Book Choice --- A Song In The Dark
I’ve been having a wine and cheese couple of weeks in the company of wonderful things recently out in print and DVD. Their having arrived together was a happy confluence for this digger into early musicals. First the book. A Song In The Dark is a newly published second edition of Richard Barrios’ 1995 volume about talking-singing-dancing’s conquest of movies. It was acclaimed then, and thanks to new and updated chapters, is even better now. There's no more informed study on this subject anywhere, but Barrios is never stolid or academic. In fact, he’s the wittiest observer of classic film I’ve come across since Bill Everson left us. There are out loud laughs all through this book. Barrios is dead accurate to history and scrupulous with insider revelations, much of which was new to me. He’s also a long time film collector and knows pot-holed routes these negatives traveled as well as current preservation status of each. Coverage is detailed but not dull. I remembered the 1995 edition as among best film books of that decade. This one pretty much cinches Top Placement for the naughts. That happy confluence I mentioned was Warner Archive’s release of a brace of seriously early musicals that play merrily along with reading A Song In The Dark. You can widen out to DVD’s others have issued, as Barrios covers every talking tune-fest between 1927 and 1934. My best fun comes of reading about films just after watching, so all this falls under heading of time most pleasurably spent, and I’d recommend the parlay to anyone who has interest in this most fascinating of movie eras.
Some will blanch at primitivism of stone-aged musicals, but for me they work precisely because most were banished to obscurity and are somewhat disreputable today, even among classic followers. So many play lumpen and shapeless. It’s as though musicals spent those first several years struggling to give birth, only to miscarry time and again. Owners shamed for having made them drowned many in the river. Few genres starting out require so much of our patience, yet sheer perversity among many of us treasure these relics for just that. Sometimes I prefer feet that clomp instead of tap. Maybe Hollywood was too soon getting slick at their musicals, for visible strain at putting on shows is an endearing trait of earliest ones, the very edge an industry would smooth off to a polished, if duller, sheen. I’m for transporting back to sensibilities of patrons seeing musicals first-run, when the very idea of screen song was revolutionary. What was it really like sitting before Vitaphones fresh out of the box? Being numb to technological innovation, it’s hard for us to imagine standing up to cheer a projected image, yet 1927 audiences did … and often. The earliest talkies are best enjoyed when we channel empathy to folks who were there and amazed when all of it was new. Many personalities that mastered talkies saw fame redoubled, but none more so than Al Jolson. Some might be surprised to learn there are still Jolson fan groups around. Eighty years ago, it seems everyone was a Jolie fan. To watch The Singing Fool and Say It With Songs is to wonder how tastes then could differ so radically from our own. Both were smash hits in 1928-29. I’d wager most of our grandparents had song sheets of Sonny Boy. Part of Al’s success was novelty of sound, but most derived from his virtual leap off a singing screen into audience laps. This was performance 3-D without glasses. Jolson was applauded to a point where he thought more was always more, with subtlety better left to talent his inferior (which for Al was everyone else in show business). For all his public’s huzzahs, the man was not unreasonable thinking himself a god among entertainers.
The Singing Fool and Say It With Songs were seldom revived like The Jazz Singer. Their stake in history was more economic than aesthetic. Beyond the fact it was a phenomenal commercial hit, much more so than The Jazz Singer, The Singing Fool is forgotten, Say It With Songs even more so. Warners made both available in a laser disc box of Jolsons back in the eighties. Now they’re part of the Archive Collection, sans remastering. Why throw good money after bad? TCM stays generally clear of Jolson for apprehension over blackface routines spotted through most of his pics. That plus severely dated content leaves them scarcely missed. Al frankly looks more natural blacked up. His face otherwise seems bleached out to me. Maybe it’s distressed negatives at fault. You expect musical stars to play happy and convey it to us, but Warners saw Al as tragic troubadour done in by wiles of women, with sickbeds a persistent last stop for cherub offspring. Say It With Tears might have been a more apt title for that 1929 offering, for here again was Jolson fielding heartbreak. Is this what finally turned audiences away? The Singing Fool’s popularity was endorsement of Al as tragedian. His "Little Pal" was Davey Lee, adorable scamp of every parent’s dream. What was it about Davey’s public that liked him best dead or dying? Infants and toddlers were more vulnerable in those days. Maybe watching one pass on movie screens helped ward off such visitation in real life. Did make-believe surrogates like Davey Lee keep real-life Grim Reapers at bay? The Singing Fool fairly wallows in its ocean of grief. Jolson can barely get out his final (and at least third) reprise of Sonny Boy without collapsing onstage. Of millions watching in 1928, I wonder how many had lost a toddling family member. Enough to make The Singing Fool and Sonny Boy twin smashes, that’s sure. Sometimes entertainment strikes a public’s nerve in ways barely calculated by makers. As risible as we find much of The Singing Fool and Say It With Songs, they did have meaning and affect for a generation that lacked health care advantages we enjoy today, and ham-fisted though he was, Al Jolson spoke to grim chance that stalked his audience and loved ones at home.
Richard Barrios will appear and present a program of early musical highlights this week at the Syracuse Cinefest.