I don't think I've ever gone into my weird Al Jolson thing on this blog, or on my prior one for that matter, even when I was pondering Warner's controversial DVD release of The Jazz Singer a couple years back. I alluded to it here, but never really explained, say, just how I acquired it (which is part of what makes it weird). So no reason to do it now, except just to mention, as a way of partially explaining this post, that I have this weird Al Jolson thing. Which is to say that, beyond appreciating him in an objective/critical sense as a seminal,hugely influential, monumentally important figure in American popular culture (prior to Michael Jackson's ascendence, he was pretty much unquestionably acknowledged as the biggest solo act in all of show business), I also actually enjoy watching and listening the guy. For the most part, I'm a fan.
And yes, that's problematic, because a huge, impossible-to-ignore component of Jolson's art was rooted in a form of minstrelsy that's very ugly to behold today. Which is not, of course, to say that minstrelsy has ever really disappeared from our culture—I went into that a bit in my post on Singer—but it is true that we are now appalled by even the expectation that anyone should ever be entertained by a performer in generic blackface. (The exceptions the contemporary culture makes involve white performers "blacking up" to lampoon specific figures, and these are not in themselves entirely controversy-free, and many would argue that the distinction's logistically convenient but hardly genuinely compelling.) This is why the three-disc DVD set of The Jazz Singer that Warner put out in 2007 was conceived and packaged as it was—as a cultural and historical artifact rather than something to be actually enjoyed.
It's fascinating how different formats and markets determine the dissemination of certain cultural materials. In 1996, MGM/UA released an eight-movie Jolson collection, complete with a supplicant kneeling blackfaced Jolie on the front cover, on laserdisc, and there was scarcely a peep from any cultural gatekeeper of any stripe. That's because, as highly bruited by mass-media mavens as it was, the laser disc format was always a cult item, a configuration for collectors and other such crazy people. Nothing released in it could achieve anything like a viral effect. DVD, as we know, is different.
At least up to a point. Smaller labels and on-demand services create material that circulates not-quite-like samizdat, but at least in such a way that proves a few points of long-tail theory economics. I never thought in a million trillion years that Warner Home Video proper would release a DVD of Lloyd Bacon's 1934 Jolson vehicle Wonder Bar, for reasons that will become clear below. Except that the company just HAS, via the Warner Archive, their on-line order service that burns specific titles onto DVD-Rs on demand.
Wonder Bar's a pretty peculiar picture. It's scads more ambitious and, erm, cosmopolitan than such prior Jolson vehicles as Big Boy and Mammy, but despite its preponderance of interesting bits it doesn't really get where it wants to go. One gets the impression that it wants to be Grand Hotel set in a nightclub. (It is perhaps no accident that both films' scenarios are of Hungarian provenance.) Jolson plays Al Wonder, proprieter and chief entertainer at Paris' celebrated Wonder Bar, presiding over bandleader Dick Powell and dancers Harry and Ynes, played by ersatz Latin lover Ricardo Cortez (nee Jacob Krantz, older brother of cinematographer Stanley Cortez) and the Mexican-born Dolores del Rio respectively. Harry's a worthless gigolo who's romancing the wife of a prominent businessman (Kay Francis, looking swell), but Ynes is mad about the boy nonetheless, in spite of the fact that Jolson's and Powell's characters are both carrying huge torches for her. In the meantime, another high roller has lost it all and is intent on having a great night out at the Wonder Bar before killing himself. A couple of stuffy old American couples, embodied by Guy Kibbee, Hugh Herbert, Ruth Donnelly, and Louise Fazenda, are intent on cheating on each other, and arrange appointments with gigolos and gigolettes in anticipation of knocking their spouses out via powders and/or philtres before going their adulterous ways. And so on.
Jewelry goes missing, Dolores brings the crazy in a dance number involving a whip, a murder is covered up by bring folded into a suicide, everybody goes home, and nobody gets laid.
All this and musical numbers by Busby Berkeley, in less than 90 minutes. Crazy. And yet there's something leaden about the whole thing. Jolson's lead performance is one problem. When he's actually trying to play lovelorn instead of doing schtick, he seems kind of bored.
The salient feature of the film, finally, is its ultimate musical number, the notorious "Going To Heaven On A Mule." A few scenes prior to this, the heady ethnic stew from which Jolson concocted his varied performing personae is underscored in a bit where he exchanged patter with "Russian count" Michael Dalmatoff before launching into a quite credible (that is, suitably schmaltzy) rendition of "Ochi chyornye" ("Dark Eyes"). For "Mule," Jolson's in full blackface, with overalls and a straw hat, talking to his little girl (a white child, also in blackface) of his dying intentions. What follows is a thoroughly outrageous parade of racial stereotypes and caricatures of the afterlife—an orchard from which pork chops hang from trees! giant watermelons! non-stop crap games! in all-singing, all-dancing glory, accompanied by one of Harry Warren's least infectious tunes. There's one interlude where, emerging from an arrangement of giant watermelon slices (Berkeley would refine his huge-fruit tropes into something less overtly offensive in The Gang's All Here, with Carmen Miranda presiding over scads of jumbo-sized Technicolor strawberries and bananas), famed "blackface dancer" (he's got a top billing in the film) Hal Le Roy does a frantic tap dance, his bare legs in black makeup. But in a way, the hands-down most bizarre image of the entire sequence is a weird double-joke on ethnic identity, which see's Jolson's blackfaced share-cropper getting a shoe-shine while engrossed in the Hebrew-language newspaper The Forward.
What makes the number even more upsetting is its context, or lack thereof. The world of the film Mammy was in fact, a minstrel show; this film takes place in a Paris bar. Powell's character introduces "Mule" by calling it "one of the characteristic numbers for which [Al Wonder] is famous." Which, for a contemporary viewer, sends the message (as they say) that elaborate expressions of racial hostility were par for the course in café society entertainment for the time. What kind of world is this, one may ask, with good reason.
These questions get more knotty when one considers what Jolson was doing as a singer—ostensibly paying homage to African-American stylings and innovations. A few years after Wonder Bar, Jolson played a kind of version of himself in The Singing Kid, which opens with an extended medley of Jolson hits, sung both in and out of blackface, before presenting a duet between a Jolson in mufti and genuine African-American singer and bandleader Cab Calloway, who trade verses of "I Love To Sing-a." Is this somehow by way of apology? Not necessarily; Jolson treats Calloway with the respect of an equal, but goes on to black up anyway later in the picture. Nothing is renounced; the notion of blackface as an offensive cultural desecration isn't considered. It's just a showbiz tradition, according to the world of these films.
Which is odd, and unsettling, and ought to be discussed. And is difficult to discuss without having the actual cultural artifacts at hand. And does having the actual cultural artifacts easily at hand give material comfort to contemporary racist forces? I couldn't say what a rigorous survey of those who've bought Wonder Bar and The Singing Kid from the Warner Archives would uncover, but my gut says, "Not so much." Which is not to say that we ought to expect, or even hope for, an official DVD release containing "Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarves" any time soon. And as for Song of the South, forget it.
UPDATE: My old friend Joseph Failla weighs in with some thoughts, starting with a reminiscence of the fellow who kick-started our mutual Jolson obsessions (Joe calls it "this Jolson thing of ours") back in grammar school in Dumont, New Jersey, in the late '60s-early '70s. A fellow we'll refer to here only as A. , an ace Jolson impersonator who used to rent 16mm prints of the likes of Mammy and Big Boy and screen them in the basement of the Dumont Public Library to not-quite-captive audiences of film nerds such as myself. He later did the Student Talent show at Dumont High in '72 as Jolie in full blackface and, as Eno sang in a different context, "There was hardly a raised eyebrow."
A. had a problematic home life. I recall once that he begged me, a latchkey kid, to let him borrow my house keys so he could play hookie and go to my place to watch Rose of Washington Square on WWOR Channel 9 one afternoon. Years later, when I lived in Lake Hopatcong, I and some pals drove to a friend's house to watch A. do his Jolson act on the same WWOR Channel 9's "The Joe Franklin Show," but we never saw the bit, as our host's dog pretty much chewed off the upper lip of one friend before the segment began. Like the song says, "Memories..."
Anyway, here's Joe: