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Cohen on the Telephone (I) (1929)

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Trying to make a call and unfamiliar with the telephone, Cohen embroils himself in a comic monologue of misunderstanding. Here, we see how the Jewish immigrant is now characterized not ... See full summary »

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Cast

Cast overview:
George Sidney ...
Cohen
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Storyline

Trying to make a call and unfamiliar with the telephone, Cohen embroils himself in a comic monologue of misunderstanding. Here, we see how the Jewish immigrant is now characterized not simply by how he moves and looks, but by how he speaks. Written by National Center for Jewish Film

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jewish | silent

Genres:

Short | Comedy

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Release Date:

2 September 1929 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

George Sidney in Cohen on the Telephone  »

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Aspect Ratio:

1.20 : 1
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User Reviews

 
Hang up, Cohen!
9 April 2007 | by (Minffordd, North Wales) – See all my reviews

I first heard about 'Cohen on the Telephone' in a roundabout way. One of the most hilarious pieces by the brilliant humour author S.J. Perelman is 'Waiting for Santy', a brilliantly funny parody of Clifford Odets's deadly-serious stage plays. Even if you're not familiar with Odets's work, 'Waiting for Santy' is hilarious. However, in the middle of this parody, Perelman makes an off-hand reference to something called 'Cohen on the Telephone', with no further explanation.

It took me nearly thirty years to track it down. 'Cohen on the Telephone' was a vaudeville turn, eventually recorded on an early gramophone disc (which is how Perelman identified it), and then remade as an early talking film. Many of the early talkies (notably the Vitaphone shorts, filmed in Brooklyn) were recordings of vaudeville acts, but the Vitaphones were nearly always musical or comedy acts which needed to be seen AND heard so as to retain their full effect. To the extent that it has any effect at all, 'Cohen on the Telephone' -- an early vaudeville short which is NOT by Vitaphone -- is a dialect monologue: it's purely verbal, and (at least as filmed here) we get nothing from watching this vaudeville turn on screen which we wouldn't get if we were merely hearing this material as a radio broadcast or phonograph record.

Character actor George Sidney specialised in playing Jewish stereotypes. Sometimes he was allowed to give them some depth and compassion, such as his sensitive performance in 'Manhattan Melodrama', as the grieving father who adopted two boys after losing his own son. Far too often, though, he simply played a money-grubbing Yiddish-spouting mangler of English. That's the role Sidney plays here.

With the camera nailed to the floor, Cohen (Sidney) picks up an old-fashioned candlestick telephone and attempts to make an insurance claim on his house, in a thick Yiddisher accent. 'Hello, are you dere? De vind blew down mine house.' Much of the very crude humour stems from the fact that Cohen has a bad connexion (or just can't handle a telephone) and is obliged to start his call over several times. 'Hello, are you dere?'

Ethnic humour doesn't age very well, as we now recognise the strong streak of cruelty behind it. Here, the audience are invited to laugh at how stupid Cohen is, and how much difficulty he has in making a simple phone call. The fact that he's trying to claim financial compensation (to which he's probably entitled) could arguably be construed as one more example of Jewish money-grubbing. If ethnic stereotypes offend you, so will this movie.

Despite my reservations, I actually laughed several times during this short film, due to Sidney's sheer professionalism with this bad material, and at the utter outrageousness of Cohen's incompetence. This film has some historic significance as an example of the sort of material which was considered perfectly acceptable in vaudeville days, and I'll rate it 5 out of 10. If you really want to laugh, read S.J. Perelman's "Waiting for Santy", which is the lead-off item in his hilarious collection 'The Most of S.J. Perelman'.


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