesting city in the Union”.

#587) The Kidnappers Foil (c. 1936-c. 1952)

#587) The Kidnappers Foil (c. 1936-c. 1952)

OR “The Children’s Hour”

Directed & Written by Melton Barker

Class of 2012

Special thanks to the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, who have helped preserve these films. And extra special thanks to the Melton Barker website, which has been collecting information on all versions of “The Kidnappers Foil”.

The Plot: Little Betty Davis is kidnapped, and her father offers a $1,000 reward. Determined to get that money, a group of kids band together to foil the kidnappers. After a successful rescue mission, Betty’s sister Jean expresses her gratitude by throwing a party/talent show for all the kids. But wait, it gets better. “The Kidnappers Foil” was remade literally hundreds of times over the years by the same filmmaker, in different towns throughout the south, with a new cast of local children every time. Together these films paint one of the more fascinating pictures on this list of significant movies.

Why It Matters: The NFR rundown is mostly a plot synopsis and the overall history of this film project.

But Does It Really?: I’m always looking for films on the NFR that stand on their own unique piece of ground, and “The Kidnappers Foil” is hands down one of the weirdest, most unique films on the list. Part amateur home movie, part avant-garde experiment, part local talent show, there is truly nothing like “The Kidnappers Foil” on this list. The films alone are an interesting watch, and the history behind them is even more fascinating. I was simultaneously baffled and delighted by every second of “The Kidnappers Foil”, and it’s this distinctive quality that solidifies the film’s place on the NFR.

Everybody Gets One: Not much is known about Melton Barker, other than he was born in Mississippi in 1903, and was raised in various towns across Texas. Barker claims he worked for a number of Hollywood studios, and was responsible for discovering Spanky McFarland, though these claims are disputed (there is, however, a photo of him and McFarland). With home movies still being an expensive hobby, Barker saw the money-making potential of traveling to different towns, casting local children for his film, charging for acting lessons, and screening these films at the local movie house for the community to enjoy. While Barker made a handful of other movies in his lifetime, his legacy was and is “The Kidnappers Foil”.

Wow, That’s Dated: These films have the same ’30s kids vibe I would attribute to an “Our Gang” short (which does lend Barker’s Spanky story a little credence). Also, did every kid in the ’30s have to wear a whoopee cap (aka a Jughead hat)?

Other notes

  • The earliest versions of “The Kidnappers Foil” date back to 1933 in Ardmore OK, Miami OK and Madison WI, while the last “Foil” appears to be from 1976 in Honey Grove TX. Over the years, Barker filmed at least 287 versions of “The Kidnappers Foil” across 28 states, primarily in the south, but stretching out from California to Rhode Island, Minnesota to Florida. Of the handful that are known to still exist, 21 of these films can be found on the Melton Barker site, and you bet your bottom dollar I watched all of them.
  • Since my viewing of these films, I enjoy explaining “The Kidnappers Foil” to friends because it always sounds like a scam. In fact, what Barker was doing here is similar to the scheme Harold Hill pulls in “The Music Man“: A stranger comes to town, sells its citizens on a plan that involves their kids, culminating in a performance that, despite their lackluster talent, earns raves from the parents.
  • Yes, that’s right, the lead character in this movie is named Betty Davis. By 1933, BettDavis was getting started at Warner Bros., and was still waiting for her breakout role. It’s possible Barker had never heard of her before naming his leading lady, and never bothered to change it over the years.
  • Betty’s sister Jean has her big acting moment when she realizes Betty has been kidnapped, and most of Jean’s actors use their natural southern accents to turn “dad” into the multisyllabic “Da-yud! Da-yud!”. Speaking of, in most versions of “Kidnappers”, Betty & Jean’s father is played by Melton Barker himself, though in later versions the character is eliminated entirely.
  • Adjusted for inflation, the $1000 reward in 1933 would be about $20,000 today. Go, kids, go!
  • The joy of watching these films is that you get to observe the seams; the stilted acting, the kids pausing before receiving their cues, the ambient noises picked up on the mikes. It gives you the sense that these movies were filmed fast and cheap, no time for retakes! Added bonus: Watch these films with earbuds to hear Barker give off-screen directions.
  • It’s weird to think that a decent amount of these kids are theoretically still alive.
  • If I was a kid in one of these towns where “Kidnappers” was being filmed, I would have begged my parents to be in this, and would probably be deeply embarrassed by my own performance as an adult. But alas, I was born too late, and the closest I ever got was being an extra in some superhero short that filmed at the abandoned Stockton Airport.
  • The talent shows are always the best part of “Kidnappers”, though most of the talents are either tap dancing or singing a popular tune off-tempo. One kid earns points for originality by doing stunts on their swing set.
  • The songs featured in the talent shows are a good mix of popular tunes and novelty songs. Among the selection: “The Codfish Ball“, “Mickey Mouse’s Birthday Party“, “Goody Goody“, “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!“, “Playmates“, and something called “(If I Had) Rhythm in My Nursery Rhymes” which finds its way into multiple versions. One girl in San Marcos, Texas sings “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down“, which if you ask me is quite a looney selection.
  • I know they’re kids, but some of this singing is giving me some serious John Daker flashbacks.
  • Viewing these shorts in sequential order highlights how Barker streamlined the process as he went along. By the late ’40s, Barker starts filming each individual line rather than trying to capture a whole scene in one take. Around this time Barker also stopped filming the talent shows, shooting only the first reel with the local talent and reusing the best talent shows from previous versions, splicing in new reaction shots. I watched the same performances of “Beautiful Dreamer” and “The Wise Old Owl” five times! These versions all end with the local children singing “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here”.
  • One girl in Shawnee, OK sings “Ma! He’s Making Eyes at Me”. It’s been done.
  • Ooh, the 1951 Las Cruces, New Mexico version has a Waylon Jennings-esque narrator. Was the plot that hard to follow?
  • Stick around for the Pine Bluff, Arkansas version from 1952, featuring the town’s annual Easter egg hunt. I hope someone finds the E.T. cameo in “Phantom Menace”.
  • If there’s one thing I appreciate about these movies, it’s that they teach kids to practice vigilante justice at an early age.

Legacy

  • After reaching its peak in the early ’50s, productions of “The Kidnappers Foil” lessened throughout the decade, no doubt due to the increasing accessibility of home movie cameras, as well as the rise of television, and therefore local stations. According to Melton Barker’s website, he died in 1977 at age 74 while on the road.
  • Despite his prolific filmography, it appears that Barker did not hold onto any copies of “Kidnappers”, and roughly 90% of them are lost. Once again, my extreme thanks to the Barker website, as well as the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, who have spent years archiving and cataloging the surviving prints, as well as preserving related newspaper articles and conducting interviews with surviving performers.

#586) Hester Street (1975)

#586) Hester Street (1975)

OR “An Incredible Assimilation”

Directed & Written by Joan Micklin Silver. Based on the novella “Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto” by Abraham Cahan.

Class of 2011

The Plot: In the Lower East Side of 1896 Manhattan, Yankle (Steven Keats) is a Russian-Jewish immigrant embracing his new home, even changing his name to Jake. Jake begins a relationship with a dancer named Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh), but it’s only after she loans him a large sum of money that she learns it was to pay for the arrival of Jake’s wife Gitl (Carol Kane) and son Yossele (Paul Freedman) from Russia. Complications arise as Jake pushes for his wife and child to assimilate, while Gitl strives to maintain her traditions, simultaneously discovering her own independence. 

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process”. There’s also an essay by expert on Jewish cinema Eric A. Goldman.

But Does It Really?: I’ve watched my share of silent movies that deal with immigrant struggles in the melodramatic style of the time, so it’s refreshing to see these stories reimagined as a ’70s character study. With “Hester Street”, Joan Micklin Silver tells a story about the hardships of her immigrant family through a feminist lens, aided by a terrific ensemble and amazing period details. Plus it’s only 90 minutes! I’m glad that the NFR has found a place among its ranks for “Hester Street”, and I hope more people discover this little gem of a movie.

Everybody Gets One: After a stint writing for The Village Voice, Joan Micklin Silver wrote and directed a series of educational shorts for the Learning Corporation of America (now New World Pictures). While conducting research for the short “The Immigrant Experience“, Silver read the novella “Yekl”, which reminded her of the stories her immigrant parents had told her growing up. Silver adapted “Yekl” into a screenplay, shifting the focus to the main character’s wife, and was determined to make this her feature film debut. After many Hollywood studios passed (one studio exec told her “women directors are one more problem we don’t need”), Joan’s husband Raphael Silver used his real estate expertise to raise the funds and finance “Hester Street” as an independent feature.

Title Track: Hester Street is, of course, the street in Manhattan that became the epicenter for Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants in the late 1800s. For the film, Greenwich Village’s Morton Street doubled for Hester Street, as it was significantly cheaper to make Morton Street period appropriate.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Hester Street” played a limited run in select cities, and thank God, Los Angeles was selected. “Hester” received one surprise Oscar nomination: Carol Kane for Best Actress, losing to Louise Fletcher in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“. 

Other notes

  • In order to keep production costs down, “Hester Street” was filmed with as many indoor scenes as possible (less chance of outdoor shoots being cancelled due to rain), and the cast consisted mainly of stage actors who were willing to do the film for union scale. Silver was only able to afford one horse for outdoor shots, so the same horse was painted different colors for different scenes.
  • Shoutout to costume designer Robert Pusilo and art director Edward Haynes, who both should have gotten Oscar nominations for their impressive recreations of turn-of-the-century New York. Bonus shoutout to composers Herbert L. Clarke and William Bolcom. The score has the feel of a silent movie, or at least something that would play on Main Street at Disneyland.
  • Another detail worth mentioning: most of the film’s dialogue is spoken in Yiddish with English subtitles. Only one cast member spoke Yiddish, and the rest had to learn the language from the film’s dialect coach.
  • Steven Keats sorta looks like Sean Connery in “Murder on the Orient Express”. Keats’ only other big claim to fame was playing Charles Bronson’s son-in-law in the first “Death Wish” movie. Primarily a TV actor (he lived long enough to appear in three episodes of “Law & Order”), Keats received an Emmy nomination in 1977 for the limited series “Seventh Avenue”, playing – what else – an immigrant in turn-of-the-century Lower East Side Manhattan.
  • Carol Kane is one of those actors it seems has always been around, so it’s good to remember that like any other actor, she needed a breakout role, and “Hester Street” was it. She does a remarkable job playing a woman trying to acclimate to her new environment. She even has the “deer in the headlights” look people get when they don’t understand a foreign language. I’m glad the Academy recognized how good a performance she’s giving. Also, she was 22 when she made this!
  • Wow, Jake is a real schmuck. Am I saying that right? Schmuck?
  • You know who else surprised me with how great they are in this? Doris Roberts. I know Roberts primarily from her late-in-life work on “Everybody Loves Raymond”, and like her “Raymond” co-star Peter Boyle, it’s nice to know that she could also play a role like Mrs. Kavarsky that requires more dramatic nuances.
  • My favorite line in the movie: “A pox on Columbus!” Now you’re talkin’! The line is uttered by Bernstein, played by Mel Howard, a film student/non-actor who got roped into playing the part when the original actor bowed out right before filming began.
  • [Spoilers] The scene that fascinated me the most was the divorce ritual. It never occurred to me that some religions have a ceremony for divorce with parallels to a marriage ceremony. And I appreciate that (at least in this specific Jewish practice) a woman must enter a divorce with the same free will she entered the marriage with. Points deducted, however, for making the wife wait 91 days before remarrying, whereas the husband could remarry immediately. 
  • Silver wanted to end “Hester Street” with a crane shot over the titular street. When that proved to be too expensive, she got around this by filming the final shot from a balcony overlooking the street. Art through adversity: you gotta love it.

Legacy

  • “Hester Street” had difficulty finding a distributor (most felt it was “too Jewish”), but it managed to play out-of-competition at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival’s Critics Week. The film received high praise, and the Silvers were able to self-distribute with assistance from Blaine Novak, who had helped market John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” the year before. “Hester Street” played in select cities across the US, and was a surprise hit, grossing almost five times its production cost.
  • Carol Kane revealed years later that she didn’t work for a full year after her Oscar nomination for “Hester Street”, finally getting cast in Gene Wilder’s “The World’s Greatest Lover”. Thankfully, Kane has rarely been out of work since, appearing in countless movies and TV shows, including four additional films on the NFR.
  • Joan Micklin Silver continued making films for the next 25 years, though most of them, like “Hester Street”, were well-received despite their limited releases. Her last film was the 2003 TV movie “Hunger Point”. Silver died on the last day of 2020 at the age of 85.