Al Jolson in “Mammy”

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Today is Al Jolson’s birthday (for more on that once-in-a-century performer read my full bio here).

There’s more than enough writing been done about The Jazz Singer (and I’ll probably get around to it myself), but today I thought I’d spill a few words about Jolson’s fourth feature, named after one of his signature songs. The film was based on a play called Mr. Bones by Irving Berlin and James Gleason, with songs by Berlin and others.

It’s a very interesting movie for several reasons. It contains one of the few cinematic representations of the minstrel show form in full detail. That is the setting for the movie. Al Jolson plays the end man (or Mr. Bones), the guy who gets all the punchlines, so we get to see him do the sort of stuff he did on stage for years. From the perspective of 2015 the stage comedy is more strange than hilarious. (The fact that blackface** is offensive is a given. I had to look long and hard for a photo from the film that wouldn’t generate hate mail).

The story is an interesting hybrid of forms. In addition to the show biz plot, it is also a murder mystery: the Mr. Tambo guy (Mitchell Lewis) is a rival for the affections of a girl Jolson’s got his eye on, and for the public’s affections (everybody loves Al). So the guy slips real bullets into the prop gun Al uses in a bit where he “shoots” Mr. Interlocuter (Lowell Sherman). This time he ends up shooting him dead. Whodunnit? THEN it turns into the old fashioned 30’s fugitive film, of the type we love Cagney in. Jolson goes on the lam, and goes to visit his own mammy, significantly played by Louise Dresser, one of the first performers to popularize coon songs on the vaudeville stage around the turn of the century. And of course, it’s a musical. Songs include the title one, “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy”, “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and “Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle”.

This movie supposedly marked Jolson’s box office decline, though with the perspective of time it doesn’t stand out as worse than his earlier films. A must for show biz buffs.

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

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

 

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