Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This delightful slice-of-life romantic comedy was almost consigned to the ethnic film ghetto before
its makers decided to self-distribute it. The story of Russian immigrants Gitl and Jake became a
sleeper hit of 1975, a time before independent American films were making much news.
Shot in black and white, Hester Street is a witty and thought-provoking tale centered on the
immigrant experience. Writer-director Joan Micklin Silver and her talented cast take a simple story
and creates characters that almost immediately capture our hearts. The movie is endears without going
for sentimental touches, and it figures big in the beginning of the Women in Film movement. HVe's DVD
looks great and contains some interesting extras from Silver and her producer-distributor husband.
1896. Jake (Steven Keats) is a dapper immigrant in the Lower East side who scrapes by as
a sewing-machine operator. He's romancing Mamie, a single lady he meets at a dance hall (Dorrie
Kavanaugh) when word comes through that he should be expecting visitors from the old country -
his wife Gitl (Carol Kane) and their small son Joey (Paul Freedman). On a false promise of matrimony,
Jake borrows money for furniture from Mamie. When his family arrives, Jake barely lets his wife out
of the apartment and resents her for being a 'greenie', a greenhorn. Their neighbor Mrs. Kavarsky
(Doris Roberts) tries to help out while the only other friendly face Gitl seems to see is that of their
boarder, Mr. Bernstein (Mel Howard), a shy scholar who also must toil over a sewing machine.
Movies about the immigrant experience aren't rare items. There's Kazan's epic America America,
Godfather II, and even parts of The Night They Raided Minsky's, to quickly name three.
Joan Micklin Silver's
Hester Street is not a genre story but an unassuming light drama centered on just a few
characters. It was made on a tight budget but manages a convincing 1896 atmosphere mainly through
one impressive set, a streetcorner in the Jewish section of New York city that in itself took over ten
percent of the filming budget. But the real charm of the film is in the delicate relationships. It
may be a simple story for simple people, but we're hooked from the beginning. We understand these
interesting immigrants and are fascinated by their cultural acclimation.
Jake is ambitious but not too bright, content to chase women and ignore the fact that he still has
a wife and child back in Russia. He's been here long enough to define himself as an American by not
using the old language, anglicizing his name and repeatedly announcing that in this new country
everyone is equal and that nobody can even tell he is Jewish. No matter how crowded or desperate they
become, all the immigrants love America, if only because of the contrast between their new lives and the
insecure situations they fled in Europe.
Gitl is the perfect Greenie, a newcomer who cannot for a minute consider not wearing a wig or a scarf
on her head at all times, as she did in Russia. Jake thinks he's outgrown her when the
truth is that he's blinded by his new life as a casanova. His only response to Gitl
is to inflict casual emotional cruelty. She tries her best to make Jake approve of her, but he still
goes out to visit his ladies and prostitutes. When Gitl finally takes Mrs. Kavarsky's advice and
shows her real hair to the world, Jake's abusive reaction is enough to break the marriage.
Hester Street shows Gitl to be like many of the immigrants, still immersed in old-world
superstitions like putting salt in little Joey's pockets to ward off the Evil Eye. She's in awe of
their boarder Bernstein, a quiet gentleman who was a Jewish scholar back in Russia. We can see what's
coming between Jake and Gitl and Bernstein and Dorrie, but it's a pleasure to watch the drama take shape.
Along the way we're offered several setpiece scenes of neighborhood life. Joey learns English before
Gitl because his father loves to take him out to the street to show him off. Marriages and divorces
are taken care of at the local level, through Rabbis that seem to hold the community together with
their wisdom. The quiet Gitl proves to be a sharper business brain than anyone, providing the film
with an amusing uplift at the conclusion.
Carol Kane was nominated for an Oscar, and her Gitl is a wonderful creature. She seems so tiny and
frail until one realizes how much work she can do, and how determined she can be when she knows what
she wants. Steven Keats's Jake has more pride for his moustache than he does his wife, and turns out
to be a guy with problems who's better off somewhere else. The "other woman" Dorrie Kavanaugh shows
some smarts and dignity of her own and thus earns our respect. Mel Howard's Bernstein is a
remarkably deep character, considering that this was his first attempt at acting. Holding it all
together is the experienced Doris Roberts (Something Wild '61). She refuses to act her role
as a broad stereotype and becomes all the more believable for it.
HVe's DVD of Hester Street is a winner. Besides the sparkling B&W image (enhanced widescreen),
the audio is clearer than the old theatrical prints. A commentary and interviews are fascinating
extras; Kane and Roberts are there looking proud and happy about their work, and Joan Micklin Silver
and her husband Raphael tell the entire story of its making. Raphael just decided to bankroll his
wife's ambition to make the film, and backed her up all the way. When distributors ignored the picture
or announced plans to show it only in ethnic neighborhoods, he took some advice from John Cassavetes
and distributed it himself, a risky course that paid off when the film was honored at several film
festivals. Joan tells many fun stories about the production, including the fact that the
horse was the most expensive actor on the big street-market set; he came with trainers and other
legally-mandated handlers. Since they could only afford one horse, they repainted him several times
with water-based colors, to use him in different scenes!
Hester Street played FILMEX in 1975 at the Plitt theaters in Century City, when Savant was there
carting prints around for the big Science Fiction Marathon. At the opening ceremony we got to see
Hitchcock's last film Family Plot, which turned out to be a dud. But Gary Essert's big outdoor
party was a blast, a thrilling circus where they served champagne while elephants danced under a fireworks
display. I watched from a balcony, and right next to me for a few minutes was Carol Kane,
with her boyfriend or husband, having a good time as well. She deserved it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hester Street rates:
Supplements: Commentary, interviews
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 13, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson