Comedies play around with politics, shtereotypes

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The trouble with film festivals is that they tend toward the ponderous. That goes double for Jewish film festivals, where works focusing on the Holocaust and Middle East peace — or the lack thereof — intensify the weightiness of the tone.

All the more reason, then, to give thanks that the 16th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival begins with a new comedy and also features a full array of early comic shorts, silents as well as talkies, in both English and Yiddish.

In the opening-night film, Jean-Jacques Zilbermann's effervescent full-length feature "Not Everybody's Lucky Enough to Have Had Communist Parents," Irene (ebullient Josiane Balasco, star of "French Twist") is the kind of Auschwitz survivor who, when asked, "What's that number on your arm?" perkily replies, "My phone number. Interested?"

Since her liberation by Red Army troops, Irene has worked tirelessly for the communist cause. Not so her husband, Bernard (Maurice Benichou), whose shoe store has fallen on hard times and who has no patience for Irene's ceaseless meetings and demonstrations. However, the couple's young son, Leon (Jeremy Davis), shares his mother's naive faith in the party.

The time is 1958, the setting is Paris and the hot political issue is the upcoming election: Will the communists force de Gaulle out? They will if Irene has anything to say about it.

The arrival in Paris of the Red Army Choir throws Irene into a spin, especially when Ivan (Victor Nieznanov), the handsome tenor soloist, takes a shine to her. Meanwhile things at home are deteriorating as Bernard's shop goes bankrupt and the leftover shoes get stacked all over the apartment.

As much a comedy of domestic affairs as political ones, "Communist Parents" maintains a playful tone, never making any pronouncements about either love or politics — except for Irene's claim that "when communism wins, there'll be no more broken hearts."

Yes, right.

"Shtick, Shmaltz, and Shtereotypes: Jewish Presence in Early Film Comedy 1912-1940" is a collection of shorts — some hilarious, some offensive, some both — featuring the likes of Danny Kaye, Eddie Cantor and Leo Fuchs, "the Fred Astaire of Yiddish film."

Several of the shorts are little more than skits lasting a few minutes. "Jane and Little Moritz," for instance, derives most of its humor from a fat girl. In "Cohen on the Telephone," Monroe Silver tries, in his thick Yiddish accent ("Hallo! Are you dere?"), to communicate over the phone with his landlord. This skit was evidently a favorite in vaudeville and film; it's hard to imagine why.

A very young Danny Kaye is charming in an untitled short about a sailor pretending to be a Russian prince. In another very short piece, "Come the Revolution" (aka "Hey, Workers!"), actor Willie Howard plays a political agitator exhorting his listeners to "Rewolt!" and ends with an old punchline: "Comes da rewolution, you'll eat strawberries and cream — and like it!"

Ethnic "shtereotypes" were standard fare for our ancestors, less burdened with concerns about political correctness than we are.

In "Nize People," Mr. Goldberg is lazy while his wife is bossy; their friend Mr. O'Connor is a drunk. For all its questionable taste, "Nize People," at 20 minutes, has a more fully developed storyline than the shorter films.

Another equal-opportunity offender is the animated "Dough Nuts," in which homosexuals prance and mince (they're selling "Pansy Brand Cream Puffs"), a Scot padlocks his wallet and Jews post phony "sale" signs over their baked goods. In another cartoon, "Laundry Blues," a Jew gets his beard laundered by stereotypical Chinese laundrymen.

Among the most amusing films in the collection are those entailing musical numbers. One is "The Delicatessen Kid," an early talkie in which Benny Rubin, as the stagestruck son of a delicatessen owner, illustrates dance numbers for his disapproving father, who ends up turning the tables on his son. In "Tyrone Shapiro, the Bronx Caballero," Willie Howard, in Mexican costume, sings in both English and Yiddish.

"I Want to Be a Boarder," a Yiddish film with Leo Fuchs and Yetta Zwerling, is an almost surreal comedy in which a feuding couple switch roles to become affectionate landlady and tenant. Fuchs, his limbs as supple as a Gumby doll's, dances in a dream sequence.

The collector of these rarities is filmmaker Jenni Olson, former co-director of San Francisco's Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Her interest is in film stereotypes: gays, African Americans, Jews. She acquired the films from catalogs. Many are ripe for restoring, with scratchy images and rough soundtracks.