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Culture by Cinema

Ellis Island Patriots

People came to America during the Ellis Island immigration period from different countries and for different reasons, but they all came looking for their version of the virtually limitless resources of the New World: land, food, and jobs.
The first movies in this section show you some of the situations "back home" that motivated people to leave their homes and get on that go to Ellis Island.

If you're studying the history of the growth of American cities, of the Industrial Revolution, the work of Jane Addams and Hull House, the efforts of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Eleanor Roosevelt, you are studying the world portrayed in this series of films.

Albert Nobbs

Albert Nobbs is the story of the hardships faced by three women in Ireland at the turn of the last century.

Albert was a young girl, orphaned at age 11 or 12 and gang raped shortly thereafter. She disguised herself as a boy for safety, adopted the name, the character, the identity of a modest young man who supported himself as a waiter for the next 30 years.

Albert Nobbs and Hubert Page

Hubert Page was a married woman with a drunken and abusive husband. One night he came home just a little too drunk and a little too abusive. After he passed out, she stole his clothes and his painting tools, cut off her hair and stuck a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, and became a member of the working class, a house painter. Hubert lived with and eventually married another woman, effectively completing his disguise, because no one would have imagined that this "man" lawfully married in the eyes of God to this lovely young woman could have been something other than a man.

The third woman in the story, Helen, is the one who plays the central role in the story of the Ellis island immigration. She's pretty, she's young, she's easily seduced by Joe, a young man who's going to take her to America, where they can make something of their lives. The problem is that neither of them has the money to travel across the Atlantic Ocean and establish a life there. They devise a plot to seduce Albert Nobbs of his savings in order to escape the desperation of their own lives. But when Joe finds out Helen is pregnant, he abandons her.

For people living lives of poverty, homelessness, and the ravages of cholera and typhoid, America was the Promised Land.

Angels in America

Angels in America is set in the 1980s, but the six hour docudrama opens with the funeral of the grandmother, the matriarch who came from Lithuania. At the funeral, the Rabbi shows us the mass of not-quite-white immigrants as Jews were chased out of Eastern Europe and Russia during the Pogroms of 1880 through 1905.

Angels in America

[And, no, you didn't read the credits wrong. The actor playing the Rabbi is Meryl Streep.]

The pictures, part of the Ellis Island Museum archives, give a better sense of the Eastern European Jews who came here to escape political persecution than anyone we can show. And as the Rabbi says, these people came in and built themselves a life in America, even if they never let go of their roots in Russia.


Yentl portrays a Russian Jewish woman in the early 1900s who disguises herself as a boy so that she can go to school. In Barbra Streisand’s tour de force, the role of a woman in society is made clear: women look at picture books; a woman who can read is considered a demon. After Yentl disguises herself as a boy, she asks her classmate Avigdor whether he ever wonders what his fiancée is thinking. He answers, “why would I care about that?” In the love triangle that is the main story, Streisand falls in love with Avigdor, as he does with her; and he immediately expects her to stop reading, stop thinking, stop playing chess, and start cooking. Otherwise, she will remain what he first calls her – a demon, a woman who wants to defile the Torah by reading it.


Her only alternative is one that many Russian Jews chose, more often to begin a new life of religious freedom than freedom to be educated: she heads for the new world.

If that were only a tale of pre-World War I Europe, it wouldn’t be on this list. But Barbra Streisand didn’t just act in the play; she also produced and directed it, helped with the screenplay, and sang the entire soundtrack. As a result, the movie got not a single Academy award nomination. It was as easy for a woman to overstep the bounds of her sex in 1983 as it was in 1913.


Not everyone who arrived at Ellis Island found that the streets of America were paved with gold. The number of orphans and runaways either was actually much higher than it is now or it seemed much higher because of the lack of social services. Many of those young boys supported themselves by selling newspapers.

You may have seen a moment in a movie where a cataclysmic event is announced by young boys holding out newspapers and shouting "Extra! Extra!" Many people don't realize that was basically the only way you bought a newspaper before World War II. There was no door-to-door delivery in the cities, because most people lived in a multistory apartment buildings. There were no cars, so newspapers weren't delivered to your door in the suburbs. There were often news stands on subway platforms or street corners, but there were also kids who stood outside of office buildings or at the subway exits offering your paper for a penny.

In 1899, Joseph Pulitzer, the owner of the New York World, raised the price of the papers that the newsboys had to pay. As a result, they went on strike. According to the movie, the strike ended when then-governor Teddy Roosevelt strong-armed Pulitzer into negotiating with the newsboys, because Roosevelt didn't want that kind of bad press when he was planning to run for president.

"Newsies" King of New York

Given that this is a made-for-Disney movie musical, it does a good job of portraying the lives of the newsboys. It shows the tenements, the hard work of an 8-year-old to pay for basic food and lodging, and the harsh realities of the underclasses that many people had never learned: 10-year-olds smoking cigars, a 15-year-old wishing for shoes with matching shoelaces, another kid wanting a hot bath.

So America may have offered these people more than Ireland, Italy, or the American South would have given them, but often it raised them from nothing to "better than nothing."

Funny Girl

When we think about immigration today, or think about people crossing the border from Central America (illegally or otherwise), we’re thinking about people from Africa or China who came over with perfectly legal visas, but out-stayed the length of time that was specified.

The Ellis Island immigrants, those people who arrived primarily between 1880 and World War II, with the vast bulk arriving between 1890 and 1914, [Wiki] were facing a physical impossibility of entering illegally. Because you came by boat across the Atlantic Ocean, there was really no chance of grabbing a lifeboat and landing in Baltimore. You were herded, filling the portion of the boat normally reserved for cattle, which is called “steerage.” the boat landed at Ellis Island, where everyone was placed into quarantine until they could be examined by a medical doctor. The essential tests were to guarantee the ability to work and the lack of contagious diseases. Once you cleared quarantine, another boat brought you to the mainland.

People who arrived through Ellis Island tended to stay on the East Coast, moving roughly 100 miles north and south from the immigration point in New York. This area extended roughly from Baltimore to Boston. Most of them initially stayed with relatives, or rented rooms in cheap boarding houses. They primarily spoke the language of their own country (as modern immigrants still tend to do). They shopped, attended religious services, and went to theaters where entertainment was provided in their native language. These could vary from amateur nights to three act plays, although music and comedy were most likely to please the masses, as they still do.

Three famous Americans became so much bigger than their ghetto that they moved up in their field to mainstream entertainment. And each of them was so famous that one or more movies have been made about them.

The most famous in the context of current cinema is Fanny Brice, the “Funny Girl" (who is, ironically, also portrayed by Barbra Streisand). A comic staple of the Ziegfeld Follies, she later was featured on radio shows that might be the equivalent of today’s sitcoms. (You might know of “the Honeymooners,” starring Jackie Gleason, and “Amos and Andy,” both of which advanced to television around 1955. Fanny Brice played “Baby Snooks” on a radio comedy; it might also have moved to television, but Ms. Brice died in 1951.)

Her life was portrayed in a major Oscar-winning musical “Funny Girl,” which played on Broadway from 1963 to 1968,then was cast as a movie musical starring Barbra Streisand in the title role. She earned her first Academy award for best actress from this portrayal. Wiki says it was the best box office film of 1968. Although its best known song is “People,” I’ve always preferred “Don’t Rain on my Parade.” This clip has the added bonus of a ferry ride past the Statue of Liberty, bringing home hte theme of hte American Dream for a generation of immigrants.

Funny Girl

So for a look at Jewish Tenements in New York and the struggle to rise from poverty and from “immigrant” to “American,” this is a fabulous place to start.

The Jazz Singer (1927) and the Jolson Story

While both Fanny Brice and her surrogate, Barbra Streisand, have gone on to enormous fame, the first Jewish immigrant to claim the role of The Entertainer was Al Jolson. In many ways, his career was virtually identical to Brice’s, and he is less well known due to a trick of fate and anti-Communist persecution.

According to Wiki, his career predates Brice’s in every aspect: he was born five years earlier, began singing five years earlier, and broke into the mainstream five years earlier. However, both because he was a singer rather than a comedian, and because he was the first person to take his shows on national tours, his fame far exceeded that of either Ms. Brice or Ms. Streisand. Wiki says, “Between 1911 and 1928, Jolson had nine sell-out Winter Garden shows in a row, more than 80 hit records, and 16 national and international tours.”

His Broadway career ended in 1928 because his Hollywood career began in that year. One year earlier, Warner Bros. film studios had acquired sufficient technology to produce a film with synchronized sound attached to the video sequencing. Knowing that debuting this radical new form of entertainment would be risky, they chose the most famous popular singer in the world to “sell” their show. “The Jazz Singer” was essentially a biopic; the person played by Al Jolson virtually mirrored Jolson’s own early years: a Russian Jewish immigrant who runs away from home to be a street and vaudeville singer rather than a cantor in the synagogue. Jolson delivered the first words ever recorded on film: "You Ain't heard nothin' yet!"

Al Jolson

Jolson, like so many of the Ellis Island immigrants, was a Superpatriot, having escaped poverty, famine, and persecution that were the common reasons that Russian Jews emigrated (or escaped). His distinctive voice and “jazzy” style of singing and dancing made him the hit of a number of musical movies.

Jolson also proved his patriotism by virtually inventing the USO entertainment tours.

Even before the U.S.O. began to set up a formal program overseas, the excitable Jolson was deluging War and Navy Department brass with phone calls and wires. He demanded permission to go anywhere in the world where there is an American serviceman who wouldn't mind listening to 'Sonny Boy' or 'Mammy'.... [and] early in 1942, Jolson became the first star to perform at a GI base in World War II".[81]

He did as many as four shows a day in the jungle outposts of Central America and covered the string of U.S. Naval bases. He paid for part of the transportation out of his own pocket. Upon doing his first, and unannounced, show in England in 1942, the reporter for the Hartford Courant wrote, "... it was a panic. And pandemonium... when he was done the applause that shook that soldier-packed room was like bombs falling again in Shaftsbury Avenue." [84]

Jolson’s USO tours made him so popular that Columbia Pictures did a biopic of his life, prettified so that it glossed over his womanizing, gambling, a divorce or two, and all those other things that we don’t want interfering with our concept of the little immigrant boy who made good.

“The Jolson Story” and its sequel, “Jolson Sings Again,” were both good box office. Actor Larry Parks played the role of Jolson, learning every mannerism and inflection by having those old 30s movies projected onto a movie screen. He imitated every trademark Jolson move, and Jolson himself re-recorded the songs, in a trademark gravelly voice, the range lowered from age and cigars.

Larry Parks playing Al Jolson

One reason these films are rarely shown or discussed is that performing in Blackface became very controversial. Equally significantly, Larry Parks wound up being a victim of HUAC (the House UnAmerican Activities Committee). Wiki says, “His career arced from bit player and supporting roles to top billing, before his career was virtually ended when he admitted to having once been a member of a Communist party cell, which led to his blacklisting by all Hollywood studios.[2]

The three films that show the life of a Russian Jewish immigrant, the move to stardom, and the challenge and fame of Al Jolson are “The Jazz Singer,” “The Jolson Story,” and “Jolson Sings Again.” The first two are still so well regarded that they are not available on YouTube for free; they can be downloaded for the standard few dollars that Amazon prime and Netflix charge. The sequel, “Jolson Sings Again,” is available on YouTube as a free download. Much of the footage in the sequel is lifted from the first movie; I don’t know whether this was for lack of material, or for lack of time, since Jolson was back in the USO entertaining troops on the Korean front.

So why do you need to see this?

  • Because it’s one of the most celebrated depictions of life in an immigrant tenement.
  • Because its explanation of the birth of the USO tour is always a good conversation topic when the United States is sending soldiers overseas.
  • And because it goes a long way towards showing the difference between what immigration was procedurally and what it meant emotionally between the Ellis Island generation of immigrants and the more recent ones who are being discussed daily as we approach the next presidential election.

Yankee Doodle Dandy

The Russian Jewish immigrants Al Jolson and Fanny Brice began their careers performing in Yiddish theater: many people in the audience didn’t even speak English. (Newer immigrants may have a similar legacy; there is an Asian theater in Seattle, although much of the work performed there is an English. But the availability of DVDs and international transmission of television from home has made local theater much less prevalent with current generations of immigrants.) But the third, and probably the most famous of the Ellis Island immigrant entertainers, spoke English – or at least Irish. George M. Cohan, the son of small time vaudeville performers, first became famous performing with his family. His closing to their act, “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you” is another one of those lines that lives far longer than the memory of its origin.

George started performing on his own, writing skits with music and lyrics for “musicals” that were originally like Mr. Ziegfeld’s follies: a series of sketches and vignettes that were not actually connected by a story. It was his maverick idea of creating a story that included the songs thematically that earned him the title “the father of the Broadway musical.” There is still a statue of him at the corner of 46th and Broadway in the heart of the theater district.

Statue of George M. Cohan at Times Square

As the statue notes, one of his most famous songs is “Give my Regards to Broadway.”

Cohan was famous not only for writing simple melodies and catchy lyrics, but also for the super patriotism that was particularly strong in that period between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of World War II. The song “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was emblematic of the immigrants of his era. (The song was probably inspired by a colonial children’s song of the same name.)

Cohan’s patriotism was marked by such other songs as "(You're a) Grand Old Flag" and "Over There," the classic marching song of soldiers going off to battle during both World War I and World War II.

James Cagney as George M. Cohan

Cohan is the epitome of the Ellis Island immigrant; no matter how bad it gets, America is great! When the Irish potato famine meant that hundreds of thousands of people couldn't even fill their bellies on a potato, they could come to America and get a free hard-boiled egg with their beer at the noontime taverns. Although there were many other groups of immigrants at this time, the Irish assimilated much more quickly, simply because they spoke English. For the same reason, they tended not to isolate themselves into the linguistic enclaves we call "Little Italy" or "Koreatown."

In 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to World War I morale. [Wiki] [22] He earned the title "The Man Who Owned Broadway” for his unparalleled career: actor, playwright, composer, lyricist, librettist, director, and producer of some eighty shows from 1901 to 1940. George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway: John McCabe: 9780306801181: Books

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