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The Jolson Story (Oct. 10, 1946)

The Jolson Story
The Jolson Story (1946)
Directed by Alfred E. Green
Columbia Pictures

Alfred E. Green’s Technicolor extravaganza The Jolson Story purports to tell the story of Al Jolson, one of the most popular singers in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s.

What it actually does is take the bare bones of Jolson’s life story and tell a mostly fictionalized show-biz story of a man’s unalloyed love of music and his tireless quest to touch the hearts of every man, woman, and child in America. That he often touches their hearts while wearing blackface makes The Jolson Story a tricky movie to watch and review in the 21st century.

Apologists for Jolson’s use of blackface usually point to two things; one, Jolson was Jewish, a minority group that itself suffered a great deal of discrimination in the U.S., especially before World War II; two, he genuinely loved the black musical forms that he appropriated. (There are also claims that he fought against segregation on Broadway, but I was unable to find any hard evidence of what he did or when he did it. If anyone has more information, please let me know.)

Unlike the white actors in blackface in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), who blacked up to portray their characters as brutes, villains, and rapists, or the minstrel-show comedians who used burnt cork on their faces to portray “those funny little darkies” as shiftless and uneducated objects of ridicule, Jolson used blackface strictly in the context of musical performance, and there was never anything deliberately mean-spirited about it.

But no matter what the context, it’s hard today to look at a white person with black makeup covering every part of their face except a wide area around the mouth meant to convey the impression of big fat lips and not cringe.

Born Asa Yoelson in 1886, Jolson emigrated from his native Lithuania with his mother and his siblings in 1894. They joined Jolson’s father, Moses Yoelson, who had been rabbi and cantor at the Talmud Torah Synagogue in Washington, D.C., since 1891. Late in 1894, Jolson’s mother died, which had a profound effect on him, and he reportedly became completely withdrawn for seven months. In 1895, however, he was introduced to show business by entertainer Al Reeves, and by 1897, he and his brother Hirsch (whose stage name was “Harry”) were singing on street corners. The brothers continued in show business for several years, but eventually “Al” and “Harry” had a falling out.

Jolson first appeared in blackface in 1904 in a show at Keeney’s Theatre in Brooklyn. According to John Kenrick, blacking up created in Jolson “a sense of freedom and spontaneity he had never known before.” His blackface performances, and his black character, “Gus,” became wildly popular. Jolson probably wasn’t the first American popular musician who ironically experienced feelings of “freedom” by appropriating the appearance and attitude of a black man, but he was the first and perhaps most significant of the century that also gave us Benny Goodman, Elvis Presley, the Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice, and Justin Timberlake.

Jolson’s popularity grew and grew in the ‘teens and ’20s, culminating in his appearance in the film The Jazz Singer (1927), which was the first “talkie,” or film with a synchronized soundtrack. There wasn’t much dialogue in The Jazz Singer, and most of the sound came from Jolson’s songs, but when he said, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” (a phrase he had already made famous in his stage performances), Jolson carved his place into history.

The Jazz Singer tells a fictionalized version of Jolson’s own life. Jolson’s character, Jake Rabinowitz, sings jazz music as “Jack Robin,” and even debuts on Broadway, but he is forever in conflict with his deeply traditional father, who wants Jake to be the sixth generation of Rabinowitz men to sing as cantors in the synagogue. The dramatic conflict is eventually resolved when he nearly misses his Broadway debut to sing the Kol Nidre in the synagogue, allowing his father to die a happy man, and then follows it up with his appearance on the stage, in blackface, in which he goes down on one knee to sing “My Mammy” to his mother, who is sitting in the front row.

In his book Black Like You, John Strausbaugh writes of this scene that, “there’s barely a hint of the racist mockery that’s supposed to be the corrupt heart of blackface entertainment. It’s much more like watching Mick Jagger or Eminem — not mockery, but the sincere mimicry of a non-Black artist who loves Black culture (or what he thinks is Black culture) so dearly he can’t resist imitating it, even to the ridiculous point of blacking up.”

As I said earlier, The Jolson Story takes a lot of liberties with the facts. It begins in Washington, D.C., at the turn of the century. Little Asa Yoelson (Scotty Beckett) is the only boy in the audience at a burlesque theater who sings along with the vaudevillian Steve Martin (William Demarest) when he asks the audience to sing along with him as he performs “On the Banks of the Wabash.” Martin cries, “Give that boy a spotlight!”

Of course, Asa’s Old World parents don’t approve of his love of popular song, especially his father, the cantor (Ludwig Donath). His mother (Tamara Shayne) is a little more understanding.

Little Asa hops a train to Baltimore to follow Martin, who wanted to make him a part of his act, but he gets picked up by a copper and taken to St. Mary’s Home for Boys. His parents come up to collect him, but when they hear him singing “Ave Maria” in the boy’s choir at the orphanage, their hearts soften.

“Singing without his cap on,” Cantor Yoelson tsks-tsks. “It’s not so much what’s on the head, as what’s in the heart,” says Father McGee (Ernest Cossart).

With his parents’ support, Asa goes on the road with Steve Martin. “Give that boy a spotlight” becomes the whole act, with Asa as Martin’s ringer in the audience. When his voice breaks during a performance, Jolson turns it into a whistling performance. He’s a consummate performer, and the show must go on.

The transition from childhood to adulthood in The Jolson Story is nicely done. Scotty Beckett and Larry Parks (who plays Jolson as an adult) look eerily alike, which helps. There’s a montage of Jolson’s performances across the nation represented as postcards sent home to his parents. He performs in all the big cities, as well as smaller towns, like Walla Walla, Washington, “the town so nice they named it twice.” Less than a half hour has gone by, and already his parents (both of whom remain living for the entire picture) are completely supportive of his musical career. The Jolson Story is pretty short on dramatic conflict.

At the half hour mark, we finally see Parks as Jolson black up when he substitutes for a performer named Tom Baron (Bill Goodwin) in Churchill Downs, Kentucky, after Tom wins a “snootful” at the tracks and gets good and drunk. This is Jolson’s breakout moment, and it’s worth noting that the blackface and nappy wig make him anonymous, and indistinguishable from a completely different-looking white performer once he corks up.

Only one person, Lew Dockstader (John Alexander) realizes the deception, and offers him a place in Dockstader’s Minstrels. (A real performing group that Jolson worked with early in his career.)

It’s not long before Jolson bristles against the mawkish and old-fashioned music he performs for Dockstader as part of the chorus. When the group performs in New Orleans, Jolson wanders off into the black part of town. This sequence features the only real black people you’ll see in The Jolson Story, although none of them have speaking parts. Jolson hears genuine ragtime music as he sits in with a band (sans blackface, of course) loving what he is hearing. He goes back to Dockstader and says, “I heard some music tonight called ‘jazz.'” But Dockstader is happy with the show the way it is. “Son, minstrels have been doing fine for fifty years, and we take pride in doing it the way it’s always been done,” Dockstader tells him.

Jolson goes off on his own, and enters a period of creative exploration. He calls the music he’s been listening to and working on, “Music nobody ever heard of before, but the only kind I want to sing.”

By “nobody,” he means, of course, no white people, since the (presumably black) composers and musicians he refers to are never shown. It could have been interesting to see Jolson work with and collaborate with black artists, but after that brief scene in New Orleans, we never see another black person.

Larry Parks

Jolson gets a call from good old Tom Baron, and Jolson tells him he has all kinds of music that just needs to be “polished up” a little (no pun intended) and makes his debut on Broadway, singing “Mammy,” in blackface, down on one knee. Interestingly, he does so without a nappy wig — just his dark hair slicked back — and he sounds “blacker” than he ever did before.

Jolson is depicted as a man who is always desperate to make a connection with his audience. During his show “Honeymoon Express,” he even has the house lights turned up, so he can see everyone in the audience. This was also the scene in which I felt that his blackface looked the most insane. There’s a superimposition of his face singing over a left-to-right pan of the crowd, and the closeup shows just how crazy his blackface looks, with a wide area around his lips un-made up, showing the white skin around his mouth, his pink lips, and his small yellow teeth. His eyes are nearly maniacal, he’s clearly sweating under his makeup, and he’s superimposed over a crowd of laughing, happy white people. It’s the stuff of nightmares.

When it comes to Jolson’s personal life, this picture makes Jolson seem like a singing monk, when in reality he was an inveterate womanizer. In The Jolson Story, he has no relationships with women except for his lifelong chaste romance with childhood friend Ann (Jo-Carroll Dennison).

As soon as she marries another man, however, he meets his future wife, producer Florenz Ziegfeld’s newest female sensation, Julie Benson (Evelyn Keyes). He spots her in the audience at one of his shows, and asks her to request a song. After she says, “April Showers,” he practically lies down on the stage in front of her and sings his heart out. Interestingly, this is the first time in the picture he sings a really heartfelt number without blackface on. Maybe it would have been too strange for audiences of the time to see him romance a white woman while blacked up.

After the show, he finds her mimicking his performance of “California, Here I Come,” perfectly copying his resonant voice and wild arm and leg gesticulations, and he falls, hook, line, and sinker.

Even though “Julie Benson” is a complete fabrication, I would have liked to have seen even more of her. Keyes only gets one proper musical number, showing her in action as part of the Ziegfeld Follies, but her dancing and singing were impressive, not to mention the fact that she has one of the best pair of gams I’ve ever seen.

As I said, there’s not much dramatic tension in this picture. Marrying a shiksa doesn’t raise an eyebrow on either one of his parents’ faces, and the only real conflict comes later in the film, as Julie encourages Jolson to quit show business so they can have a quiet life together, but he clearly misses the limelight, even though he claims he is happy.

Jolson was something of a has-been in 1946, and he was no longer one of the most popular singers in America, but this film was a huge hit, and revitalized interest in his music. It even spawned a sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949). Larry Parks was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor, but didn’t win. Parks was a relatively unknown B-movie actor before he was cast in this role, which launched him into stardom. Not too many years later, however, his career would be destroyed by the House Un-American Affairs Committee, when he admitted under pressure that he had once been a member of the Communist Party. He testified against his will in 1951, and was never officially blacklisted, but his career hit the skids.

His performance in The Jolson Story really is excellent. He lip-synched all of the songs to recordings of Jolson’s voice, and the effect is seamless. He plays Jolson as a man who is pathologically addicted to stardom, but never makes him seem maniacal or inhuman.

The Jolson Story took home two Oscars in 1947. Morris Stoloff won one for best musical score, and the film also won an Oscar for best sound recording. William Demarest for nominated for best supporting actor, and Joseph Walker was nominated for best color cinematography (the only other nominee in this category, The Yearling, ended up winning).

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10 responses »

  1. Pingback: The Best Years of Our Lives (Nov. 21, 1946) « OCD Viewer

  2. In 1919, Al took Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake (black copmposers) to dinner in a Jewish deli in Hartford CT after they were refused servise in a white restaurant. Dozens of black entertainers came to his funeral in California. I still would like to know who “Oscar” was played by….”Oscar, what are you doing with that phone? This is no time to call up women.” There is nobody named Oscar in any of the credits that I can find. I heard it was some sort of inside joke. I think the guy is Bob Stevens, aka Robert Kellard.

    The reason Al has no makeup for the Julie Benson April Showers number was because of a New York blue law at the time forbidding Sunday performances in costume or makeup. Al started these shows in 1912 or so, not 1926 as in the movie. Also, the Winter Garden runway was removed in 1923 when the place was remodeled.

    Keyes was not a singer, her voice was dubbed by Virginia Rees. Most of the “Liza” dancing number was also done by Miriam Nelson (still alive and on the web) because Keyes was afraid of the height of the staging. You are correct about the legs! Also, check out the Empire State Bldg in the background in the scene at Al’s apartment with Julie, 4 years before it was built.

    Reply
    • Wow! That’s all very interesting. Thanks for all the information.

      I didn’t catch the anachronistic shot of the Empire State Building, but you are right, of course.

      Interesting about the blue laws forbidding performances in makeup or costumes but not performances themselves. In my family’s ancestral home, there are many old books, including one called “Ye Olden Blue Laws.” Some of those laws are pretty nutty.

      Reply
  3. The comments here are so felonious that one starts to laugh through every paragraph. Its evident that the author knows NOTHING of Jolson, the time in history, or context of what show business was like at that time. Jolson appeared and started broadway sunday night concerts and would not have blacked up intentionally anyway, since the idea was to perform and show off to the other stars in the audience. Inside joke…mmm .. oscar..well its another word used in the profession eg. professor, for the orchestra leader. (Man where is this writer coming from, mars?).
    Mmmm,,the big ring around the mouth superimposed with the audience behind him. He always played the whole night or as much as the audience wanted, ususally undoing his tie, this also showing that his Blackface, was a “harlequenescqe” chariature where he (Gus) always came out the winner in his shows. Jolson is becomeing less misunderstood as years go by but still evidently not in this “politically correct” reporters mind.

    Reply
    • Howard, when you speak of the “comments here,” are you referring to the comments section, or the review itself? You refer to several pieces of information (“Oscar,” Sunday night performances) that are only appear in C Fisher’s comment.

      But, you seem to be speaking of my review of “The Jolson Story” as well, and you seem very mad. What, exactly, are you mad about? Do you feel I was unfair to Al Jolson, or to his place in history?

      I wrote that “Jolson used blackface strictly in the context of musical performance, and there was never anything deliberately mean-spirited about it.” Do you think this is untrue? Or do you think I left out important information?

      Keep in mind that this is not a review of Al Jolson the man or of his music. It’s a review of the 1946 film “The Jolson Story,” which was not particularly historically accurate.

      Reply
  4. Very informative and even-handed review… sympathetic to Jolson’s motives while not serving as an apologist for the blackface tradition. Of course, as Howard’s comment failed to realize, the point was merely an aside, as the article was obviously about the movie… not the man. Well done.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Kevin. Glad you got what I was getting at here.

      I’m neither an apologist for the blackface tradition nor in favor of throwing out the baby with the bathwater just because there are aspects of historically and culturally significant art that are offensive to modern sensibilities.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment!

      Reply
  5. One more very important addition to your review. The character of “Julie Benson” is not a “complete fabrication”. She’s based on the very well known singer/dancer Ruby Keeler, (whom Jolson DID marry). Starting in shows on Broadway, she became an extremely popular Warner Brothers star in the 1930’s, appearing in a dozen or so musicals (most, with the delightful Dick Powell) and was spotlighted in extravagant Busby Berkeley numbers. Warners finally costarred Keeler and Jolson in their own hit musical in 1935,…”Go Into Your Dance” (available on DVD.) They later divorced.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your important correction, Jim. I know who Ruby Keeler was, so I’m not sure why I referred to “Julie Benson” as a complete fabrication. It’s been a little while since I wrote this review, but I suspect either I was confused as to who “Julie Benson” was supposed to be or I was using language carelessly.

      In any case, thanks for stopping by, and thanks for all the information!

      Reply
  6. This rather in depth review is basically an oxymoron in effect. The jolson novice will not care about all the fictonalized dicrepencies points out while the aficionados already know them. The reader will come away with the now typical politically correct polemics used to invigorate the seemingly “bad” blackface convention of the time, historically speaking. For people such as the author of this piece, so called racism is the most prominent thought that surfaces to his mind. A pity, but never unsurprising for people of the authors “ilk”

    Reply

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