18 May 2004 | theowinthrop
The Golden Shore and Teddy R. too!
Some movies are overlooked because the subject matter just did not strike the right note with the public when they were released. MY GIRL TISA is one such film. It came out in 1948, and was one of Lili Palmer's first American films (she'd been in English films for over a decade - since Hitchcock's THE SECRET AGENT in 1935 at least). She dismissed it in her autobiography, CHANGE LOBSTERS AND DANCE (she remembered that she had a heart-to-heart talk with the Statue of Liberty, which is true enough). In 1948 the country had just gotten through our second bloodiest war, and wanted to get back to normal. It was suspicious of foreigners (the McCarthy period was about to begin). It was not the right time to make a film celebrating the great immigration wave from Europe in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. And MY GIRL TISA was not a financial success.
Which is a pity because MY GIRL TISA, despite a weakened script, is the closest thing to the definitive American immigrant film. It's closest rivals are Chaplin's Mutual film, THE IMMIGRANT, and I REMEMBER MAMA (the latter actually concentrating on a Norwegian-American family in San Francisco, so it goes into a look at the relations of the family members, especially the mother (Irene Dunne) and her oldest daughter). Other films (YENTL, for instance) touch on immigration too, but only tangentially. TISA dealt with the whole gamut of New York, lower East Side society - the boarding houses, the difficulties of finding work (in sweatshops, or in beginning a legal career), the way the political hacks manipulate the immigrant blocks (Alan Hale Sr. and his friendly community picnic),the nervousness of preparing (like Tamiroff does) for the naturalization test, the barely legal business scams of "friendly" bankers like Hugo Haas. And the ever-present threat of deportation. All of these are brought out in this film, and were never dealt with in such detail.
Aside from Palmer (who was a fine actress, but never got the stardom she may have deserved), the other actors in the film are highly capable, but none was a star. Sam Wanamaker is best remembered today not for acting in this film or any Hollywood (or English) film, but for his work in getting the Globe theatre rebuilt in London. Akim Tamiroff, Alan Hale Sr., Hugo Haas, John Qualen, Sidney Blackmer, and Stella Adler were all excellent character actors, but their characters are all peripheral to the story of Tisa and her boyfriend. The result was that all the actors have moments to shine in the film, but they can't dominate it (as several of them did on other films - like Tamiroff in THE MAGNIFICENT FRAUD). This does not mean that the scenes with Palmer and Wanamaker are too weak. They hold the film together well. It is just that as neither is a superstar the film can't get an audience interested enough to watch it.
It also is one of the few films which deals with that most fascinating of American Presidents - Theodore Roosevelt (Blackmer). Although TR has popped up in other films (John Alexander played him well in FANCY PANTS, and played his doppelganger "Teddy" Brewster in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE), and Brian Keith played him in THE WIND AND THE LION), he has not appeared in any one film of the stature of WILSON, SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO, ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS, or PT 109. Blackmer only appears at the tail end, as a modern variant to a "deus ex machina". He is forced by Wanamaker to hear of Palmer's plight when she is being deported due to the lies Haas has vindictively spread about her. So he hears Palmer talking to the Statue of Liberty of the state of unhappiness she feels at facing this unfair depression (the Statue, by the way, is in the distance from her window in the detention center). Roosevelt does get her out of it, and even asks Wanamaker's advice (their riding together in a carriage with Tisa forces Alan Hale to change his mind about ignoring Wanamaker as a political candidate). Perhaps it is too quick and pat an ending, but it is a nice way of ending what is a comedy after all.