On the face of it, the outdoor markets, small shops and push carts of London’s East End comprise the insular, working-class Jewish community in which British screenplay writer, playwright and novelist Wolf Mankowitz (1924-1998) was raised.
Mankowitz’s most successful novel, A Kid for Two Farthings, published in 1953, was made into a film, directed by Carol Reed, in 1955.
The 96-minute movie, adapted for the screen by Mankowitz and set in the 1950s, is something of a fable. The Toronto Jewish Film Society will screen it on Feb. 19 at the JCC’s Al Green Theatre at 4 p.m. and again at 7:30 p.m.
A Kid for Two Farthings turns on Joe (Jonathan Ashmore), a kind, impressionable, earnest boy who wants to help his struggling neighbours.
There is plenty of work around here for a Good Samaritan like him.
Avrom Kandinsky (David Kossoff), a Russian-Jewish presser-cum philosopher who rents a room above his shop to Joe’s mother (Celia Johnson), needs a steam pressing machine, but can’t afford one. Accustomed to having his hopes dashed, Avrom muses, “Life is all dreams.”
Sam Heppner (Joe Robinson), an impoverished tailor with bulging muscles and pie-in-the-sky ambitions, aspires to be Mr. World in the bodybuilding fraternity. Sonia (Diana Dors), his blonde, busty, sensuous fiancé, is still waiting for an engagement ring.
Joe’s mother, a single mom whose husband vanished in Africa, is probably most urgently in need of help to rescue her from a life of drudgery.
After Avrom tells him that unicorns can grant wishes, Joe buys one from a vagrant. In fact, he has purchased a baby goat. But to Joe, the creature is a unicorn, a legendary woodland beast with a single horn that exists only in the realm of the imagination and folk tales.
With a “unicorn” at his beck and call, Joe the do-gooder sets forth on the path of righteousness. “Everybody here wants something,” he says.
Thanks, perhaps, to the powers of his new pet, a local professional wrestling promoter (Lou Jacobi) arranges a match for Sam with a seasoned fighter (Danny Green) who has seen better days.
If Sam can win, he can go on to fight the fearsome Python Macklin (the hulking Primo Carnera, who was briefly the world heavyweight boxing champion in the early 1930s), and thus buy that elusive engagement ring for Sonia.
Joe is also instrumental in easing Avrom’s life. Whether he can be of assistance to Joe’s hard-pressed mother is another question.
Reed, probably best known for his 1949 film The Third Man, juggles these disparate scenes deftly, evoking a world in which Jewish immigrants and their British-born neighbours use all their wits to eke out a livelihood.
Mankowitz’s lean, sometimes poignant script fleshes out their lives.
The lead actors, Kossoff and Ashmore, acquit themselves in respectable fashion. Johnson, who appeared in the iconic romantic drama Brief Encounter seems out of her element here. Dors – the British version of Marilyn Monroe – is little more than eye candy. Carnera is just there with his intimidating physical presence.
A Kid for Two Farthings is hardly a masterpiece, but its universal power-of-hope message stirs the heart.