Al Jolson’s Own Story

jazzsingersouvenir.jpgI mentioned in lecture this morning that the recent DVD repackaging of The Jazz Singer — which I highly recommend — comes with a copy of the original souvenir book sold in theaters for a quarter, a sort of playbill for the movie. The studio really pushes the parallel between Jack Robin’s and Al Jolson’s stories, not that surprising if you know (as the program also points out) that Samson Raphaelson was inspired to write the original story, and then the Broadway play on which the movie is based, after seeing Jolson in concert and speaking to him backstage. In this and other ways the studio bills the film as an extraordinarily realistic portrait of a second-generation Jewish immigrant’s rise from the LES ghetto to Broadway stardom.

I promised to post a few quotes from the Jolson bio in the souvenir program, given that they touch on the point that makes this film controversial in our own day: Jolson’s blackface performance. In class today I tried to touch on several ways in which the film self-consciously uses blackface as part of a larger set of coniderations about identity, much the way that the Vitaphone sequences (the synchronized songs and dialogue) thematize “voice” in meaningful ways. This discussion benefits, I think, from the program’s biographical note, which makes Jolson’s first use of blackface into the turning point of his career as an entertainer, which in its early, “white face” phase (yes, it uses that term), had met with “indifferent success”:

The turning tide was a chance conversation one night with an old darky. The man was a southern negro who assisted the comedian when he dressed. Jolson was extremely fond of him and appreciative of his loyalty through the lean days of his vaudeville tours. In Washington [DC, as a child,] Al had acquired a sympathetic interest in negro life and had learned to mimic the accent of the race.

One night when the two were preparing for a performance in a small theatre in Brooklyn, the actor confided to his old dresser his misgivings as to the merits of his act.

“How am I going to get them to laugh more?” he mused.

The darky shook his head knowingly. “Boss, if yo’ skin am black they always laugh.”

The idea struck Jolson as plausible and he decided to try it. He got some burnt cork, blacked up and rehearsed before the negro. When he finished he heard a chuckle followed by the verdict.

“Mistah Jolson, yo is just as funny as me.”

The sketch goes on to explain that Jolson got a raise and widened his tour circuit and that his adopting blackface eventually led to his international celebrity.

What I find curious about this story is that it makes it seem as if Jolson and his stagehand invented blackface, or at least saved it from obscurity. In reality, it was a common element of vaudeville sketches and had been for decades. If it’s a mistake for us to read Jolson’s use of blackface as anachronistic or idiosyncratic (and to do so clearly would be a mistake: the Spike Lee montage does nothing if not make us aware of how persistent and prevalent the form, and the stereotypes in which is trafficked, were well into the twentieth century) then it seems to be a misunderstanding Jolson helped to cultivate by identifying himself so personally with it.

More on the film’s use of blackface in the days to come; tomorrow I think I’ll post on possible ways to understand the Kol Nidre performance near the film’s close.

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