JAMES CAGNEY–YIDDISH ACTOR?

Apropos of yesterday’s post featuring the 1926 song hit ‘Yiddishe Charleston’, here’s a clip from a Warner Brothers/First National movie from 1932 called ‘Taxi’. In this famous scene, James Cagney speaks fluent Yiddish with a Jewish man who seems to be in some sort of trouble with an Irish cop. Legend has it that Cagney actually spoke Yiddish having grown up in Yorkville (the far upper East Side) where the Irish, Germans and Yiddish speaking Jews all co-existed semi-peacefully. Yorkville was also the breeding ground of the Marx Brothers and, perhaps most importantly, the place where the Harpo face known as a ‘Gookie’ was born. The ‘Gookie’ is the hideous look that comes over Harpo where he blows out his cheeks, sticks his tongue out, bulges his eyes and effects the look of a deformed monster. Apparently, Gookie was a man who ran a Cigar store on Third Avenue in the Marx’s neighborhood. Gookie’s gimmick was rolling his own cigars in the window for all to see. As the outer tobacco leaf twirled and encompassed the inner tobacco leaves, the tension of rolling the cigar continuously and keeping the roll perfect would gradually transform Gookie’s face from the face of a standard-issue German/Jewish man to the demented, cheek blowing cross eyed monster that Harpo emulated. Try it yourself. If that’s your idea of a good time…

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