Jewish Film Festival: The Cohens and Kellys

Writers: Alfred A. Cohn. Harry Pollard and Aaron Hoffman

Director: Harry Pollard

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Films Festivals are not just an opportunity to see the latest releases before anyone else, most include a classics strand, revisiting new prints of influential older works from the earliest days of cinema. At this year’s UK International Jewish Film Festival held from 8-22 November, The Cohens and Kellys will be this year’s unearthed archive treasure. The 1926 silent film, adapted from a play by Aaron Hoffman, will be performed with a new live score and with subtitles in French and English.

Neighbours in a tenement block on New York’s 2ndAvenue, draper’s shop owner Jacob Cohen and policeman Pat Kelly despise each other, their wives, their children, even their dogs fight every time they meet. But Nannie Cohen and Tim Kelly have fallen in love, attempting to conceal their relationship from the warring families. When the almost bankrupt Cohens unexpectedly inherit $2 million the family quickly take their place among the fashionable elite on the other side of town, but the ardent lovers refuse to be parted.

One of the first comedy classics to earn a number of sequels, The Cohens and Kellys has earned its place in film history with the creation of a set of now fairly cliched characters that are full of life and a surprising emotion. Although its 1 hour and 48-minute runtime is slightly overlong, and some of the scenarios a little drawn out, director Harry Pollard creates an engaging image of two very different families both right and wrong in their own way, with an entertaining tragicomic balance.

The new score was unavailable for the pre-screen version, making it a strange but interesting experience to watch a genuinely silent film with no music to tell you how to feel. Instead, it is all there in the performances, the lively warmth of the noisy Kellys and the sympathetic fall and rise of the beleaguered Cohens. While they clearly speak in English, gestures and expressions are highlighted in the subtle way only silent stars knew how. Little of the actual dialogue is represented on the original speech cards, yet you still know exactly how they feel and the ways in which the plot is unfolding.

George Sidney as Jacob Cohen’s default setting is explosive outrage and the sequence of events allow him to utilise that skills for a variety of different purposes, including his hatred of his Irish neighbours, the discovery of his daughter’s assignation, impending ruin and the evil machinations of a business colleague. But Sidney makes this believable, a range of emotion that takes in happiness, despair and shame as he tries to provide a comfortable life for his family.

As the Kelly patriarch, Charles Murray is initially presented to the audience as a raucous figure, leading an unbearable rabble, the classic nightmare neighbours. But as events unfold, without having to alter his performance, we come to know Pat better and appreciate the warm-hearted acceptance of the Kellys. The wives Vera Gordon as Mrs Cohen and Kate Price as Mrs Kelly display their maternal qualities as the young lovers Olive Hasbrouck and Jason Robarts Senior draw the families closer together, while their two youngest sons deliver an entertaining range of facial expressions as the scrappy children.

It is easy to see why The Cohens and Kellys was the beginning of a comedy franchise, a set of characters who rapidly outlive the world of this film and beg for further adventures. While individual sections are milked for all they are worth with multiple plot convolutions and plenty of mugging long after the audience has got the idea, here are two opposing families with far more in common than they would like to believe. And there is a brand-new score waiting to be heard at the festival screening.

The 22nd UK International Jewish Film Festival takes place between 8th-22nd November 2018 at cinemas across London, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow  http://ukjewishfilm.org/

Release Date: 25 November 2018 

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