"Abie's Irish Rose" was a flop with everyone but the public. It was originally a comedy play by Anne Nichols, a young woman with no previous playwriting experience. (She wrote "Abie's Irish Rose" in three days!) Oliver Morosco, a major Broadway producer of the 1920s, mounted productions of this play in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where -- after an awkward first fortnight -- it was a huge hit ... but he refused to bring it to New York City, claiming that New York audiences were too sophisticated for this cornball ethnic humour. Anne Nichols overruled him and brought the play to Broadway herself, where it was a smash comedy hit ... running for more than 2,300 performances. The critics booed and hissed, and a lot of "progressive" intellectuals (most notably Robert Benchley) made a point of publicly knocking this play at every opportunity. For many years, "Abie's Irish Rose" provoked highbrows into the sort of knee-jerk contempt which some people now spew towards Norman Rockwell's paintings: namely, "if I make sure everybody knows I dislike this, I'll get credit for having good taste".
This film version of "Abie's Irish Rose" is very faithful to the play, which was still a hardy perennial in American theatres when this movie opened in 1929. The comedy intends to give us a warm glow rather than belly laughs. Many of the jokes are embarrassing by modern standards, especially the ethnic bits ... but the humour is not vicious towards Jews or the Irish, even though there is some stereotyping.
Solomon Levy of New York City is a wealthy Jewish merchant and a self-made man, who started out with only a pushcart. Patrick Murphy of California is a prosperous Irish Catholic; both men are widowers. Imagine their consternation when they learn that Levy's son Abie has married Pat Murphy's daughter Rosemary! They met in Europe during the Great War, where Rosemary served as a nurse. The marriage was performed by a Methodist minister (as a compromise), so both fathers-in-law are stuck with it ... but neither accepts the wedding as legitimate. Sol Levy wants the newlyweds remarried by a rabbi, whilst Pat Murphy wants a Catholic priest to preside.
The story gets a wee bit anti-Semitic with a few jokes about Levy's interest in money. He buys a new suit for the new wedding: it's too big but he refuses to have it altered to fit, because "I vont all I paid for" he says in his thick Yiddisher accent (with appropriate misspellings in the silent intertitles). Murphy's Irish brogue is almost as bad. For the wedding, Levy honours his new Californian daughter-in-law by decorating his house with "California navy oranges". When Pat Murphy spots the oranges, he flies into a rage ... because oranges remind him of Protestants. (If nobody understands this joke nowadays, good riddance.)
Fade out on a wedding feast of ham with kosher trimmings. (No comment.) Fade in a year later, and now Rosemary Levy is expecting. Abe Levy is hoping for a nice Jewish grandson, while Pat Murphy has his hopes set on a fine Irish granddaughter. (SPOILERS COMING.) You've probably guessed what happens. Abie's Irish Rose gives birth to boy-girl twins, leaving both grandpas happy. Apparently the grandson will be brought up Jewish, and the granddaughter raised as a Catholic. (It would have made more sense the other way round, to avoid the problem of a bris.) Somewhere in all this treacle, a priest and a rabbi make some happy-sappy comments about how everybody should just get along.
The film's director Victor Fleming (already well established in silents) shows glimmerings here of the talent he would display in several great 1930s films. Bernard Gorcey (fondly remembered as Louie Dumbrowski from the Bowery Boys movies) played a small role in the original Broadway cast of "Abie's Irish Rose", and he repeats his role in this movie. Veteran actor J. Farrell MacDonald is splendid as Rose's hot-tempered dad; Jean Hersholt (who is stuck with the most embarrassing dialogue) is less impressive as Abie's father. Silent-film comedian Nick Cogley (a charter member of Mack Sennett's troupe at Keystone) is excellent in a serio-comic role as the Catholic chaplain. Charles "Buddy" Rogers is charming and funny as Abie Levy, but he looks too white-bread and WASP-ish for such an explicitly Jewish role. In the Broadway cast, Abie Levy was played by Robert Williams ... the actor who gave a brilliant performance in Frank Capra's "Platinum Blonde" just before his untimely death.
"Abie's Irish Rose" is not as embarrassing as some people would like it to be, but it's no longer very funny (maybe that's a good thing) and it makes a lot of serious points which (I hope) no longer need to be made: about Jews and Catholics getting along and respecting each other's differences. This movie is fascinating as a social document but not especially entertaining.
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