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Thursday, December 02, 2010

"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 from a point it faded from entertainment's landscape. Mammy was sold on that sentiment. Al Back In Blackface! was promised, and likely that's how most wanted him, as 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 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.


Anonymous Jim Cobb said...

Jolson kept up the blackface for a few years to come. I remember seeing a museum screening of his1934 WONDERBAR in the early 70's and being shocked by the "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule" number, directed in spectacular style by Busby Berkley. It is an odd film, with some intriguing pre-code moments. But this sequence is truly jaw dropping.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Thanks for your thoughts on Jolson, John. Interesting to read that THE SINGING KID lost money. Given that this picture actually burlesques Jolson's mammy-singing reputation, it appears that Jolson's act was old-hat even in 1935.

It seems to me that Warners threw three strikes on Jolson when they marketed THE SINGING KID. Strike one is the title: THE SINGING KID does not overtly refer to Jolson -- it could be taken to mean Sybil Jason, Warners' answer to Shirley Temple, who is named first on the posters. Jolson is named in large letters at the end of the list among the guest stars (the way reissue distributors used to downplay Bobby Breen by billing him last in his "starring" vehicles).

Strike two is Jolson being listed below the title without even starring or featured billing: "with Al Jolson." Strike three is the film being labeled a First National Picture, the lesser Warner Bros. brand name. Evidently Warners wasn't pushing this one as another Jolson triumph.

And it's still my favorite Jolson feature, because it doesn't have the "traditional" Jolson trademarks.

11:21 AM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

It may be a longer while before HIGH TOR makes it to DVD...Kathryn Crosby was involved in a car accident a month ago in California. The report (which was just released) said she suffered "major injuries" and her current husband was killed.

6:54 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

At least we know that everybody truly LOVED and remembered Jolson as a warm human being. LOL

My favorite "minstrel" film is the OUR GANG entry "Ye Olde Minstrels."

9:20 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson casts a vote for Jolson contemporary Eddie Cantor ...

Eddie Cantor did a lot of blackface himself, yet his early star vehicles are
even harder to find nowaways. "Strike Me Pink" and "Ali Baba Goes to Town"
turned up on the Fox movie channel a while back, and that's about it. I have
fond but fading memories of "Roman Scandals", "Palmy Days" and the one where
he goes to Egypt with Ethel Merman. He was certainly as hammy and
applause-hungry as Jolson, but he managed to play somewhat lovable

Cantor's film career seemed to last slightly longer than Jolson's, but he
had a long run as a radio and TV star. Did Jolson really do much, aside from
plugging his biopic?

There's a WWII Warner cartoon -- "Swooner Crooner", I think -- that
caricatures Jolson along with more current stars like Sinatra, Crosby, Cab
Calloway and Jimmy Durante as roosters. A later toon, "What's Up Doc,"
offered Jolson, Cantor, Crosby and Jack Benny as guys who would "never
amount to anything" in a Vaudeville flashback. So as late as 1949, Jolson
still had enough celebrity value to make the gag work.

10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Did Jolson really do much, aside from plugging his biopic?"

"The Jolson Story" jump-started his career in a way that must have blind-sided his contemporaries. Who had ever dug his way out of the grave so effectively and prominently? Jolson became the come-back kid, doing dozens of guest-appearances on high-profile radio shows (Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, etc), before going on to headline the Kraft Music Hall on radio for two seasons in the 40s. (Paired with Oscar Levant, those Kraft shows are wonderful, and really demonstrate why he was considered by so many to be the World's Greatest Entertainer.) Odds are he would have gone on to a prominent television career as well, had he not had the misfortune to die of a heart attack in 1950.


3:37 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard Roberts writes in about another minstrel show that is new to me, but sounds really interesting ...


Enjoyed the piece on MAMMY as usual with your work, but I did want to let you know that there is indeed another film that gives one a good idea about what Minstrel shows were really like and preserves some of their traditions, good and bad. It's the 1951 Lippert release YES SIR MR BONES, which recreates in early 1950's style a full-blown minstrel show, featuring the only known film-footage of legendary minstrel man Emmett MIller, whose singing style influenced Hank Williams and other country and western artists, and Ned Waverly, of the Waverly family who founded and ran Waverly's Mastodon MInstrels, a famous long-running, turn-of-the-Century MInstrel show who still does a mean soft-shoe in the film in his seventies. Along with these black-face performers, great black performers like Scatman Cruthers, Flornoy MIller( of MIller and Lyles) and in his only film appearance, Brother Bones (who recorded the Harlem Globetrotters anthem "Sweet Georgia Brown") also perform. Despite some very unfortunate stereotypes, there are some amazing performances in this suprisingly entertaining film, but more sensitive heads might want to fast forward throgh the appearance by Cotton Watts, who was still working Southern Supper-Clubs in the late 1960's billed as "America's top blackface comedian" (I think he had the field to himself by that time).

This film is available on DVD from VCI in a collection of interesting Lippert Vaudeville musicals called SHOWTIME USA, also including several features like VARIETIES ON PARADE that are basically filmed vaudeville shows, giving you a real taste of what vaudeville was like near it's end and featuring a lot of interesting and entertaining acts. The set features commentary tracks on four of the six features included (like YES SIR MR BONES ) by yours truly, Randy Skretvedt, and Brent Walker. Forgive the shameless plug, but it fit in with your subject matter.


6:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Two other movies with Minstrel themes that came out within a year before MAMMY were MELODY LANE (1929 - Universal) and THE GRAND PARADE (1930 - Pathe).
The latter is reportedly lost. I've been searching for it for years with no luck. I do have the Vitaphone disc for reels 5 & 7 though. I also have all but one of the soundtrack discs for MELODY LANE, so depending upon what material Universal has, perhaps some kind of restoration can be attempted.

10:08 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Sometime during the 1954-55 school year, when I was in the first grade, I performed in a variety show at my elementary school, doing my tapdance specialty to "You're a Grand Old Flag." A girl in my neighborhood named Merle Smith, a couple of years older than I, was in the show as well, one of a trio of kids who introduced the various acts and performed comedy skits between.

We (or at least I) only had one rehearsal before performance, so I was astonished, at the performance, to see Merle and the other two kids in blackface, with nappy-hair wigs and all! Looking back years later, I realized they were doing a sort of Topsy-Mr. Bones-and-Mr. Interlocutor routine, though nearly all the jokes (and even the fact of blackface itself) flew right over my six-year-old head. I do remember some gag with Merle (I kid you not!) trying to smuggle a live chicken that escaped from under her coat.

So, for what it's worth, I guess I can lay claim to being one of the few actors alive who has actually performed in a blackface minstrel show -- at least, one that wasn't done with irony as a postmodern comment. (And no, I was not in blackface myself; that's why it was such a surprise.)

4:42 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Jim Lane, you appeared in a minstrel're under arrest.

10:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ch. 38 in Boston would show the Jolsons back in 1966.

11:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another significant Jolson find has been the recently discovered Vitaphone short "Plantation Act" featuring Al doing three numbers. It predates Jazz Singer by some months (he even says "you aint heard nothin yet") It was found in a can mislabeled as a trailer for the Jazz Singer. A private collector had a broken Viaphone sound disc which was repaired to complete the restoration. Concerning Minstrel memorabilia, a collector/dealer freind of mine once had several rare original stone litho minstrel posters from the early 20th century. They were reasonably priced but he had the same one's over and over at every show. I once teased him about this and he said, "minstrel doesn't sell" Most people dont want to deal with the implications of owning and displaying the stuff. Truth is most serious black memeorabilia collectors are black themselves and since the minstrel posters depict white people in blackface, even they don't want it.

12:05 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Apropos of today's banner, of Fox execs watching The Robe: This shot of Victor Mature as Demetrius at the Crucifixion was reportedly the only closeup in the entire picture (such things being hard to manage in CinemaScope), which sent a joke running around Hollywood circles: "Say, did you know Victor Mature's lip is twelve-and-a-half feet high?"

1:48 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Cantor did a minstrel show, in the glossy, streamlined Goldwyn style in "Kid Millions" (the one where he and Merman and others all head for Egypt to claim a treasure -- surely not the contemporary reviews of that time).
Fayard and Harold Nicholas open the scene with a song by Burton Lane called "I Want To Be a Minstrel Man", which is an outright, dead-on killer, and with young Lucille Ball among the showgirls, which Lane lately re-clycled and re-named as the song where Astaire dances on the ceiling in "Royal Wedding".

I had the great honor of being seated at the same table several years ago with Fayard and his wife at some event out here in L.A. to honor Jolson, where I was asked to represent my grandfather! We chatted quite a bit, he was a wonderful man. He passed not long afterward. Sybil Jason was also there that night, so for me it literally was old-home week. Sybil and I just e-mailed each other a week ago on our respective b'days (also, Mr. Pratt's, and Harpo's, as well). She was taken to Las Vegas she said and was seated in the front table of an act doing Elvis and The Beatles -- way to go, Sybil! She has fond memories of working with Jolie (probnably one of the few that does!)

Those Kraft Music Halls are something else -- most of them (that I've heard) are great (and I am not really a devotee of most old radio). Jolson, Bing Crosby and John Charles Thomas did do a Minstrel Show on Crosby's "Philco" show however which is probably one of the finest things ever done in the history of entertainment (which is saying quite a mouthful!)

And, it was quite a kick in the pants to hear Jolson on "Kraft" perform a song written by my grandfather back in the 20's, called "Bright Eyes".

As always, John, my best to you and to Mr. MacGillivray -- loved his book on L&H!


8:15 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Always great hearing from you, RJ. Those Kraft Music Halls with Jolson are really terrific. I especially liked the one with Larry Parks. Sure do envy you getting to attend that Jolson tribute with its line-up of guests.

7:05 AM  

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