Archive for Al Jolson

Al Jolson in “Mammy”

Posted in African American Interest, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on May 26, 2015 by travsd

jolson-mammy1001_edited-11

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.

safe_image

 

Al Jolson: April Showers

Posted in Music, Tin Pan Alley with tags , , , , , , on April 1, 2015 by travsd

page1-293px-April_Showers.pdf

God forbid we should have any (showers, that is) but it is officially April now, and, well, they have a Tin Pan Alley Song for EVERYTHING. Buddy DeSylva and Louis Silvers wrote this song for the 1921 Broadway show Bombo, starring Mr. Al Jolson. It was to be a staple of Jolie’s act for the rest of his days.

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.

safe_image

Tomorrow A.M. on TCM: 2 Strange Comedies of the Great Depression

Posted in Buster Keaton, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , on January 6, 2015 by travsd

Tomorrow morning on Turner Classic Movies: Two somewhat idiosyncratic comedies from the depths of the Great Depression!

Poster - Sidewalks of New York (1931)_01

7:00am (EST) : Sidewalks of New York (1931)

Buster Keaton‘s talking feature Sidewalks of New York was co-directed by Jules White (of Three Stooges fame) and Zion Myers.

This movie was Keaton’s own least favorite of his MGM features. The plot is very similar to Lloyd’s For Heaven’s Sake and casts Keaton as a millionaire slumlord who falls for a poor girl (Anita Page). To win her heart he spends his time and resources improving the neighborhood, and trying to straighten out a gang of roughneck boys who brawl and get in trouble all day. This kind of sentimental fare worked for Spencer Tracy, James Cagney or Bing Crosby. Keaton was a fish out of water. His sidekick in the film, as in many of his pre-Durante features, was Cliff Edwards.

There’s nothing wrong per se with this bit with Keaton having a hard time carving a duck, but it does illustrate the clashing styles of director Jules White and Keaton that would emerge in a more sustained way when Keaton spent some time at Columbia in the late 30s and early 40s. The bird carving business would have been a terrific bit for Curly Howard, who would have increasingly gotten more frustrated, made faces, slapped his forehead, whined and grunted as the duck became more and more intractable. Keaton’s thing however is that he is unflappable. Most of the carving business doesn’t really work, no matter how fine a physical comedian Keaton is. It’s just wrong for him. The ultimate solution, when Keaton merely hands the bird over to a visiting policeman, seems much more characteristic.

hallelujah-im-a-bum-movie-poster-1933-1020681090

8:30am (EST): Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933)

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 a 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!

For more on comedy 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 etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500To find out 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.

safe_image

The Jazz Singer

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

The_Jazz_Singer_1927_Poster

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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

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.

safe_image

Tomorrow on TCM: The Jolson Story

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

p7bRtQqftfOt1Hv9crF7XzUXD75

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: https://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.

safe_image

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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

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

imgres

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.

safe_image

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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

“Al Jolson: Here and Now” Opens Tonight

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

1150406_630625940302342_15675092_n

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,035 other followers

%d bloggers like this: