Joan Micklin Silver’s 1975 film about Jewish immigrants in NYC is out on a feature-packed Blu-ray.
Last fall, the recent 4K restoration of the 1975 film Hester Street made the rounds at art cinemas; I was able to catch a screening at AFS Cinema, but hoped it might be released on physical media via Criterion or the like after that. Well, this April, the Cohen Media Group made that restoration available on Blu-ray.
Director Joan Micklin Silver’s first feature stars Carol Kane as a Jewish woman emigrating from Russia with her young son to join her husband Jake (Steven Keats, Death Wish) in turn-of-the-century New York. While Jake has taken on many qualities from his new country, Gitl (Kane) is reluctant to change her old-country look and ways. He dances and flirts with other Americanized immigrants and tries to assimilate as best he can; she wears a wig because she is married, prefers to speak in Yiddish, and wants their son to study Torah.
When Micklin Silver adapted the film from Abraham Cahan’s Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, she decided early on to center the story around Gitl instead of Jake. Gitl’s point of view is given as much weight, if not more, than that of her husband, even though viewers are introduced to him first. Since we are allowed glimpses into the worlds of both characters — the streets, rooftops, and dance hall Jake wanders, the more limited interior world of Gitl — we can understand why the old world marriage between the two may be troubled.
Additionally, other filmmaking choices give Hester Street its distinct and memorable feel. Instead of new music, modern adaptations of early 20th-century American instrumentals score the film, with piano as the primary instrument. Shooting in black and white allows Hester Street the look of something out of its setting, aided by such period touches as the set design, the costuming, and even the consultant who instructed cast members on how to use a treadle sewing machine.
The acting is as earnest as the script. While Kane and Keats carry emotional heft in their leading roles, Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond) is particularly notable as the nosy landlady who takes Gitl under her wing. In the director’s commentary on this Cohen Blu-ray release, Silver notes that a few of Roberts’s funniest lines were improvised sayings that she picked up from a grandparent.
When it comes to lonely bachelor Bernstein who rooms in the couple’s kitchen, non-actor Mel Howard, originally employed on Hester Street as a crew member, capably takes on the role. His shyness contrasts with Jake’s brash nature. Dorrie Kavanaugh, in one of her few film roles, plays working girl Mamie as wary and flirtatious.
There is much that is impressive about Hester Street. In its portrayal of immigration, identity, and assimilation, the 1975 work holds up and remains distinct from other movies of its time. Comic actress Kane displays her talent for the dramatic, earning an Oscar nomination, and appears luminescent here while doing so; the lighting loves her. There’s no question why Micklin Silver’s film is now part of the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
Special features included in the Cohen Film Collection/Kino Lorber Blu-ray:
- An audio commentary track from director Joan Micklin Silver and producer Raphael Silver, her husband. They talk about the difficulties involved in the filming and production. Ms. Silver admits, “Our ambitions were great, our budget was very tight, and there was a constant tension between the two.”
- The original opening sequence with commentary from Micklin Silver scholar Daniel Kremer
- A trailer for the film’s restoration
- Micklin Silver interview by Shonni Enelow, wherein the director talks about her discovery of the original story, the sexism she faced in her attempt to bring the material to cinematic life, the casting of Kane, shooting a film in Yiddish (“We just didn’t understand how risky it all was”), and how they shot their version of Ellis Island.