If I say Molly Picon, do you get fuzzy high-energy, black and white images in your mind? And Fanny Brice – do you feel like you should giggle? Can you conjure up an image of big, bear-like Sophie Tucker, all dragged out in brocade and multiple strings of pearls? These are the first three of six Jewish comedians profiled by the fascinating documentary Making Trouble from the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Molly Picon (1898-1992) was a petite performer in Yiddish theatre who for 80 years dominated and defined comedy. To avoid the professional obstacle of being a girl, she made her fame playing a cross-dressing urchin. Picon traveled the world and was a massive star on stage, radio and eventually television.
Fanny Brice (1891–1951) was considered too “Jewish-looking” for anything but comedy. Even in the “Ziegfeld Follies,” her tall slender brunette image was a standout. In the late 1930s, in her attempt to escape the rabid anti-Semitism flourishing across the States, she took up her most famous radio role as accent-less Baby Snooks.
Perhaps the most amazing character in Making Trouble is Sophie Tucker (1884–1966). Outrageously sexual and frank, Tucker built up an astounding confidence and command as a performer, even though her voice was not the most melodic. While Molly Picon was still doing somersaults at 80, Tucker at that age continued singing such provocative titles as "I'm the 3-D Mama with the Big Wide Screen" and "I May Be Getting Older Every Day (But Younger Every Night)."
Making Trouble also examines the gay icon Joan Rivers, the deeply beloved Gilda Radner and the respected playwright Wendy Wasserstein, all of whom are articulate about what it means to be a Jewish woman comedian. Radner, always happy to play the geek or nerd on Saturday Night Live, turns out to have been bulimic. I remember the shock I felt when she died of cancer at 42, especially as she had returned to TV appearances after her chemo.
This is not a film full of guffaws and knee-slapping: it is much better than that. With precious vintage footage that makes you want to run out and find the old films of Picon, Brice and Tucker, the movie reclaims these astounding entertainers.
The documentary’s main weakness is the frequent interspersing of scenes around a table at NYC’s Katz’s delicatessen. Four contemporary Jewish women comedians, none of whom seems to have an original, insightful or ha-ha thing to say, discuss the six highlighted comics. Viewers could also use a lot more info, such as the birth and death dates of the comedians and the names of the commentators.
Overall, the narratives around the six are compelling and one gets a sense that the Jewish Women’s Archive, which produced this film, has rescued important historical images of artists too long forgotten. The Boston Jewish Film Festival has just shown Making Trouble as part of the film’s tour of national and international festivals.