After writing and directing several shorts and selling a script about the wives of soldiers missing in action during the Vietnam War (what became Mark Robson’s Limbo from 1974), Joan Micklin Silver was frustrated that she couldn’t get hired to direct a feature film. After all, directing short films was a possible path in those days to the “New Hollywood,” a magnet for independent-minded auteurs then making the new American classics. But a woman at the helm? That was a bit too maverick for the studios, as Silver was reminded again and again. “[Features] are expensive to make … and women directors are one more problem we don’t need,” an executive told her.1 In her lively 2003 account of the women directors and producers who forged a narrow new path in film and television, Mollie Gregory characterizes Hollywood’s nonsensically chauvinist mindset decades after the likes of Alice Guy, Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner, and Ida Lupino had already occupied the director’s chair: “… by 1973, women did not make movies. They acted in them.”2 Shut out of the studios, Silver went all-maverick and conceived of a story that she could make on her own for about $350,000, the largest budget her real estate developer husband, turned instant producer, estimated he could raise for her.

Silver had assimilation stories on her mind, having recently written and directed a short drama for television about Catholic immigrants from Poland in the early 20th century. Part of her research for The Immigrant Experience: The Long Long Journey (1972) included Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto about Old World-New World tensions between a Jewish immigrant couple, and she decided to adapt it, shifting focus from Yekl to his wife, Gitl, a quietly observant woman alarmed at the brazen Americanisation of her husband whom she’s joined belatedly from Russia. Silver had been asked by her television producer not to write about Jews, “too atypical,” he said,3 but she had grown up hearing about how her parents fled poverty and pogroms for a better life, in particular her father who was 12 years old when he came over and immediately had to work even though he did not speak a word of English.4 Now unconstrained, Silver could weave those memories into her adaptation with all their warm-hearted Jewish flavour intact. Behind her choice of subject matter was also a sentimental but pessimistic thought — if this was the only film she was ever going to get to make, she wanted it to honour her mother and father.

She shot it in black-and-white in 34 days on a dressed section of Morton Street (the actual Hester Street was more “Hispanic” than Yiddish by then, she later said, and would have strained her small budget to prep)5, with interiors built at a local soundstage. The actor playing Bernstein, Yekl’s lodger and an important supporting character, dropped out at the last minute and was replaced by Mel Howard, originally hired for the crew. That he happened to be fluent in Yiddish was a stroke of luck as the players had been relying on recordings of their lines made by someone in Yiddish theatre. Low-budget concessions included lots of close camerawork particularly on exteriors, improvising the finale’s “crane” shots using balconies as perches instead,6 and painting the same horse different colours to give the impression that multiple animals pulled the carts and coaches along the street.7 Silver modelled her teeming sidewalks on archival images of the Lower East Side taken by Jacob Riis, with his famous shot of Mulberry Bend from 1899, and those of Lewis Wickes Hine, whose muckraking photographs about child labour included portraits of New York’s cigarette-smoking newsies.

She borrowed something else from that time, or at least an impression of that time, and begins the film by introducing us to Yekl in a segment reminiscent of silent-era cinema. As the title credits appear, couples twirl in a dance class overseen by an instructor also busy orchestrating the pairing of a balding man in spectacles with an ebullient woman in an equally ebullient hat. It is done without dialogue or ambient sound, set only to music, relaying everything through looks and movement, yet is rich in character development. The end of the sequence completes a gag, or rather, a twist on the “meet-cute,” when Yekl, who has been dancing the feather-hatted woman across the room, is revealed not as an interloper but a co-conspirator in the matchmaker’s scheme. Other sequences also have silent era echoes, even if the movie language represented is about 15 years too early for 1896. 

Nostalgia for cinema gone by was practically a subgenre in American movies of the mid-1970s, which saw The Day of the Locust (John Schlesinger, 1975), an adaptation of the Nathanael West novel set in 1920s Hollywoodland; Hearts of the West (Howard Zieff, 1975), with Jeff Bridges as a western writer turned cowboy star during the Depression; and Mel Brooks’ parody of silent-era moviemaking (Silent Movie, 1976), among others. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese, 1974) begins with an orange-tinted prologue in a 4:3 frame, an homage to The Wizard of Oz’s sepia-hued Kansas, complete with a farmhouse, a tumbledown fence along a dirt road, and a song, though not nearly as well sung. Watching Yekl set against a storefront reflection of the hubbub on Hester Street it’s hard not to recall the gleaming window in the diner scene from 1973’s Paper Moon, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, doyen of classic movie nostalgia, whose The Last Picture Show (1971) might have spurred the whole trend.

Some of what made Silver’s film so special — the black-and-white cinematography and its domestic Jewish milieu (necessitating subtitles for the Yiddish dialogue) — also scared off distributors. So she and her husband did that on their own, too. In a display of enormous chutzpah, Rafael “Ray” Silver cold-called John Cassavetes to ask for his advice. The quintessential New York indie then at his peak offered to send over “his guys” when they were finished launching his latest, A Woman Under the Influence (1974).[8 ibid. m. 12:29] 

Success thereafter bred success. Hester Street was well-reviewed after screening as part of International Critics’ Week in 1975, a heady year when Cannes’ other sections included Marguerite Duras’ India Song, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, Bob Fosse’s Lenny, and the aforementioned Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Variety’s reviewer said Silver “displays a sure hand for her first pic”,8 and the influential American critic Albert Johnson reported in his “Letter from Cannes” that it was the best thing he’d seen that edition of Critics’ Week. He also wrote it had the power to “take hold of any spectator”, a reassurance perhaps aimed at those hesitant about the film’s capacity for wide appeal.9 Sales to three European territories generated enough money to open in Los Angeles and New York as well as paid for an Oscar campaign (more chutzpah!) that led to a best actress nod for newcomer Carol Kane, whose portrayal of Gitl is equal parts vulnerable and resolute. After that, it opened wide, eventually earning $1.5 million, a 25 percent return. New Hollywood clung to old ideas, however, and still could not see Silver’s potential — nor that of most of her female colleagues. Twelve women directed twenty-five of the more than four thousand MPAA-rated domestic releases during the entire 1970s.10 Silver made three of them, even if she had to keep doing things on her own for a while longer.

Hester Street (1975, USA, 89 mins)

Prod Co: Midwest Films Prod: Rafael Silver Dir: Joan Micklin Silver Scr: Joan Micklin Silver, adapted from Abraham Cahan’s Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896) Phot: Kenneth van Sickle Prod des: Stuart Wurtzel Art dir: Edward Haynes Cos: Robert Pusilo Ed: Katherine Wenning

Cast: Carol Kane, Steven Keats, Mel Howard, Dorrie Kavanaugh, Doris Roberts, Paul Freedman, and Stephen Strimpell


  1. Eric Goldman, “Carol Kane and Joan Micklin Silver Discuss Hester Street”, (New York, 31 January 2016) m. 4:05, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7T3HLJjKRkg
  2. Mollie Gregory, Women Who Run the Show: How a Brilliant and Creative New Generation of Women Stormed Hollywood, (St. Martin’s Press, 2003) p. 3.
  3. Michael Pressman, “Visual History with Joan Micklin Silver,” (DGA Craft Interviews, 19 September 2005) m. 13:13, https://www.dga.org/Craft/VisualHistory/Interviews/Joan-Micklin-Silver.aspx?Filter=Full%20Interview
  4. Norma Davidoff, “NYWIFT Archive Interview with Joan Micklin Silver,” (New York, 5 April 2006, m. 12:46, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYFKZK7svpY&t=2830s
  5. op cit. Goldman, m. 28:32
  6. op cit. Pressman, m. 26:47
  7. op cit. Goldman, m. 28:58
  8. Staff, Hester Street, Variety, 31 December 1974, https://variety.com/1974/film/reviews/hester-street-1200423456/
  9. Albert Johnson, Cannes 1975, (publisher unknown) p. 7, https://cinefiles.bampfa.berkeley.edu/catalog/57489
  10. Maya Montañez Smukler, Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors and the Feminist Reform Movement of 1970s American Cinema, (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2019) p. 34.

About The Author

Shari Kizirian edits the program books for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

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