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Abi gezunt; Mazl; and Ikh zing—three of the songs featured on this collection—were written for the popular 1939 Yiddish film Mamele (Little Mama, also subtitled in English, “Kid Mother”). Made in Poland, as were a number of American-produced Yiddish films during the 1930s (this one less than a year before the German invasion), it starred the inimitable Molly Picon (1898–1992), probably Second Avenue’s longest-reigning queen and the best-known Yiddish actress/singer later on Broadway. The first American-born Yiddish performer to rise to the highest levels of Second Avenue fame and box-office attraction, Picon starred in countless plays, operettas, revues, and musicals over several decades, enchanting audiences with her unique, direct, almost childlike voice and her idiomatic humor and emblematic stage mannerisms. She also appeared in memorable films and wrote plays and lyrics. All three of the songs here are her words with Ellstein’s music.
Mamele costarred Edmund Zayenda, with a full cast under the artistic direction of Molly Picon’s actor-singer husband, Jacob (Yankel) Kalich. Eight years earlier there was a staged operetta on the same story, with music by Joseph Rumshinsky. In the film, Picon played the heroine, Khavshe—the youngest of three sisters in a family of six siblings in a prewar Polish town—whose mother has died. To her falls the role of substitute “little mother”—one for which, despite her young age, she seems naturally suited, taking care of the entire household and all her siblings. When she feels she must avert her older sister Berta’s path toward marriage with an undesirable man, Khavshe is willing to sacrifice her own happiness by trying to convince her sweetheart, a musician named Mr. Schlessinger, to pursue Berta instead and thus win the girl away from her current involvement. Initially, Schlessinger had been interested in Berta, but she had rebuffed him. Now, suddenly jealous that her younger sister is closer to marriage than she is, Berta is not only amenable but asks Khavshe to persuade Schlessinger to give her a second chance. But when the sacrifice plan backfires and the family quarrels with Khavshe for interfering in Berta’s romantic affairs, Khavshe decides to leave the family to its own devices and exit the home. She revises her appearance to the attractive young maiden she really is and goes to Schlessinger—for herself. She finds him singing a love song, which becomes a love song for her. They become engaged. Meanwhile, her family pleads for her return. She does so, now with her fiancé. They marry, and she accepts a dual role as wife and, once again, as “little mother” to the siblings.
Khavshe sings Mazl (Good Fortune) in a scene prior to her own courtship by Schlessinger, where she reflects on her lot and her lonely condition, while everyone else seems to find some bit of happiness. A fleeting moment of imagined happiness inspires a brief upbeat, fanciful mood, mirrored in the orchestra, but then she returns to her lament: “The dream I have dreamt for myself is gone with the wind once again.”
In the film there was an additional superimposed element, when Schlessinger, soon to become her suitor and eventually her husband, sits at his window across the street, fiddle in hand, and reflects her sentiments vis-à-vis his own loneliness. It becomes a quasi-duet, although the song itself stands on its own as a solo number.