"Not a Tear In a Reel-Full"
I once performed in a sixth grade minstrel show, sans blackface natch, but thanks to efforts of our music teacher, a memorable occasion for recapturing a long vanished art. Was it so different for younger viewers watching Mammy in 1930? I was Mr. Bones, the end man, or was it Mr. Tambo? I forget which, but we had songs and jokes and a rollicking time before our elementary school assembly back around 1966. Try putting on one of these now, of course, and you'd wind up on CNN. There was nostalgia for minstrelry right from the moment, I suspect, when it faded finally from entertainment's landscape. Mammy was sold on that very sentiment. Al Back In Blackface! was its promise, and likely that's how most wanted him, for tragedian Jolson wore thin over a last two, The Singing Fool and Say It With Songs, that weighed a public down with tears. Reactions to movies in those days were necessarily delayed ones, and moods could and did shift between a show's completion and months later when it reached theatres. Showmen must have known they had a problem with Jolson, for every ad I came across hammered Mammy's comedy content --- Nothing But Laughs, said several, which amounted to false advertising, for this one went melodramatic routes not unlike prior AJ vehicles, and was, in fact, humor deprived for much of its second half. Being this was his fourth in fairly rapid succession, there was concern too that patrons would confuse Mammy with Jolies they'd caught before. This is his newest picture and unless you saw it here Saturday or Sunday, you have not seen it, cautioned the above ad. Was sameness of Jolson's act finally catching up with him?
Al himself foreswore in Mammy's trailer that here would be a slick new model, with Irving Berlin music, direction by Michael Curtiz, plus color sequences. Musicals were declining by 1930's opener months, but wasn't Al beyond mere labels now jinxing others? Such talent as his would always prove an exception to downward trends, or so Warners thought when they sank $786,000 into Mammy's negative. Much of that went into AJ's personal column. He was bent on getting back coin for past windfalls the brothers had enjoyed via three straight Jolson hits. Playing safe was adjudged best by all concerned. Why reset a clock ticking so nicely? --- and yet those on selling ends smelled discontent, as these ads reflect. To watch Mammy is frustration for wanting Al to break loose as he once did in middles of dreary plays. Do you want me or more of this?, he'd ask a full house after stepping out of character and toward footlights. They'd all cheer and off went supporting casts, leaving Jolson and a couple dozen songs to round out evenings. Al had live crowds there and years of experienced feel for their patience ebbing, not an advantage he could seize on Warner stages. Here was essential reason he'd not conquer movies, with Mammy a first step toward loss of that audience that seemed his forever after triumphing as The Jazz Singer.
There weren't a heck of a lot of films set among minstrels, let alone ones as seemingly authentic as Mammy, but what do I know of that, despite my once having been Mr. Tambo (or was it Bones?)? Whatever impressions we form about minstrel shows are pretty much going to be based on shadowy survivors like Mammy and damning reference in revised histories, which makes Jolson's all the more valuable an artifact. Mammy's participants, after all, weren't merely recreating an experience they'd read about. Many had worked such shows and virtually all were weaned on stages. Jolson certainly knew ways around burnt cork, having applied it since a century's beginning, and Louise Dresser, playing his mother here, was seasoned as well in ways of minstrelry. Both had been at it decades by time Mammy was shot in late 1929. You wonder how often their paths crossed during years leading up to this. Mammy shamelessly echoes The Jazz Singer with Al slathering kisses upon Dresser while serenading her at the piano (eight years apart in age ... why not let him play her father?). A creep factor's in abundance here ... Al always seemed a little too demonstrative with kids and moms. Were the rest of us so huggy and kissy back in 1930?
Mammy once again finds Jolson a loser at love. What was it about his screen character that suggested no woman could reasonably want him? I wonder how long it would have been before AJ put brakes on that, notwithstanding, of course, a restless public putting brakes on his starring career. Warners did keep trying, despite losses on Mammy and Jolsons to come. They'd see profit only in combining him with fresher faces Kay Francis, Dick Powell, or Ruby Keeler, while vehicles focused on Al, Big Boy and his last lead for WB, The Singing Kid, both succumbed to red ink. The Jolsons did as thorough a disappearing act as any star vehicles once television and revival houses labeled most persona non grata. So much blackface gave Al's image a black eye, and that's not likely to heal. Of lost Technicolor specimens to re-surface, Mammy may have been one Warners wanted least, yet there it lay, in a Euro archive classic followers couldn't ignore. Release through Warner's Archive was in a lower key, though online interest was considerable. I delayed watching my DVD until just this week. You have to be in a certain mood to digest Jolson, especially early ones where he's got the faucet wide open. Mammy actually finds him a little more subdued, which in AJ parlance, remains something akin to a runaway locomotive. There's a Mammy drunk scene I thought he'd never wrap up, and how do cops overlook sad sack Al riding rails to flee a bum shooting rap? All this (and two-color Technicolor) goes down smoother now that we have a print frame-corrected (at last --- after eighty years!), plus welcome overture and exit music.