Thought to be a lost film, Breaking Home Ties was recently restored by the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, and had its US re-premiere at the 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival. While the film successfully portrays a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in a positive and sympathetic light, it does not do so without reinforcing some of the negative stereotypes and concerns that many Americans had about the immigrant population.
Produced by Siegmund Lubin’s Betzwood Motion Picture Studios in Philadelphia, Breaking Home Ties was a response to the rising anti-semitism promoted by the Henry Ford-sponsored Dearborn Independent and the revival of the KKK, and was released 18 months after passage of the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921. Responding to increasing concerns about immigrants and the effect they were having on American society, the act, which was also known as the Emergency Quota Act, restricted immigration from Europe. As a result of the legislation, the number of immigrants to the United States fell from 805,228 in 1920 to 309,556 in 1921-22.
Breaking Home Ties is the story of David, a young Russian man who flees to America when he believes (mistakenly, it turns out) that he has murdered his best friend in a jealous rage. He works hard and becomes a successful lawyer, while his family, not knowing his whereabouts, also move to New York City and quickly fall into poverty. Through a series of Dickensian coincidences, David is reunited with his parents and the friend he believed he had murdered, and they all live happily ever after.
The filmmakers clearly intended to portray David as a smart and hard-working individual who would be an asset to American society. As a lawyer he takes on cases defending the down-trodden, and contributes generously to charitable causes. However, he is constantly haunted by the fact that he, himself, is a fugitive from justice, and struggles with his own guilt. Although the film ends with David learning that he did not murder his friend, the view that many immigrants are criminals who were forced to leave their home countries is not only acknowledged, it is not effectively countered.
The portrayal of David’s parents is even more problematic, and could be viewed as fodder for anti-immigrant activists, which would run counter to the intentions of the filmmakers. Firmly rooted in the middle class in St. Petersburg, the family comes to America and quickly falls into poverty. They are shown having difficulty adapting to life in New York, both socially and economically, and falling into illness. David’s father, who does not understand English, causes a traffic accident by steering his pushcart the wrong way on a one-way street, and his mother and adopted sister become increasingly frail and unable to help support themselves. David’s parents eventually become residents at a newly-formed Hebrew Home for the Aged, which is supported by private donations. Although they will be reunited with their son who is able to provide for them, David’s parents were destitute, and became dependent upon social services. In the parlance of the time they were charity cases, and an economic burden.
Breaking Home Ties has much to recommend it, and it is an effective drama that elicits empathy for David and his family. However, it does not avoid reminding its audience of some of the perceived problems with immigration, and reinforces some of the stereotypes that led to the passage of the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921.