(directors: Sidney Goldin/Aubrey Scotto; screenwriters: from book by Sholem Asch/Maurice Schwartz; cinematographer: Frank Zucker; cast: Maurice Schwartz (Uncle Moses), Rubin Goldberg (Moses’ Father), Judith Abarbanel (Masha), Zvee Scooler (Charlie), Mark Schweid (Aaron), Rebecca Weintraub (Gnendel), Sam Gertler (Sam), Michael Rosenberg (Moishe Gross), Sally Schorr (Rosie), Jacob Mestel (Berel), Leon Seidenberg (Mannes), Shirley Zelany (Tsirl); Runtime: 88; Ergo Media; 1932-Yiddish)
“Maurice Schwartz was celebrated as being the Olivier of the Yiddish stage.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Sidney Goldin codirected with Aubrey Scotto this Maurice Schwartz (Uncle Moses) script for Uncle Moses, which was first presented on stage by Schwartz. It is an adaptation of Sholem Asch’s 1918 novel. It was one of the early Yiddish talkies and one of the most prestigious. Maurice Schwartz was celebrated as being the ‘Olivier of the Yiddish stage.’ He is one of the world’s greatest actors (he was Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof), but he is not as recognizable a name as he should be to the general public. This comedy/romance/drama vehicle should give you a good idea of how great an actor he is. The film depicts the old-world values as it clashes over the new-world dreams and it is played out by seeing the traditional Jewish family undergo tremendous changes in their lifestyle, as they must adapt to the ways of their new country.
The patriarchal Uncle Moses is the antihero rich clothing manufacturer and twisted namesake of his biblical counterpart. He left the East Europe town of Kuzmin where he was a struggling butcher amid the widespread poverty and persecution of the Jews to come to America, the promised land, to start his tailor business in the crowded Jewish ghetto on the Lower East Side of NYC. As crude and as vile a man as he is, a benevolent despot, he still brought his landsmen (fellow countrymen) from the shtetl (Jewish village) to America and got them jobs and took care of them. Their end of the bargain was that they worked in his sweatshop for 14-hours a workday and they only received minimum wages, as he did not allow them to belong to a union. For his end of the bargain he treated them as family, paid their medical expenses, acted as benefactor, and provided charity to them and those landsmen in Kuzmin by giving freely to charity. He was Uncle Moses, and the workers accepted him as their patron and savior.
The first talking scene indicates the complexity of the Uncle Moses character, as a rabbi from his old shtetl visits his clothing factory to solicit a donation. Moses is busy on the phone dealing with the two women he had affairs with — the wife of a luncheonette owner and a Polish shiksa (gentile). Moses’s cunning ability is shown how he adeptly handles the rabbi with his hands out for donations, as the rabbi must amuse the patriarch by chanting a Yom Kippur prayer. Moses doesn’t let the rabbi forget for a moment who has the money and the power, as he donates generously to the synagogue and to a cemetery in Kuzmin while making a sweeping gesture with his hands to let the rabbi know of his mitzvah (generous deed). Uncle Moses enjoys his Moses role, which teases his vanity and his sentimental side. Though he is not a religious man, he respects the traditions.
Moses’s Americanized nephew Sam (Gertler) is hated by the workers and runs the factory like a despot. He prefers to speak in English and follows his widowed uncle around, acting as his flunky. His hope is that his childless uncle doesn’t marry and that he will inherit all his money.
Moses’ father (Rubin Goldberg) plays the Shakespearean fool, who speaks the truth even if he appears as if he is crazy. He goes through the factory chanting a catchy melody, bitterly denouncing his son in a joking manner and denouncing the capitalistic system of his new country, wishing to go back to the old country and be buried there. He compares his son to Tsar Nicholas and to the Pharaoh. The father says that he is the real Moses — that he will lead the Jewish workers in this sweltering sweatshop out of bondage and take them to the sea.
One of Moses’ workers pokes fun at his huge belly and is fired. The cowardly worker (Schweid) brings his 17-year-old attractive daughter Masha (Abarbanel) to beg Moses to give him his job back. Moses shows a romantic interest in the girl and is ready to give him his job back, but his workplace flunkies who are in the background encourage Moses to make fun of her cowering father. She then lashes out at him calling him a beast, a brute, and a dog! Moses likes the spirit she shows defending her father and gives him back his old job at the machine and with a raise. The much older Moses will woo the reluctant Masha for a year, showering her family with gifts, shaving his beard and going to the gym to lose weight for her sake. The parents will see this romance as an opportunity to better their lot in life and push their daughter to accept his marriage proposal, not caring one bit that she doesn’t love him. Meanwhile, Charlie (Zvee), the young Marxist who lives in her tenement building whom she is in love with, rails against her decision to marry the wealthy boss. He will get involved with the union and start organizing the workers.
The most memorable scene is the attempt to have a traditional wedding ceremony as the wedding takes place in his in-laws fifth-floor walk-up apartment, where there is traditional song and dancing. There’s also a shot of the forlorn Charlie watching the wedding from his apartment window that faces Masha’s.
On the day that Masha gives birth to a son the union strikes and Moses is disappointed that his workers would go behind his back and do this to him, as he painfully tells them how much he did for them and that he is still ready to sit with them and work things out. But his in-laws insult Charlie and the strike continues, as Moses turns his attention to his baby and lets Sam handle the strike. Sam breaks up the strike by using thugs, something Moses is repelled by and vows to never let something like that happen again.
But Uncle Moses’ way of life radically changes, as his wife can’t find satisfaction in the marriage even though she tells him that she likes him better than she does her parents. This all gets to Moses, who has a heart attack. He then agrees to divorce Masha, and loses interest in running all his businesses. He decides to make out a will, leaving a quarter of his estate to the workers. The rest he leaves to Masha and the child, with a small amount to the synagogue and to Sam.
The times have changed for the immigrant Jews. They had to choose between two bad choices–the false family of the transposed shtetl or the emerging false family of the union. Moses becomes a symbol of the past, as he is relegated to a sentimental and irrelevant role in the future. The last shot in the movie is ultimately a sad one of him coming back to visit his family of workers. He requests one of them to sing a familiar nostalgic melody and he proceeds to tell them a story of what a man is: how a man builds houses, factories, and brings his countrymen to America; and, after all that, the grave awaits him.
The evils of American materialism is matched with a disdainful look at the old-world economics and the old way of arranging marriages, of the parents disregarding what their children want and acting as benevolent tyrants over them. America is now a place of hope for the younger generation. Yiddish will not be their first-tongue, and the rich opportunities in the new land will take precedence over everything else. Masha will be viewed as a victim, caught in the changing times, who did not marry for money herself but only to please her parents, an obligation she believed that she had to fulfill. Moses will be looked upon with mixed emotions, with some fond memories for his charitable nature and some disappointments that he was an exploiter. He will be viewed as a representative from a time when the immigrants were in a transitional state in their new country, when they lived in poverty but aspired to have their children gain the fruits of the American Dream.
REVIEWED ON 12/31/99 GRADE: A