FROM THE ARCHIVES: Symphony of Six Million
Reviewed by Thomas Doherty
Produced by Pandro Berman; directed by Gregory La Cava; based on a story by Fannie Hurst, adapted by Bernard Shubert and J. Walter Ruben; with Ricardo Cortez, Irene Dunne, Gregory Ratoff, Anna Appel, and Noel Madison. DVD, B&W, 92 mins., 1932. A Warner Bros. Archive Collection release.
Neither a backstage musical nor a Holocaust melodrama, Symphony of Six Million is a pre-Code excursion into Jewish life that never utters the word “Jew.” No matter: even without a klezmer tune on the playlist, there is enough kvetching, kibitzing, and schmaltz dispensed to alleviate any doubt as to the tribe whose sheet music is being orchestrated. Based on a three-hankie story by Fannie Hurst, the best-selling author of sob-fest tomes-into-films such as Humoresque (1920) and Imitation of Life (1934), this less successful male centered meller tracks the assimilationist trajectory of a Jewish doctor from the crowded tenements of the Lower East to the swank digs of Park Avenue. For the modern viewer, who will likely remain dry-eyed during the tear-jerking plot machinations and who may well be suppressing a smirk, the interest here lies mainly in the heavy-on-the-borsch-and-herring portrait of Jewish life according to Hollywood in the early 1930s, a screen milieu as yet unfiltered by the sanitations of the Production Code or the shadow of Nazi Germany.
Authentic newsreel shots and backlit recreations of the Lower East Side evoke a still extant world of clogged streets teaming with pushcarts and fishmongers. Sure, it’s the ghetto, but it is a nurturing, Gemeinschaft ghetto, colorful, warm, and protective. Two children—pretty little Jessica, rendered lame from a spinal cord malady, and kind-hearted, studious Felix—stand out from the crowd of rowdy street urchins playing stickball. Felix wants to be a great surgeon, Jessica wants to be Mrs. Felix, and anyone who can’t predict that the end reel will have Felix performing surgery on Jessica has never seen a Hollywood movie made before 1960.
Felix’s parents are both graduates of the Molly Goldberg Academy of Character Acting. Papa Klauber (Gregory Ratoff in his screen debut, before he moved behind the camera to direct his own schmaltz and shtick as in, for counter-intuitive example, Irish Eyes Are Smiling ) and Mama (Anna Appel) spout malapropisms and mispronunciations, the lilt of Yiddish—and sometimes untranslated smatterings of same—inflecting the rush of dialogue. As Felix diligently cracks the books, Mr. and Mrs. Klauber become the only parents in the history of Judaism to worry that their son is studying too hard to be a doctor.
In the flash of an intertitle (early sound cinema having not yet abandoned the silent-era convention for exposition), Felix (Ricardo Cortez, nee Jacob Kranz, who shifted ethnicities during the Valentino craze for Latin lovers) is happy as a clam working at the local health clinic, bringing aid to the afflicted with his chirpy bedside manner and curative brilliance. No less altruistic, Jessica (Irene Dunne, wasted in a nothing role) teaches blind children. Felix drops by regularly to give the kids candy and moon over Jessica.
Fortunately, all this joyous high-mindedness is derailed by Felix’s money-minded brother Magnus (Noel Madison), who browbeats his Yiddisher Mama into playing the parental guilt card and persuading Felix to move uptown. “Medicine is a business,” says Magnus sagely. Soon Felix is raking in big bucks treating flirtatious, neurotic uptown gals for imagined ailments. A big macher with a plush office staffed by pretty nurses, he is renowned city-wide as “the surgeon with the million-dollar hands.” Papa can barely get an appointment and Jessica is out of the picture, back in the ghetto.
Riding high on Felix’s bank account, the Klaubers are thriving: Magnus owns a successful business, little sister Birdie ropes a rich husband, and Mama and Papa, dressed to the nines, return to their old ghetto apartment in a chauffeur-driven limo. The Old World and the New come together during the performance of an ancient Jewish ritual, the Redemption of the First Born (Pidyon Ha Ben), presided over by a reform rabbi, an interlude which is probably the lengthiest depiction of a Jewish religious ceremony in Hollywood cinema since the Kol Nidre scene in The Jazz Singer (1927), and whose like won’t be seen again until—when?—Fiddler on the Roof (1971)? In formal wear, in a Park Avenue penthouse, the Klauber family seems the embodiment of the Judeo-American dream: faithful to tribal custom, prospering materially. Overcome with pride and happiness, Papa says if God were to strike him down now, he would die happy.
In that ironic Old Testament way that is only His, God takes Papa at his word: the old man collapses. The diagnosis is a brain tumor and the prognosis is not good. Only the million dollar hands of his own son can save his life. Felix balks, but Mama reassures him: “God will guide your fingers.”
But God looks away and Papa dies on the operating table. Traumatized, Felix vows never again to touch a scalpel. What, one wonders, can inspire him to don again his surgical gown?
Better known for screwball comedies and lighthearted fare such as My Man Godfrey (1936) and Stage Door (1937), director Gregory La Cava does what he can with the torpid material, moving his camera as much as the stage-bound story allows. The showpiece sequence chronicles the operation on Papa, done in tense close shots with nurses thrusting metal instruments into Felix’s nimble hands. For the duration of the bloodless procedure, La Cava wisely mutes the hectoring musical soundtrack, a relief after the thunder of Max Steiner’s brassy score clashing down on the film’s every other emotional beat.
As a social document of Jewish life what intrigues most about Symphony of Six Million is that the social problem is not antisemitism but assimilation. “When Felix lost the ghetto, he lost himself,” intones Jessica. Title to the contrary, the film is not a symphony of New York’s six million but a soap opera of the Jewish percentage thereof. Hurst’s protoidentity politics assert that the ghetto enclave is the true wellspring of Jewish life, that the successful integration into America and the full-on embrace of the American dream is a threat to the Jewish self. Much more so than The Jazz Singer, Frank Capra’s The Younger Generation (1929), and kindred Jewish-themed melodramas of the late silent and early sound period, the world of Symphony of Six Million is insular and suffocating, all Jewish all the time, located on an island metropolis where no gentile walks. An apt comparison would be to the contemporaneous all-black “race movies,” whose Jim Crow fantasies of Negro life conjured a separate but equal parallel universe unpeopled by white folks. “Undoubtedly Symphony will get over where there are large Jewish communities properly advertised to,” figured the oracles at Variety, antsy about how the film would play with the remaining 97% of moviegoers. “It is an all-Jewish film which could have stood more attention as to racial contrasts for general appeal.”
The trade paper was right to worry. After a rush of opening week admissions in the big cities—presumably boosted by support from Hurst’s core audience—Symphony of Six Million “folded suddenly.” The moguls would not make that mistake again. After World War II, when Jews came back to the Hollywood screen in Crossfire (1947) andGentleman’s Agreement (1947), they would be sidebar characters in melodramas that were mainly about Christians.
Thomas Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of several books.
To purchase Symphony of Six Million, click here.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1