Jolson

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This morning in lecture I promised I’d post these:

Info here. And, from Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (1997), the montage he has suggested should be shown at the Academy Awards (alongside the montage of dead industry folks):

As I mentioned at the end of lecture, I think Lee intends this montage as a rejoinder to recent work on blackface (much of which I value) that wants to resuscitate something revolutionary or redemptive in blackface forms.

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Just back in town from a long conference weekend in Albuquerque. Cyrus was jetset to and from Abu Dhabi in the meantime. I’m kind of hoping we’ll be able to keep up the blog a little more regularly than we have the last few weeks.

Tomorrow I’m lecturing on The Jazz Singer (1927), one of the more complicated “texts” we discuss in Writing New York. As repulsive as some elements are, I find the film more compelling each time I view it or teach it.

For the sake of students who may be checking the blog on the eve of class, here are a few links to past discussions of the film on PWHNY: Since I’m usually the one to lecture on the film, Cyrus has offered his own take on the blog on a couple of occasions — the 2007 DVD release being one, and it looks like he actually liveblogged my lecture on another occasion, or at least supplemented it as I went. Maybe he realized I was running short on time and wouldn’t have time to squeeze in the Bamboozled clip I like to show. (SPOILER ALERT: I may show that last clip tomorrow if I have time, so save it if you want to see it first in class.)

In my own supplemental commentary to previous lectures, I mentioned how the DVD packaging notes that the original publicity for the film all centered on ways in which the film was supposedly “Al Jolson’s own story” — that is, it emphasized similarities between Jolson’s story and his character’s. I’ve also provided post-lecture thoughts on Jolson/Jakie’s performance of Kol Nidre at the film’s conclusion, with special attention to our friend Marshall Berman’s reading of that scene and the film in general. Finally, to jump from Jewish to Christian holidays, I had some thoughts last winter about the relationship between Jolson’s performance and the songwriting of the great American composer Irving Berlin, “White Christmas” in particular.

This year I’m kind of wishing we had the time to read it against Kern and Hammerstein’s musical Show Boat, which premiered the same year the Warners released The Jazz Singer. There’s a lot still to say about the cultural collaboration of Jews and African Americans in the early 20th century to produce not just modern American culture, but more specifically what the cultural historian Ann Douglas has called “mongrel Manhattan.” From Show Boat: Music by Kern, lyrics by Hammerstein, iconic performance from the 1936 film by Robeson:

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jazzsingerposter3.gifNormally when I lecture on The Jazz Singer, I spend some time near the end talking about the film’s final two vocal performances, especially Jack/Jakie’s decision to return to the synagogue to sing Kol Nidre in his dying father’s place. (The final scene, back in the Winter Garden, is Jolson in blackface singing “Mammy” to his mother, seated in the audience.)

Kol Nidre (“All vows”) is an Aramaic chant or prayer, performed to usher in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In this ritual the congregation is absolved from all obligations and vows that might come in the next year, working from the assumption that people make unwise promises all the time (“If I get a promotion, I’ll attend service every week until I die!”) and will need to be let off the hook. The ritual has murky origins, but for a long time–including during the period when the film was made–it was thought that the Kol Nidre originated in the forced conversion of the Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. In this context, the idea of communal absolution for any oaths has particular salience: it means that any oaths God’s people are required to take in order to ensure their survival are null and void. It turns out the ritual predates the inquisition, but it may have played this role for some people in that particular time and place. There’s also a part of the ritual related to the question of the transgressor being allowed to pray with the congregation, which seems significant here, given that Jakie is a black sheep returning (however temporarily) to the fold. Finally, some critics have suggested that when Jolson sings Kol Nidre he’s “ragging” it, jazzing it up a little. A few things to consider when understanding the song’s role in the larger film.

So: Is Jack/Jakie leaving Judaism behind a the film’s end, or carrying it with him and transmitting it into and thereby transforming American culture? Is he forging an alliance between Jews and blacks? Is he creating or perpetuating a hybrid form of identity or culture? (How will the lives of his Gentile friends be changed by their encounter with his family?) Are his gestures cosmopolitan? Or are they about his construction of a white identity beneath the blackface mask?

Critics have read this scene, variously, as one of unapologetic, even aggressive, assimilation, or as expressing an ethos of atonement. Representing the former, Michael Rogin writes in his influential book on Jewish immigrants, minstrelsy, and film, Blackface, White Noise, that the two vocal performances at the film’s end constitute its most “hysterical moment”:

The movie was promising that the son could have it all: Jewish past and American future, Jewish mother and gentile wife. That was what happened in Hollywood. The moguls left their Jewish wives for gentile women in the 1930s and mostly eliminated Jewish life from the screen. They bade farewell to their Jewish pasts with The Jazz Singer.

More recently, Marshall Berman, in On The Town (his wonderful book on Times Square in the twentieth century), offers a more generous reading, typifying those who endorse the idea that the Kol Nidre scene is redemptive:

For many Jews, [Kol Nidre] is the most dramatic and spiritually intense moment of the year. … Many secular Jews who wouldn’t dream of going to synagogue all through the year feel they have to be there for [Yom Kippur]. The Kol Nidre prayer is special in that it isn’t addressed to God, but to other people. We are supposed to recognize all the ways we have hurt each other all year, not just openly but in the shadows; we are supposed to seek and to offer forgiveness. …The cantor’s solo is the most passionate, heartrending music of the whole year. Jews believe nothing else can break down people’s resistance or open up their emotional floodgates. … At The Jazz Singer’s climax, Jolson … leads the congregation with an amazing emotional fervor and intensity that have eluded him till now: Now, at last, he’s there. His heroic act–returning to the ghetto, sacrificing for a father who didn’t sacrifice for him, renewing his thrilling but dangerous bond with his mother–unites his adulthood with his childhood, frees unconscious energy, and taps emotional depths that he has had to repress in order to work and live for twenty years under his father’s curse. Now, as his father dies, chains lift from his heart. He learns from his life what his father’s religion couldn’t teach him because it was too narrow, and what secular show biz couldn’t teach him because it was too shallow: the universal lesson that “music is the voice of God.” In The Jazz Singer, mass culture stakes a claim to universal value, not only for its global reach but for its emotional depth and power.

Berman goes on to reference the Eric Lott formula of “love and theft,” suggesting that part of what Jack needs to be forgiven of is the “theft” side of his blackface act; he also suggests, however, that Jolson’s Kol Nidre prefigures “the sounds, a generation later, of the great flowering of rhythm and blues: Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Mavis Staples, Patti LaBelle. But why not?”

I’m curious to know if our students or other readers have different ways they take the end of the film.

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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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