Archive for Al Jolson

The Jazz Singer

Posted in African American Interest, Blackface & Minstrelsy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , on October 6, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the landmark Warner Brothers motion picture The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jolson. 

The fame of this film is perhaps greater than ever, but I’ll wager many more millions have heard about the movie than have ever seen it. Like many other great American works (Huckleberry Finn, The Birth of a NationThe Jazz Singer’s legacy is complicated.

Its biggest renown is for being the “first talkie”, which is actually far from the case. Countless (or at least numerous) talking films had been made and shown prior to The Jazz Singer, just as many Europeans had traveled to the Americas prior to Columbus. What made The Jazz Singer (and Columbus’s voyage) significant was that this was the one that GOT NOTICED, and that brought about major, sweeping change. A major feature length film starring one of the top theatre stars of the day singing many popular tunes, it was an ATTRACTION. People went to see it, and so the studios sought immediately to replicate its success.

Another complicating factor? The Jazz Singer isn’t really a talkie. It’s more like a silent film with a musical soundtrack, punctuated with a half dozen short sequences containing sync sound musical numbers and brief chatter. Then back to the silence. The recording process, called Vitaphone, allowed Warner Brothers to take the industry lead in talking films. The first all-talking feature Lights of New York wasn’t released by Vitaphone until almost a year later.

The other complicating factor is of course that the film makes use of blackface performance. In time — mostly because of widespread public ignorance of early show business history — The Jazz Singer and Jolson have been unfairly scapegoated as some sort of particular standard bearers for this practice, which has since become universally discredited and acknowledged to be racist. The truth is blackface had been popular to the point of near universality on the American stage for nearly a century by the time The Jazz Singer came out. Nearly every performer of the time put on burnt cork from time to time. Jolson was just the most famous of them, and The Jazz Singer is simply the most famous movie that uses it. But in no sense did Jolson or The Jazz Singer pioneer or particularly popularize or spearhead blackface minstrelsy. In 1927, it was just another show. This isn’t to defend blackface, which is heinous; it’s to put The Jazz Singer in its proper context.

Finally, the most complicating aspect of The Jazz Singer is, even as it dehumanized African Americans, it was landmark in constructing a sympathetic narrative for the American Immigrant Story. Amazingly, the play on which The Jazz Singer was based The Day of Atonement by Samson Raphaelson, was based on Jolson’s own life story.  It tells of one Jake Rabinowitz, the son of a Jewish cantor who is trained to take such a role in life himself. But he breaks with tradition and embraces American culture, becoming the titular Jazz Singer in night clubs and theatres. Astute listeners will hear music they recognize as “Tin Pan Alley” — popular compositions with an element of syncopation — but no actual jazz instrumentation. Jazz had a broader definition back then. Everything is relative. At any rate, George Jessel had starred in the hit Broadway play, but when the film became a talkie, through various machinations Jessel was displaced and Jolson was brought in to replace him — as himself. Anyway, to further complicate the racial ripples and overtones and undertows in this crazy musical, Jolson’s cantor father is played in the by Warner Oland, best known for playing Charlie Chan).

Here is a little snippet. Most of us today find Jolson overbearing and obnoxious. As with many performers, I have an affection for him, with some reservations. But in his day his brash personality was considered winning — it’s one of the factors that made such a hit of this movie. It’s entirely possible that a more boring performance might have delayed the final triumph of sound (after decades of quiet development) by months or even years.

To learn more about early film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Tomorrow on TCM: The Jolson Story

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS with tags , , , on February 5, 2014 by travsd

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Unless you’re a rooster you’ll want to set your DVR for this one: tomorrow at 3:30 a.m. EST, Turner Classic Movies will be showing The Jolson Story (1946). 

While undeniably entertaining, this grand-daddy of bio-pics surpasses its notable template Yankee Doodle Dandy in being almost completely fictional, apart from the very loose outline of Al Jolson’s life. As in, almost every main character in what is purported to be Al Jolson’s life story NEVER existed. But his old man was a cantor, and he did run away from home as a kid, and he did succeed in show business, and (not unimportantly) those are the songs Jolson is famous for singing, here lip-synced by Larry Parks, who was nominated for an Oscar for this performance.

Jolie was still alive and kicking when this film came out and it helped spur something of a comeback for him in his final years. Jolson’s being alive however also meant that audiences were deprived of what ought to have been the film’s most entertaining aspect: what an S.O.B. he was.

The film was Columbia’s biggest money-maker up until that time. So popular was it in fact that it was re-released in 1954. Here’s the trailer:

For more on the real Jolson go here: http://travsd.wordpress.com/2009/05/26/stars-of-vaudeville-14-al-jolson/

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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An Al Jolson Christmas?

Posted in HOLIDAYS, FESTIVALS, MEMORIALS & PARADES, Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers with tags , , , on December 3, 2013 by travsd

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Nobody is more Jewish than Al Jolson — the real son of a cantor, as well as the fictional son of a cantor in The Jazz Singer. On the other hand, no one is more secular than Al Jolson — the wayward son of a cantor both onscreen and off. Like many other Jews  in show business (many of whom we’ll be posting about this month) Jolson was quite happy to celebrate Christmas on the air for the enjoyment of his audience. The conflict between warring identities is one of the things I think makes his generation of American entertainers truly interesting. This Christmas episode of his radio show The Kraft Music Hall originally aired December 23, 1948.

To find out more about show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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“Al Jolson: Here and Now” Opens Tonight

Posted in Contemporary Variety, PLUGS, Singers with tags , , on September 21, 2013 by travsd

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Ruby Keeler

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , on August 25, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Ethel Hilda “Ruby” Keeler (1910-1993). She’s another of those performers about whom I keep saying, “I haven’t done a post on her yet?“. But surprisingly, Keeler didn’t come out of vaudeville, and that’s why the lapse. Yet her artistry is so closely related we feel we can’t neglect her any more.

Born in Nova Scotia, raised in NYC, Keeler went straight from teenage dance classes into the chorus line of George M. Cohan’s Broadway show The Rise of Rose O’Reilly in 1923 (she lied about her age). This led to work at Texas Guinan’s El Fay Club and the Broadway shows Bye Bye Bonnie (1927), Lucky (1927) and Sidewalks of New York (1927).

Movie fans love her tap dancing; most of the dance experts I know tend to be less generous with respect to her abilities in that area. One quality all agree on though is her appeal. She possessed an extremely rare mix of innocence and sensuality that is like cat nip to a male audience. It was this quality that inspired Cohan and Charles Dillingham to cast her in shows, and it was this quality that drove the most eligible of show biz bachelors, the 42 year old Al Jolson to snatch the 18 year old Keeler out of the cradle and marry her.

At first the balance of power was all in Jolson’s direction. He famously humiliated her during the opening performance of Show Girl in 1929, when he stood up in the audience and sang during her number, thus stealing her spotlight. Four years later, that balance would shift to her advantage when she starred in a series of now classic Hollywood musicals: 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933Footlight Parade (1933) and Dames (1934). By this point the career of Jolson (who had been the very first star of the talkies starting in 1927) was in decline. To help boost his waning box office she co-starred with him in 1935’s Go Into Your Dance.  But movie musicals (and now Keeler too) were going out of fashion. She continued to appear in a string of ever less popular movies through 1941 and then retired to marry her second husband John Homer Lowe (she’d divorced Jolson in 1940. )

Keeler occasionally popped out of retirement to make the odd film or tv appearance thereafter. Her major re-emergence occurred in the 1970 revival of the 1925 Broadway show No, No, Nanette, which ran for two years.

And here’s something cool — a clip from that show, Keeler still kicking at age 60:

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Hallelujah, I’m a Bum

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2013 by travsd

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Set yours DVR’s chillun, tomorrow July 16 at 7:45am, Turner Classic Movies is showing the terrific and wonderfully strange Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), with songs by Rodgers and Hart, and a book by S.N. Behrman from a Ben Hecht idea.

In this Depression era anomaly, Al Jolson plays “the Mayor of Central Park”, sort of the king of the bums, who’s actually good friend of the actual mayor of New York, clearly based on Jimmy Walker, and played by Frank Morgan. The very first scene is crazy: they meet while duck hunting in Florida, instead of some logical place in New York. Back in New York, Jolson’s pals include Harry Langdon as a communist sanitation worker, and Chester Conklin as a hansom cab driver. Plenty of magic in that cast! And also in the fact that a good bit of the dialogue is rhymed and sung—it’s actually an operetta. The plot has to do with the fact that Morgan is having all sorts of troubles with his girlfriend. She tries to kill herself by jumping into the pond at Central Park and is rescued by Jolson. She has amnesia. The two fall in love. Jolson subdues his freedom-loving hobo philosophy and gets a job to support her. Then Jolson sees a photo at Morgan’s house and realizes he has to give her up. The instant she sees Morgan she gets her memory back, and sees Jolson only as a dirty bum. But he goes back to his old ways—and happy to do so. What a part that would have been for the young Nat Wills!

The film has many magical elements but somehow lacks the alchemy to be the complete transformative experience that would have made it a better-known classic. Seems a little torn perhaps between two standard genres of the period: 1) crazy fantasy comedy and 2) screwball comedy. (I wish there were better terms in place for me to more clearly make the distinction between the two very different forms I referred to!) The former refers to films like the early Marx Bros, of W.C. Fields’ Million Dollar Legs, or International House…crazy comedies with no real rules: outlandish plots and characters with crazy names—anything goes. The latter (screwball) generally refers to Capraesque romantic comedies, a sort of flip side of noir actually…where the coming together of a mismatched couple makes sparks fly in all directions and they have an adventure.

Though the film is beautiful in its way, it could have gone farther.  The production feels sort of cramped and low-budget. The costumes and sets could have gone wild… the hoboes and their camp could and should have been been amazing, but fall short. Another thought: by 1934, it’s very hard to have sympathy for the Jimmy Walker type — the guy who’s into high living. Though Depression era movies were full of rich people and their foibles, I don’t think we usually see much of the decadent, dissipating type, at least not as a sympathetic character. The moment for drunken partying was past. So this character seems sort of out of step. Interesting to me that the communism of Langdon’s character is presented as a mere foible…that would have been impossible in films just a few years later. It’s definitely a bellwether of the time in which it was made.

Herewith, the trailer:

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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A Holiday Message from Mr. Al Jolson

Posted in HOLIDAYS, FESTIVALS, MEMORIALS & PARADES, Vaudeville etc. with tags on December 24, 2010 by travsd

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

More on the sender of this card here.

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