Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tough Guy Actor James Cagney Spoke Yiddish Fluently


James Cagney, the American actor best known for playing tough guys in gangster films and for winning an Oscar for playing George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, was a fluent Yiddish speaker.

He spoke Yiddish in a few of his films, including Taxi (1932) and The Fighting 69th (1940).

As John Farr wrote yesterday in The Huntington Post,
About a month ago, I was watching an early Cagney entry called Taxi! (1932), and in one early scene, witnessed the diminutive actor of Irish/Norwegian stock speaking Yiddish... not one or two words, mind you, but paragraphs.
And I thought to myself -- yet another reason to love Jimmy Cagney.
As if we needed any more.
In fact, Cagney learned that language fluently growing up dirt-poor on New York's Lower East Side in the early days of the twentieth century. But he had much more than language skills in his favor.
Though compact, he was scrappy and a natural fighter, often protecting his brother from neighborhood bullies. He eventually learned how to box, and became skillful enough to consider doing it for a living.
He also knew how to hustle and sell. He was in constant motion. From early days, he worked several jobs to support his family. Even once he'd made it in Hollywood, he sent his mother the majority of his earnings till the day she died.
Of course Cagney never mentioned that.
Here's the clip of Cagney as a taxi driver in Taxi. He watches as a man tries to ask an Irish policeman how to get to Ellis Island to see his wife. When he sees that the man can't get through to the cop and says he has a goyishe kop, Cagney asks the man in Yiddish where he wants to go. The man, surprised, asks Cagney if he is Jewish. Cagney replies, "What then, a shaygetz?"

Enjoy the video excerpt. The Yiddish dialogue runs from  1:30 to 4:00 in the 9 minute clip. The full movie (1 hour, 9 minutes) is viewable on YouTube. The DVD is not available from Netflix, but can be purchased at Amazon.com and at DeepDiscount.com.

(A SPECIAL NOTE FOR NEW EMAIL SUBSCRIBERS:  THE VIDEO MAY NOT BE VIEWABLE DIRECTLY FROM THE EMAIL THAT YOU GET EACH DAY ON SOME COMPUTERS AND TABLETS.  YOU MUST CLICK ON THE TITLE AT THE TOP OF THE EMAIL TO REACH THE JEWISH HUMOR CENTRAL WEBSITE, FROM WHICH YOU CLICK ON THE PLAY BUTTON IN THE VIDEO IMAGE TO START THE VIDEO.)

2 comments:

  1. If my own poor command of Yiddish serves me...the fellow is not seeking his wife but, rather, is trying to get to Ellis Island to see his brother, a dentist, who has come there with his three kids. When the fellow expresses surprise that Nolan (Cagney) is speaks Yiddish, Cagney responds, "You think I'm a shaygetz (in this sense, a gentile)? Get in."

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