Of all movie scenes in Yiddish, one of the most popular – that of an increasingly agitated man vainly attempting to make a clearly clueless Irish cop understand his desire to reach Ellis Island -- is not from a Yiddish film, but from “Taxi!” an early James Cagney starring feature released 90 years ago this week.
Cagney electrified the film world in 1931 as the title character in “The Public Enemy” and the Warners Brothers quickly followed up showcasing his other formidable skills. Cagney, who always considered himself a “song and dance man” would soon demonstrate that in the 1933 musical “Footlight Parade” (and later for a 1941 Academy award in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) But first: Yiddish.
In his eponymous 1976 autobiography, Cagney crowed about his street cred zhargon gleaned from school friends who lived on the Lower East Side. And, while it does not appear that he employed Yiddish as a stage performer in New York, Cagney’s eyebrow raising bilingual skills would quickly become famous in Hollywood. (One oft repeated story was how during Cagney’s first negotiations at Warners, the brothers – not realizing his language chops —attempted to outmaneuver him by periodically switching into Yiddish. Cagney not only joined in but also did so in a Yiddish better than theirs.)
It would become de rigeur gossip column fodder to periodically drop in items about Cagney’s puckish Yiddish: “Jimmy Cagney likes to palaver in Yiddish to cronies in person or on the phone,” Hedda Hopper once gushed, “Cagney’s kosher lingo is very McCoy; especially for a harp”
For “Taxi,” the studio’s pre-production PR hyped Cagney’s mame loshn. “James Cagney, a New York Irishman,” ran a plug in a syndicated gossip column, “speaks Yiddish fluently and has occasion to do so in his next motion picture…” The studio even issued an all-Yiddish poster (with Cagney’s first name misspelled) depicting the opening scene which, when Cagney reproduced it in his 1976 autobiography, was accompanied by his sly caption: “Probably the only actor in Hollywood who could read this poster.”
So, it is not surprising that in the first scene in “Taxi” — James Cagney’s first “name above the title” feature film — the first words out of his mouth are in Yiddish. And in what points to the subtle care taken in crafting this 90 second scene, the entire exchange between Cagney and the agitated passenger is, in the great Jewish tradition, a series of questions answered with questions. (Cagney would insert Yiddish in other films including the 1940 all-Hibernian flag waver: “The Fighting 69th”)
But for reasons which are not entirely clear, despite the obvious attention and care in which Warners took with the inclusion of Cagney’s Yiddish comedy sequence, there appears to have been little advance PR, no advertising or even any reviews in the Yiddish press (The Forverts, in its recently launched column “In der velt fun moviz un talkies/In the world of movies and talkies”) simply ran a photo of Cagney and co-star Loretta Young with no mention of his Yiddish turn.) The English language press, however, was an entirely different matter and was festooned with kudos about Cagney’s “palaver.” A review in the Brooklyn Eagle noted that the heartiest laugh of the film came from the audience’s reaction to Cagney’s “pyrotechnical” Yiddish.
It was, however, with the movie’s 1936 re-release that it gained Jewish traction and enjoyed an even longer run than the first time. The Forverts’ man on the aisle, Bernard Blumenthal, attended a midnight show at Brooklyn’s Strand theater, and cut to the chase in the headline of his May 23 review: “Der ayrisher James Cagney ret in a talkie Yiddish mit a Litvishn aksent/The Irish James Cagney in a talkie speaks Yiddish with a Litvak accent.”) and ending with: “ ven si farvilt zikh Cagney’n, ret er mit a litvishn aktsent; un ven si gefelt im – mit a galitzianer aktsent. Ot a za min madim iz James Cagney/ when it suits him, he speaks with a Litvak accent, and, when he feels like it -- with a Galitzianer accent. That’s the sort of mischievous fellow is James Cagney.”
(NOTE: translated subtitles are my work.)
Yet, for all the notoriety and popularity which the scene deservedly generates (one YouTube clip has been viewed over 350,000 times) it was only in the last few weeks, that anything substantive was discovered — including the real name — of the actor with whom James Cagney shared his memorable Yiddish scene.
The first break came from bandleader/Vitaphone fan Vince Giordano who, upon hearing of my quest, dug up a period press release lauding “Joe Barton” for his Yiddish “Taxi” performance. However, when it proved to be his stage name, the trail ran cold so had to wait until recent research I was doing for a lecture on Yiddish film.
“Joe Barton” was born Joseph Zousmer on October 29, 1878, in Chisau Romania and came to the United States in 1891 and where, into his teens, he worked at his father’s cigar making factory on the Lower East Side.
By 1905, Zousmer was in burlesque as a “grotesque” or “low” comic (“grotesques” used exaggerated makeup and arch stage dialects in creating character types including hobos, tramps and “Hebrews”) A 1917 Variety review of his burlesque turn complimented him on playing “…a clean Hebrew throughout.”
Oddly, Zousmer would take as his stage name “Joe Barton” a then widely popular vaudeville comic cyclist who was periodically reduced, as the popularity of “Joe Barton #2” grew — to taking out display ads in the show business press decrying Zousmer’s identity theft and asserting his own originality.
Zousmer arrived in Hollywood during the Depression signed with Warner Brothers. Despite a multi-picture contract, a December 22, 1932, article which described him as “formerly a vaudeville headliner and now a time-to-time actor in the motion pictures” also detailed him “cozily living in a parking lot out of the flivver he drove on the burlesque circuit replete with bath, electric stove and heat and Murphy bed.”
Barton’s first assignment was in “The Tenderfoot” a George S. Kaufman comedy starring Joe E. Brown (today best remembered as Jack Lemmon’s “Nobody’s perfect” paramour in “Some Like It Hot.”) Barton “The Hebrew,” a junk dealer appears early in the film where he gives star Brown a lift in his horse and wagon and quickly gets to spout his propulsive comic effect Yiddish.
This led to “Taxi” whose critical/popular success begat another specialty Yiddish sequence for Barton in “The Mayor of Hell.” Though again starring Cagney (this time as a reformer superintendent for a corrupt boy’s reform school) he and Barton are not reunited, instead, Barton is “Mr. Horowitz” the father of a boy mixed up in a neighborhood gang.
In a courtroom scene in which his son appears for sentencing, Barton appears with a screechy stage Jew dialect veering dangerously close to the kind of grotesque Hebe comedy he perfected in burlesque: (at one point, when told his son would go to reform school, Barton asks the judge how much it would cost him. He is clearly delighted when he learns it is paid by the state.)
But as director Archie Mayo pulls in the camera tightly framing father and son, Barton switches into Yiddish revealing an unexpectedly poignant and dramatic moment.
Running through all these three sequences is Zousmer’s homey, artless –and possibly improvised -- heartfelt Yiddish, neither affected or influenced by the Yiddish stage or literature but, like Cagney’s, a utilitarian lingo whose lived-in presence still leaps off the screen.
Despite being on the Warner Brothers lot (and even getting loaned out to prestige studio Paramount to appear with Al Jolson, Ginger Rogers, Cab Calloway, etc.) Barton was obliged to take parts in low budget gangster pictures for “Poverty Row” studios. A 1937 notice in Film World magazine announced plans for a new 2-reel comedy series at Columbia pictures (the same studio of the Three Stooges) teaming Barton with Andy Clyde with whom he appeared in the comedy “McFadden’s Flats” the year before and which had received favorable reviews.
However, before production could begin, Barton died as the result of a botched minor operation on June 7, 1937, and is buried in Acacia cemetery in Ozone Park, Queens.