September 23, 2019

Family Business

Seated, the late Max Laemmle, founder of the theater chain, with son Robert, left, and grandson Greg.

Back in the heyday of the self-made Jewish movie moguls, the studios were, to a certain degree, family businesses. For Louis B. Mayer, Jack and Harry Warner, and others, nepotism was standard operating procedure, a way to protectively surround themselves with their own kind and to lend a hand to relatives and friends who otherwise may have had a rockier time of it, particularly during the Depression.

Nepotism reached unprecedented heights at Universal Pictures, which was founded in 1915 by Carl Laemmle, an affable and unpretentious German-Jewish immigrant. According to author Neal Gabler’s “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” Laemmle at one time had more than 70 friends and relatives on the studio payroll. It was a source of amusement within the industry, prompting Jack Warner to quip that Laemmle “was making the world safe for nephews.”

In retrospect, contemporary Los Angeles filmgoers have “Uncle Carl” and his unabashed nepotism to thank for the eventual creation of a lively, eclectic chain of movie theaters.

Two years after the family’s ties to the studio were severed during a 1936 corporate reorganization, Max Laemmle, a nephew who had been an able Universal executive under the elderly Laemmle, co-founded the Laemmle Theatre chain with his brother, Kurt. Today, almost 60 years later, Max’s son, Robert, and grandson, Greg, run the family business as president and vice president, respectively.

Laemmle movie houses — there are eight locations in all — dot the Los Angeles landscape, from Pasadena to the grand Royal in West Los Angeles. On any given weekend, the chain screens a smart and interesting mix of mainstream hits, independent art films, festivals and retrospectives. Foreign-film showcases, revival screenings and campier themes, such as a recent series centered around noir-ish femme fatales, are Laemmle mainstays.

Last week’s movie listings are a case in point. Along with commercial flicks such as “Volcano,” “Father’s Day,” “Breakdown” and Bruce Willis’ new sci-fi epic, “The Fifth Element,” Laemmles also screened “Gray’s Anatomy,” “Das Boot,” “Ridicule,” “Pink Flamingos” and “I Was a Jewish Sex Worker.” As a result, the chain attracts a diverse audience — from the popcorn-munching masses to the culture vultures and film-school wonks who patronize such nonprofit venues as UCLA’s Melnitz Theater, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Bing Theater.

To a great degree, the bigger, slicker pictures at the chain’s multiple screen houses pay for the more marginal movies, including titles of Jewish interest such as “Carpati” and “Anne Frank Remembered.”

“In some respects, the special series that we do exist because of the multiplex phenomenon,” said Greg Laemmle, during a recent interview. “We couldn’t do this kind of programming without them.”

Greg Laemmle’s latest project is the Jewish Cinema Series, which begins on Friday, May 23, and runs through June 26. He also programs the company’s wintertime Cinema Judaica festival. Partly because of those efforts, the theater chain has become an important part of the local Jewish cultural landscape.

For Laemmle, a thirtysomething graduate of UC Berkeley and a onetime administrator at Brandeis-Bardin, it’s a role that he particularly enjoys.

“It was a lot of fun putting [the Jewish Cinema Series] together,” he said. “I remember being taken as a child to see ‘Hester Street’ and ‘Lies My Father Told Me.’ Movies aren’t the same as going to day school or to synagogue, but Jewish film is a fun, recognizable experience. You see your experiences documented up on the screen, and it puts them in a context.”

The series opens with “Like a Bride,” a Mexican production that chronicles the coming-of-age of two Jewish girls in 1960s Mexico City: One is from a traditional, marriage-minded family of Turkish-Jewish immigrants in the garment business. Her friend is the daughter of intellectual Eastern European Holocaust refugees.

“Saint Clara,” an offbeat Israeli-Czech production, follows with a one-week run, beginning on May 30. Opening on June 6 is the memorable klezmer documentary “A Tickle in the Heart,” the story of the “rediscovered” Epstein brothers. Interestingly, it was jointly produced by the German government and a Brooklyn yeshiva.

While all three films have made the rounds of the festival circuit — including previous stops in Los Angeles — they merit a second look.

A scene from “Mamele.”

Also getting some much-needed exposure are the 23 films from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s that constitute the “Yiddish Film Festival,” the final portion of the Laemmle series. These films first premièred as a major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1991, before traveling to the Soviet Union, Europe and other American cities. They were restored and presented at MOMA by Brandeis University’s National Center for Jewish Film, which is co-presenting their Los Angeles première on June 14.

Several Yiddish actors featured in the series are tentatively scheduled to attend local screenings. For older moviegoers, titles such as “Mamele,” “The Light Ahead,” “Without a Home” and “Yiddle With a Fiddle” may bring back a welcome rush of half-remembered sounds and images. For the rest of us, they represent a rare chance to see up on the screen an earthy, witty and vital world that mostly vanished with the Holocaust.

As for the current state of “Jewish film,” Greg Laemmle finds the field of American independent features to be a bit discouraging.

“Jewish cinema may be all over the place in terms of directorial style, language, etc., but what the films have in common is that they address the Jewish experience,” he said. “The next question, of course, is quality. Unfortunately, I see a lot of stuff that may address Jewish content but doesn’t deserve to be in the theater.”

Laemmle pointed to a dependence on schmaltzy clichés as one example. Superficial, juvenile treatment of subject matter is another.

“What I see mostly is angry and dealing in stereotypes — usually revolving around the bar mitzvah experience,” he said, with a laugh. “Documentaries, on the other hand, have been a rich field. In a sense, this is really a great age for cinema, in that anyone with a camera can make a film. I’ve seen such compelling, authentic stories about Jewish subjects…but, unfortunately, if it’s a documentary, the public still regards it as academic, educational — something that will be ‘good for them’ like eating vegetables.”

Laemmle, who is married and the father of young triplets, maintains that despite their iffy profitability, Jewish film festivals provide an important cultural contribution in an era of rapid assimilation.

“So far, I’ve gotten very positive feedback,” he said, “but we’ve only put this festival on for two years now, and these things grow very slowly…. We do this without any financial support from the Jewish community. We don’t go out and solicit grants and donations or anything like that. We’re prepared to do it and perhaps lose a little money. But audience attendance and support will justify this program. If people think this is worthwhile, they have to get up off their butts and go buy tickets.”

Uncle Carl couldn’t have said it better.

The Jewish Cinema Series runs from May 23 to June 26 at Laemmle’s Music Hall Theatre, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Some movies from the Yiddish Film Festival will also screen at the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino. For a festival schedule or other information, call (310) 274-6869.

Three Films to See

“Like a Bride” (“Novia Que Te Vea”)

Filmmaker Guita Schyfter presents us with a rich, sharply rendered portrait of Mexico City’s Jewish enclave during the 1960s with this quiet, coming-of-age movie, based on a novel by Rosa Nissan. Through her two female protagonists — Oshinica Mataroso (Claudette Maille) and Rifke Groman (Maya Mishalska) — Schyfter explores the tensions between a Jewish minority and a Catholic majority, tradition and modernity, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, and men and women.

Oshinica, the dark-eyed daughter of Turkish-Jewish immigrants, dreams of studying to become a painter, a notion that her wedding-minded family finds ridiculous. She is groomed for marriage from such an early age that she recalls cavorting in the gowns from her trousseau as a young girl. Her best friend, Rifke, a firebrand and the daughter of intellectual Holocaust refugees, finds her own Zionist identity rocked by a love affair with a handsome, non-Jewish political rebel, the son of a right-wing politician.

The struggles of both friends to define their place in the shifting sands of the 1960s defines the narrative of this freshly told wry tale, but it’s the larger emotional crosscurrents and visual details of Jewish Mexico City that Schyfter nails with affectionate relish. Oshinica’s father conducts his Luganilla market shmatte business with appropriate theatrics. The local Jewish youth group is flush with Spanish-accented kibbutz idealism. The older women set the tone at home during their sewing circles and canasta games.

The direction is sometimes plodding, and Maille, best known here for her role in “Like Water for Chocolate,” delivers a rather stolid performance, but “Like A Bride” is ultimately a treat — restrained, funny, moody and brimming with la vida.

English subtitles. Opens on May 23.

“Saint Clara”

A quirky blend of Israeli attitude and Czech surrealism, “Saint Clara” is set in the Golda Meir junior high school of a remote Israeli industrial town. The eponymous Clara, a Russian immigrant and a wide-eyed teen psychic, falls in with a group of scruffy, punkish classmates who suddenly begin acing their math tests with the aid of her clairvoyant powers.

The movie, directed by Ari Folman and Ori Sivan and based on a novel by Czech dissident Pavel Kohout, veers between amateurish stabs at realism and delightful forays into dark absurdity reminiscent of “Montenegro” or the films of Jim Jarmusch. Despite uneven performances and the self-conscious hipness, there are some things to like about “Saint Clara.” Well-known stage actor Yigal Naor’s portrayal of Headmaster Tissona, a pompous and passionate Francophile with lonely delusions of Edith Piaf, is a central highlight. His character deserves a movie of his own. Israel Damidov is also fine as Elvis, Clara’s tragicomic Russian uncle. And for moviegoers who still entertain images of Israeli youths as the straight-arrow, ballad-singing kibbutzniks of old travel posters, this film should give them a bit of a surprise.

English subtitles. Opens on May 30.

“A Tickle in the Heart”

The engaging title refers to the emotions evoked by Yiddish music, and, happily, it’s also an apt description for the overall effect wrought by this beautifully photographed documentary. It tells the story of Max (on clarinet), Willie (on trumpet) and Julius (on drums) Epstein, three brothers who began playing klezmer music 60 years ago, only to watch it die out from the vantage point of their retirement community in Florida. To their astonishment and delight, the music’s resurgent popularity among a new generation leads them back out on the road, playing to affectionate crowds in Germany, along with gigs in Poland, Brooklyn and Florida.

Along the way, director Stefan Schweitert captures poignant, revealing and funny visual details. With the buoyant, elderly Epstein brothers as his subject, Schweitert has created a love letter to klezmer music and its bittersweet history that is infused with sensitivity and good humor.

Opens on June 6. — Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor