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Complete Plot Synopsis by Alex De Leon (Chaim Pevner)

The film opens with a series of establishing shots establishing the small town of Kazimierz nad Wisla, (Kazimierz. on the Vistula) a town between Warsaw and Lublin which, at the time (1937) had a large and very old Jewish community. The camera holds on the castle on the hill and then pans to the left over many tiled rooftops coming to rest at last on a high crane shot of the central market square. We see several quick shots of bearded old men, peasant women, the general market activity on a warm summer day — and finally the camera comes to rest on a young woman in a blouse who is trying to make some money by playing her fiddle in the market.

The first lines of dialogue are those of a couple of Jewish ladies ~ local gossips -- who comment what a shame it is that this poor girl has to eke out a living in this manner. Presently an aggressive older man tries to get "Itke", the heroine (Mollie Picon) to dance with him for the tidy sum of two whole zlotys. This is apparently a lot of money, so Itke agrees, more or less mockingly, to do a "bear dance" with him. She then grabs him by the coat and spins him around a few times vigorously, but this is obviously not the kind of dance the man had in mind so, feeling he's been made fun of, he angrily refuses to pay. A crowd has gathered and one tough guy steps in and takes Itke's side waving a fist menacingly with the words "Pay up or else !" Grudgingly the man pays and stomps off in a huff. Itke uses the money to buy a fish for her father.

Next we see her wending her way through a labyrinth of dusty back streets. She stops to pet a stray dog --then comes upon her bearded , behatted father, Arye, (Simche Fostel) who is sitting downcast outside of their former abode surrounded by everything he owns including his big string bass — having been evicted for non-payment of rent. An exchange follows in which Itke assures father that things are not that bad — they'll take to the road as itinerant musicians, earn a living that way, and there won't be any rent to pay. "Yes, but you're a big girl now and men will try to molest you", protests Arye — whereupon Itke gets a bright idea --"Okay", says she — "I'll dress up as a boy and nobody will know the difference!" ~ End of the introduction; the stage is now set -- Enter the film proper.

We now see Itke with a floppy hat draped sideways on her head in boys' clothing, a shabby jacket and pants. She and Arye are standing by the roadside in the country trying to hitch a ride to the next town, one wagon passes — no soap - another, a hay wagon, comes a long and stops. The Polish driver says in Polish, "Do you want a ride to town?" —Sure, sure — they climb aboard the hay wagon pulled by a hungry looking brown horse with protruding ribs, and the break into song — the joyful title song, "Yidl mitn fidl" (und Arye mim bass) —Their singing is applauded by farmers and peasant women lining the side of the road, as — illustrating the words to the song the camera cuts away to a goat "af der lanke" (on the meadow) and a bird in the sky — images beautifully orchestrated to the content of the song — a rousing opening to the film. This is now the end of the overture.

Next we find Itke, now called "Yidl", a boy's name, and Arye on a street in town playing a little bass and fiddle duet, when along come two other Jewish buskers ~ the street musicians Froiml (Ephraim) with his fiddle (Leon Liebgold) and Isaac Kalanutke (Max Bozyk) with his clarinet. This quickly develops into a turf battle and a violent Yiddish argument ensues between Itke and Kalanutke ~ ("Tsebrekhen vel ikh ihm di beyner!" — I'll break every bone in his little body- "Oh yeah, who was here first, wise guy!", etc.) — as the others try to restrain them. A big brawny Polak finally steps up and kicks all four out of the courtyard

("Yazda!" -- Off with yez!) — whereupon Itke leads Arye to another courtyard where, once again, Froiml and the truculent Nutke appear. The two duets try to drown each other out in a cacophony of discords so horrible that the neighbors shut their windows and even a stray dog barks his disapproval. But suddenly — a genial stroke — Yidl hits upon a lovely melodic strain which even Nutke (Max Bozyk) grudgingly approves of --stomping his foot in time to the melody — and the windows re-open, one by one, as people are attracted to the lovely new sound. Now Nutke and Froiml along with Arye (mitn bass) join in to form a marvelous swinging quartet (the second big musical number of the film) ~ as all the windows open one after another and a shower of coins rains down from the appreciative listeners at their balconies above — The street "Filharmonia" is bom!

After this impromptu success the competitors decide to hook up and work together. Nutke (Isaac) leads Arye to the barn where he and Froiml have set up residence, and we get another song, the'plaintiff "Shpiel du Fidl, Shpier (play on fiddle, play) which is played by Froiml on solo violin by the waterside and sung by Yidl separately, sitting in the bam, as we see romantic shots of moonlit haystacks in the fields and back-lit clouds in the night sky.

Then comes the humourous sleeping in the hay scene, where Yidl, embarrassed by sleeping next to Froiml, even fully clothed, finally sacks out at the far end of the bam. Now comes one of the great highlights of the film — Yidl's Freudian dream sequence with her "identity crisis dance".


In this exquisite sequence Yidl sees herself alternately in scruffy male clothing and dainty female attire. Whenever she's a female she's "spooning" with tall handsome Froiml who is dressed in white like a tennis star. When she lapses into male garb , he, of course, loses interest. The dream comes to an end as she is in Froiml's arms, but awakens abruptly with a stray cat in her embrace (big audience laugh), A hit song incorporated into this sequence is the catchy "Oy Mama, bin ikhfarliebt" = ("Oh, Mama, am I in Love!").

This is followed by a montage of musical scenes showing that the traveling quartet is busy and doing well, which leads to a celebration at the local "kretchma" (tavern) and a hilarious Picon number, her singing drunk scene. As Nutke offers a toast Arye claims that Yidl is too young to drink. Yidl will have none of this and, lying through her teeth, claims that he (she) is already a veteran drinker. Yidl then starts slogging back one after another, supporting the back of her head with her free hand to brace herself for each new jolt of firewater. She becomes literally cross-eyed drunk singing all the while as she staggers about the floor — and the others join in as the chorus in a drinking song to remember.

Yidl finally collapses and is led back to the barn by Froiml, which sets up the morning after hangover scene. Upon awakening, Yidl with a heavy head makes her way down to the pond to wash up, but, while bending over to drink she falls into the water. HELP! — HELP! — I can't swim! - and of course, it's Froiml rushing to the rescue, jumping in with all his clothes on. As he carries the half-drowned Yidl out of the water she half unconsciously snuggles up to him whereupon he drops her back into the water like a hot potato (biggest laugh of the movie) ~

A serious talk now takes place between the two older men, Arye and Nutke, in the course of which Nutke reveals that he knows a certain desirable widow in Warsaw (Mrs. Flussbaum) with "big blue eyes" ( a Polish euphemism for big breasts, which he sculpts roundly with his hands in the air) and, "Oh boy, can she cook!" - intimating that he may be ready to give up the itinerant wandering life and settle down.

Hitching to Warsaw the four musicians land a gig to provide the music for a lavish wedding about to take place in a small town on the way. The extended wedding scene, a bravura piece of film-making on its own -- almost a film within the film -- becomes the center piece of the entire picture, and is the scene which really puts the whole thing over the top into a class of its own. The bride is a sweet young thing, Taybele (Little Pigeon), while the Groom, Mr. Gold (Shmuel Landau) in his bushy black beard and silk top hat, is the richest man in town — a disgusting, pompous old rake who has been married three times before. Amidst many toasts, he brags that every time he puts a wedding on in this town there's so much food that the guests overeat until they're ready to burst.

Taybele (Dora Fakiel) is being forced into this marriage of convenience, very much against her will, and she is really in love with a young man who has gracefully bowed out so as not to impede the economic fortunes of her family. Yidl, wandering through the house in search of food, comes upon the bride in tears in a side room, and tries to console her. Now comes the best one-liner in the whole picture: Yidl asks a couple of ladies outside the bridal chamber why the bride is crying, to which one of them answers; "Dem Khusn hoste gezen?" — (Have you had a gander at the groom?) — The intonation, timing and setup for this line is cinematic perfection, and it brings the house down. The collective wedding dance, a magnificent hypnotic sequence, builds up to a crescendo but suddenly the music stops as someone notices that the bride has disappeared and pandemonium breaks loose. Yidl has convinced the bride to run off with the musicians, and she slips out with them at the very height of the festivities. All this is so deftly handled on screen that, like the outraged Landau, the audience barely notices what's happening until the runaway bride and her new found friends are out of the house and the escape has been accomplished!

There is an interlude in which Froiml is having an intense discussion with the lovely, newly liberated Taybele. She enjoins him to help her find the lost boyfriend she still loves, to which Froiml, ever gallant, readily agrees although he clearly admires her himself. Yidl (Itke), enormously jealous in an exaggeratedly comical way, tries to break of this "tryst" as she sees it, by telling Taybele not to listen to anything this Lothario is telling her, because "he has a girl in every port". Froiml, highly annoyed by these antics, dismisses the officious Yidl with a swift kick in the pants.

The scene switches to Warsaw with a montage of Warsaw street scenes as Isaac (Max Bozyk, the clarinetist) shows the others the sights of the big city. This brief sequence, seen today has a poignant documentary effect in that we see many famous Warsaw landmarks — trams on the Marszaklkowka, the old town and the Krakowskie Przedmiescie — as they looked before the awesome destruction of the war.

Next comes a dinner party at the apartment of the merry widow, Mrs. Flaumbaum (Chaye Levin), whose many virtues Isaac has been extolling to old friend Arye. It is indeed a merry party and the widow is clearly interested in getting Isaac to settle down with her. He gets drunk and we cut to the next morning. The widow is bringing Isaac his breakfast in bed, but the others are gone — out to do some busking on their own.

Taybele, who fancies herself a singer, has joined the group, for the moment without Isaac — as their new vocalist. In the next scene we see the quartet performing in a courtyard which happens to be just below the office of a musical impresario. Taybele does a rather fetching number, and the impresario, surveying the scene below, is immediately taken with her beauty and is convinced he can turn her into a star. The financial partner, the producer with the money, his, however, not so sure. There now ensues one of the funniest exchanges in the film as the impresario draws an extravagant picture of the success he foresees for his new "discovery" down in the courtyard below, while the dubious financier bemoans the piles of money he has already lost backing various other half-baked hare-brained schemes. Finally, Taybele, at a sign from the window is summoned up to the office for an "audition", whereupon the ecstatic impresario impetuously decides to build a whole new show around her. Taybele signs a hastily prepared contract but only under the condition that Froiml will be her accompianist.

Itke rushes back to Mrs. Flaumbaum's apartment to give Isaac the good news -- that Taybele and Froiml have made the big time -- but this is followed by The Bad News, as Isaac announces that he too will be leaving the group -- he's no longer a youngster, after all — and the time has come for him to settle down, with Mrs, Flaumbaum, of course. This comes as a shock equivalent to the breakup of the Beatles -- the one momentarily sad moment in the entire movie. It is during this scene that Itke bursts into tears and reveals to Isaac (who claims he knew it all along, which of course he didn't) that he's ~ she's — really a girl and is madly in love with Froiml. This revelation is met with one of Isaac's many show-stopping one liners: a bumused but all-knowing; "Ah-ze-e-ey kokht men de lokshen!" — literally, "So this is the way we're cooking the noodles", or, more colloquially — "So this-is is the way the cookie's been crumbling" — Great audience laugh.

Cut to Taybele's dressing room, backstage at the theater — opening night of the big show. But poor Taybele doesn't have her heart in it — especially when Froiml suddenly disappears. In fact, Froiml has overheard a conversation in which the producer was telling Taybele that she doesn't need this violinist, that's he's only standing in her way -- and Froiml, gallantly determined not to block her path to success — leaves a note scrawled with lipstick (in Yiddish) on her dressing room mirror with the blunt message: "I don't love you so I'm leaving. Good luck, Froiml". Before leaving, however, he has found the long-lost lover whom he deposits at Taybele's door. Reunited with her real lover, Taybele ecstatically splits the scene, leaving the show producers squarely in the lurch as, out front, a packed house is waiting with baited breath for the appearance of the announced new star.

Meanwhile — guess who — Yidl-Itke has wandered onto the scene to congratulate Taybele on her big night -- but finds the dressing room deserted. She helps herself to an odd striped dress, then, still looking for Taybele, stumbles out onto the stage where the impresario has been trying desperately to assure the impatient audience that the show will go on. Itke trips and falls into the orchestra pit — which brings a big laugh because the audience thinks it's all part of the show. Now comes Mollie Picon's most prodigious number ever ~ and the extended brilliant climax of the movie, as she mounts the stage, begging the audience not to laugh at her, and talks to them in a very personal manner, telling them of her trials and tribulations — of how hard it is to be in love with a man when you're dressed up as a boy — Whilst, from the wings the producers frantically make signs to her to do a song, because this is what the audience expects — so she breaks into the theme song, "Yidl Mitn Fidl" — and the whole "improvised" act with song and comic dialogue brilliantly interwoven, proceeds to knock the audience for a loop (both in the film and those watching the film) — This bravura performance ends with Yidl still pleading with the audience "not to laugh at her" as she leaves them in stitches - followed by a tremendous ovation.

The rest of the film is denouement. Yidl-ltke is an overnight star, a success all over Europe and the time comes for her American tour. On board the ship to America she is having a drink in the lounge with her father, Arye, now wearing evening clothes. The band strikes up and a most familiar tune comes wafting across the room — a swing version of "Yidl Mitn Fidl". and the band-leader is non other than Froiml!

Itke-Yidl, now a big star reveals herself to him - for the first time, as a female ~ because the last time he saw her she was still disguised as a boy. It is immediate love at second sight, and we go up on deck where Froiml, having seen the light, goes into a perfectly framed clinch with Mollie before a perfectly round porthole as this magnificent Jewish fairy tale comes to a perfect end.

Krakow:Sunday. October 26. 1997


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THE FESTIVALS BLOG by Alex Deleon. Watch for festival coverage from the circuit.

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