Dec. 31, 2008
Hester Street (1975)
Grade: 74/100

Director: Joan Micklin Silver
Stars: Carol Kane, Steven Keats, Mel Howard

What it's about. Set in a Jewish immigrant neighborhood in New York City in 1896. Jake (Steven Keats) has acclimated to America and loves it. He works in a sewing shop with Bernstein (Mel Howard), a serious man who spends his free time reading the Talmud. Jake is instead a man of the world, who especially enjoys the company of Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh), an attractive and clever woman. Mamie has saved a small fortune (by neighborhood standards) through her frugal ways.

But Jake is married. In Russia, he married Gitl (Carol Kane), an attractive but timid and traditional woman. They had a son, Joey (Paul Freedman) who in cinematic post-toddler tradition is adorable, silent, and smiling.

Jake sends for his young wife and son, but he is frustrated with them soon after they arrive in America. Gitl is reluctant to embrace American ways, and Jake continues to see Mamie, whom he now owes money. Jake wants Mamie, and treats Gitl deplorably. Meanwhile, Gitl forms a bond with Bernstein, the sad-eyed scholar boarding with Jake and his family.

How others will see it. This black and white film is partly subtitled and lacks action and major stars. Thus, it is obscure, despite garnering a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the sympathetic Carol Kane. The film will be rewarding to those who seek a window into the experiences of their immigrant ancestors, especially if those ancestors were Jewish or came to America circa 1900.

However, most people prefer to watch big budget Hollywood crime dramas with A-list stars, such as another 1975 film that included Carol Kane, Dog Day Afternoon. Watch Al Pacino ham it up and wave guns around in that film if you are so inclined, but if you are in search of character development instead of theatrics, Hester Street may be for you.

How I felt about it. In many ways, it is a charming film. Early minor scenes are particularly winning, such as Jake, Mamie, and mutual friends teasing a recently arrived immigrant for his Old World ways, which will of course be soon surrendered. A few later scenes are more interesting than revealing, such as the Jewish divorce ceremony and Bernstein's cagily extracted marriage proposal.

Although Carol Kane is first-billed, she doesn't appear until twenty minutes into the film. Steven Keats sees more screen time, and has the more interesting character. The same can be said for Mamie, who must truly be excited for Jake given her uncharacteristic willingness to depart with money to obtain him. She also must forgive his sins of omission, not telling her of his marriage until she discovers Carol Kane at his apartment.

In other words, Mamie's motivation for winning Jake is suspect. It is equally difficult to understand why Jake sends for his wife if he doesn't want her and is continually disappointed in her (just for being herself), particularly when he prefers the company of the more worldly (and fascinating) Mamie. The plot works only in that the four main characters each end up with the compatible partner that they are drawn to. But life is less tidy than Happily Ever After.