01 August 2011

An Author Turns Thespian

One of my favourite films as a child, until last week I'd seen Lies My Father Told Me only once. This would have been in the autumn of 1975, within weeks of the debut, and within walking distance of the Montreal neighbourhood in which it had been shot. Lies My Father Told Me was a pretty big deal back then. It followed hot on the heels of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, garnering glowing reviews and won a Golden Globe as Best Foreign Film before slipping away. Set in the mid-twenties, the film draws upon writer Ted Allan's childhood in telling the simple story of the love shared between young David Herman (Jeff Lynas) and his junk collecting grandfather (Yossi Yadin). The film, like so many about childhood, relies heavily on schmaltz. Roger Ebert recognized this in the conclusion of his own glowing review:
"Lies My Father Told Me" has been criticized here and there for being mawkish, sentimental, obvious, filled with clichés and willing to do almost anything to pluck at the heartstrings. All of those criticisms are correct. It's just that, somehow, such faults don't seem fatal to the movie. [Director Jan] Kadar has told a simple story in direct and strong terms, and he hasn't tried to be so sophisticated that we lose sight of the basic emotions that are, after all, the occasion for making the movie in the first place.
Returning to the film in middle age, I was surprised at how much I'd retained – right down to the scene in which we see David's mother (Marilyn Lightstone) breast-feeding his newborn baby brother.

Did I mention I was a child when I first saw the film?

What eluded me then – and surprised me last week – was Allan's presence in the role of Mr Baumgarten, the neighbourhood tailor.

"Mr Elias, drop in to see me this evening. I'd like to discuss this with you: Engel's Origin of the Family and Private Property."

A dedicated Marxist, like his creator, Baumgarten is a persistent, yet polite pest for the proletariat. Its fun to see Allan making fun of himself. In his second scene, Baumgarten proselytizes as the junk dealer shovels manure.

"Mr Elias! Mr Elias! Mr Elias! I have that pamphlet I was telling you about: Lenin's Imperialism. An incredible work."

The writer more than holds his own in acting opposite Yadin in one of the film's finest scenes.

"Who was it that said, 'What is a bigger crime? To rob a bank or to open a bank?'"

"Probably Jeremiah."

"Or probably Karl Marx, and I will prove it to you."

"He only repeated what the ancient prophets said."

"Not quite, not quite."

"Mr Baumgarten, have you read all these books?"

"All of them."

"I've only read one book... and I'm still reading it."

Allan's acting in Lies My Father Told Me went unrewarded, though he did earn an Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay. Of the critics, it seems that only John Simon had anything to say about the writer as actor:
What makes this an especially sorry film is, first, that Ted Allan, who wrote it and pedestrianly acts in it, is as uninventive a writer as ever addressed himself to a sentimental platitude. Some of the performances are embarrassing, others rise to the height of mediocrity, the music is deplorable, the cinematography garish, and there are doubts as to whether the the film could please even an intelligent child.
I'll agree with Simon about the music. As for the rest? Well, I've never claimed to be an intelligent child.

Trivia: Caught up in his zeal, Baumgarten misidentifies Frederick Engel's work. The English translation is titled The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

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