I recently watched Mammy (1930) which was I believe the fourth “talkie” featuring Al Jolson and features a rather crude but historically interesting sequence with two-strip Technicolor. Watching it, which features Jolson as part of a minstrel show I wonder if any once popular entertainer is so horribly dated today? Sure in a film like Hallelujah, I’m a Bum he avoids his trademark blackface, but the thing that defined him as a performer and as an entertainer is absent from that particular film.
I know some performers have a large array of dated material and it may seem odd to wonder how they were ever popular (Marrie Dressler for one), but does anyone provoke downright offensive anger the way Al Jolson’s films do?
Let me be clear that I am not defending blackface, which was an offensive and inexcusable form of racism. It was also a dominant form of entertainment at the time. Jolson was in no way unique or a particular case for using it. That doesn’t make it right, but the problem went far beyond Jolson.
Mel Gibson – Lohan did not have farther to fall….
Good call on Mel after posting this I thought of Pauly Shore
I think that Jolson’s image has aged badly because, aside from the blackface, it’s also difficult to understand why he was popular. He’s not good-looking. His singing voice is incredibly dated. (He sings in that weird high-pitched style that was so prevalent in the early age of popularly available sound recordings, presumably because recording technology picked up those frequencies better than others.) And, for the most part, his film’s weren’t all that great. (It seems like Hallelujah, I’m a Bum — one of only two Jolson films I’ve seen, I hasten to add — has aged the best, but that was actually quite a flop when it was originally released.)
If contemporary audiences could find something else appealing about him they might look past the blackface, just as today’s cinephiles still find plenty to like in the films of Griffith and Riefenstahl. Similarly, I tend to think that, twenty years from now, people will still be watching and loving Mad Max despite Gibson’s racism and emotional violence. Lindsay Lohan will likely be seen for what she is – a promising young actress who sadly ruined her life through substance abuse. Meanwhile, the brief popularity of Pauly Shore will continue to baffle film historians for generations to come.
i recently watched wonder bar, a very entertaining pre-code busby berkeley picture that ends in a breathtakingly offensive blackface number, too long to be excised and still exerting some weird fascination like a train wreck. i don’t think we can fairly judge jolson at this remove but he was a huge star in the day and it’s almost impossible to imagine his rehabilitation to polite society. totally agree on pauly shore too, haha
Robert Blake could probably use an image consultant around now.
and did Pauley Shore ever have an image that was beloved? or even respected?
If we look back at Al Jolson for being “dated” just imagine how certain entertainers today will be viewed in about 80 years.
I’ll add Robin Williams to the “God What Were We Thinking?” pile — funny once, but unwatchable now.
Jolson was a GIGANTOR star long before he was in pictures, and blackface was not the sole defining
aspect of his stage career.
But in any case, the section titled “Relations with African Americans” under the Jolson Wikipedia page, if it can be relied upon, may confront the premise of this thread.
While growing up, he had many black friends, including Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, who later became a legendary tap dancer."
As early as 1911, at the age of 25, he was already noted for fighting discrimination on the Broadway stage and later in his movies:
“at a time when black people were banned from starring on the Broadway stage,”
he promoted the play by black playwright Garland Anderson,
which became the first production with an all-black cast ever produced on Broadway;
he brought an all-black dance team from San Francisco that he tried to feature in his Broadway show;
he demanded equal treatment for Cab Calloway, with whom he performed a number of duets in his movie The Singing Kid.
he was “the only white man allowed into an all black nightclub in Harlem;”
Jolson once read in the newspaper that songwriters Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle,
neither of whom he had ever heard of, were refused service at a Connecticut restaurant because of their race.
He immediately tracked them down and took them out to dinner “insisting he’d punch anyone
in the nose who tried to kick us out!”
Brian Conley, former star of the 1995 British play Jolson, stated during an interview,
“I found out Jolson was actually a hero to the black people of America. At his funeral, black actors lined the way, they really appreciated what he’d done for them.”
Noble Sissle, then president of the Negro Actors’ Guild, represented that organization at his funeral
“African-American singer Jackie Wilson recorded a tribute album to Jolson, You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet, which included his personal liner note, "…the greatest entertainer of this or any other era… I guess I have just about every recording he’s ever made, and I rarely missed listening to him on the radio.
Jolson is and was incredibly entertaining.
His image has not aged badly because even tho some of the work is cringe worthy, he is still great.
His eager to please entertainer has aged quite and it is a refreshing thing to watch these days when subtlety has become the order of the day.
Maybe in a hundred years the few people who still think aboutfilm will rember A J better than Arnold or Mel Gibson…..
No question that Jolson, however else he will be thought of, will be remembered as an important Jewish entertainer.
“Jolson was in no way unique or a particular case for using it. "
Yup. People have conveniently overlooked Bing Crosby’s having worked in blackface.
and Fred Astaire:
By the time Robert Downey Jr. got around to doing it, hardly anyone seemed to notice.
Well I think Astaire was paying tribute to Bill Robinson in Swing Time, and part of this is Al Jolson as a performer. Fred Astaire can still dance and although people may wonder how he rose to leading man status some day, his talent is a lot easier to see (for me) than Jolson.
As for other performers there’s a whole montage of it at the end of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, which I found to be brilliant even if others didn’t agree.
Part of the whole blackface debate came to me from watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and those who’ve seen the episode will know what I’m talking about, Sir Laurence Olivier is referenced.
I’m also not accusing Jolson personally as being racist.
Perhaps my simplest point is taken at face value without any prior context or historical perspective would anyone’s star status seem more baffling?
that number in holiday inn is one of the most patronizing things i’ve ever seen. i’ve always hated bing
No question that it seems strange today, though a lot of aspects of vaudeville, though not as offensive as blackface, would seem pretty strange today. I think Jolson is more remembered than, say, Eddie Cantor partly simply because The Jazz Singer is an historical curiosity by virtue of its being the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue sequences.
Yahoo Serious, perhaps?
I think you’re downplaying the extent to which Jolson was identified with blackface, It was a major part of his stage repertoire, and he donned it in several films. Also, Olivier and Downey, Jr. are very different. Olivier was working in a different, much older, though arguably just as offensive tradition: that of wearing black makeup when playing Othello. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the American cultural phenomenon of blackface. And with Downey it was a joke that recognized the offensiveness of blackface, not a reversion to the vaudeville tradition.
That said, you’re right that there’s a lot more to Jolson than blackface (and there’s a lot more blackface to many popular stars than some would like to admit). Even in my limited experience with Jolson, I recognize that. Anyone who watches The Jazz Singer, for example, will find an intensely Jewish movie that emphasize the importance of Jolson’s Jewishness to his persona. (J. Hoberman recently used The Jazz Singer as the high water mark for Jewishness in cinema: “If immersing oneself in the history of the Jews is the essence of the Jewish condition, Footnote is the most Jewish movie since The Jazz Singer.”) And anyone who watches Hallelujah, I’m a Bum will find an incredibly likable performer who is adept at fitting in with the social underclass.
I also think you’re right about Jolson being remembered primarily because of The Jazz Singer’s status as “the first sound film.”
I’m never interested in a white person’s opinion of blackface, only a black person’s opinion of it matters. Black friends of mine have usually had a more sophisticated historical and multi-level take on it than most of the the bourgeois liberal white folk I’ve heard going off on it. If you aren’t black you do not know what it is to be in a black person’s shoes, you just don’t.
I thought of Mel Gibson as well and then realized I wasn’t thinking of it in the correct way. The question here is asking if a stars image has aged badly in that people’s percpetions of the same thing has changed. In the case of Mel Gibson it wasn’t just that people’s perceptions changed over time to a person who is dead and no longer changing. Mel Gibson is still alive, so he’s still doing new things that affect his own image. If he was dead and his image was solidified then it would be appropriate to compare him to Al Jolson, but it’s a different kind of comparison at this point.
People back then were more OK with blackface which Jolson did. Now they are not as OK with it.
It’s not that twenty or thirty years ago when Mel Gibson was first a star that people were OK with racism and now they aren’t. It’s that Mel Gibson didn’t used to display racism and now he does.
“I think you’re downplaying the extent to which Jolson was identified with blackface”
Not my intention at all—I didn’t mean to imply that all instances of blackface were the same either. It was used lots of different ways, even, for example, Bert Williams, who was himself a black man and an extremely talented vaudeville performer, appeared in black face, both alone on stage and for a time with Eddie Cantor (a Jewish white man), also in black face.
. . . but regardless of how it’s used, the technique is going to be offensive to many in and of its own right.
Film in the 30s was very ethnic oriented. The Irish were huge in film and the Jews were in obviously as they ran the business. All this was east coast centered ethos and has to be judged as such. Social consciousness was not in vogue then and the world as it was seemed perfect and as ordained.