That corner of my sensibility that I sometimes refer to as "my weird Al Jolson thing?" It all began with Aaron. I'd known him slightly since grade school, a blustery, larger-than-life fellow who was a fan/scholar of vintage musicals of all sorts—he was the kid who once borrowed the key to my house so he could play hooky and go over there and watch Rose Of Washington Square on the box (both my parents worked days). Not merely an Al Jolson nut, he was a fantastic Jolson impersonator, and his greatest triumph in a high-school theatrical career full of triumphs (including a raucous turn as Luther Billis in Dumont High's production of South Pacific) was the Jolson act he did at S.O. (for "Student Organization") Night in early February of '74. Singing "Mammy," "Rock-a-bye Your Baby," and "California, Here I Come..." in a period suit, white gloves, string tie...and full blackface. Not only did nobody care about the blackface (Dumont was a pretty lily-white town, and in the '74 high school yearbook I only count a total of three African-American students; as for teachers, forget about it), but Aaron completely brought down the house. He was just the third performer of the first act, but he pretty much defined the show. Not even the spectacle of Aaron's younger brother in drag, with Larry Golden and Mark Zecca similarly arrayed, doing the Andrews Sisters doing "Rum and Coca-Cola," could touch Aaron's white socks.
As some American high-schoolers may be aware, it's tough when you peak in your junior year. Which is, effectively, what Aaron had done. As my friend Joseph Failla recalled in a recent conversation, "After 'S.O. Night' there was no where else to go, right away, so Aaron just kept preaching the Jolie gospel to whoever would listen."
Hence, bugging the Dumont Public Library into letting him introduce at least one screening of a Jolson picture. Which is how I first saw Mammy. A film I found very befuddling, and continued to be befuddled by for many years.
The musician and artist Peter Blegvad once did a series of graphics pieces in which he'd depict a particular object first as he imagined it, then as he actually observed it, and finally (after putting away the first two depictions for a sufficient period of time) as he remembered it. My remembrance of Mammy for lo these many years has been of a film almost entirely black. That is, I remember the minstrel show scenes as being black-on-black; men in black suits with blackened faces "entertaining" in front of black backgrounds. I remember Jolson's character unjustly accused of murder early on, and fleeing from his compatriots, and throwing a black pistol into a black gutter and boarding a black train into the black night. I remember the film as entirely dreary, and slow. And I remember being convulsed, in an almost Lynchian manner, by a minstrel show exchange wherein the interlocuter asks one of the panel how he feels. "Why, ah feels like the inside of a stove," the fellow says.
"What do you mean, you feel like the inside of a stove?"
And I remember a gargantuan pause, and the fellow straining to come up with an answer. Which he finally, lamely, does.
"Ah...ah feels grate."
I remember going into extremely loud hysterics at that, not because it was at all funny but because it was so painfully awkward. And that's how I've remembered Mammy for all these years, to the extent that I didn't even bother to revisit it when I got that Jolson laserdisc box set back in 1990. A couple of years back, I remember having a conversation with a film scholar with chops a whole lot better than mine, and rather confidently proclaiming Mammy as Michael Curtiz's worst film. "Oh, I don't know," he said, kindly, and proceeded to whip off about a half-dozen other titles.
Memory is a funny thing. Mammy has just been released in a spanking new transfer by the Warner Archive...and while as Curtiz pictures go, it's no Mildred Pierce, it's no disgrace, either. It's got its share of weirdly awkward moments that were not uncommon in early sound films—the backstage bit wherein Jolson's character asks his boss for a salary advance to send his mother is played explicitly as a bit, rather than something happening in the film's story, even though, as I said, the action is occuring backstage. And while my recollection of the film was no doubt influenced by the fact that the version I saw the first time was in all likelihood a 16mm dupe of a dupe of a dupe, the difference between this and pretty much every other Mammy anybody's ever seen is, well, staggering. The top screen grab shows Jolson's character, golden-throated Al Fuller, star attraction of the down-at-its-heels outfit Meadow's Merry Minstrels, greeting the meager crowd that's watched them parade into town in the rain, with "Let Me Sing And I'm Happy," one of many Irving Berlin tunes contained herein. The picture is in fact based on a play by Berlin. (And hence tends to make me recollect one of the funniest "2000 Year Old" man bits ever, in which Mel Brooks imitates a frantic Jolson making a long-distance phone call to Berlin. But I digress.) And below, there's minstrel Hank (Mitchell Lewis), having just delivered the infamous "I feels grate" line, and well pleased with himself (he's at right).
Well, look at that background! The movie, rather than being black-on-black, actually had production value after all! And the exchange, while still (deliberately) lame, is in fact pretty snappy. (As foreign as the material had to have been to the Hungarian-born director Curtiz, his pacing remained deft.) Below you'll see the cricket-like reaction to the "grate" line from the audience. The fellow with the mustache on the left, with his thumbs under his vest, is Jack Curtis, as a sheriff who attempts to shut the show down.
This release is an interesting one from the Warner Archive in many respect, one of which is that it represents an unusual first—never before has the video-on-demand division been responsible for releasing what, for all intents and purposes, is a major restoration. Because that's what this is, and that's why it looks so good...and that's why Mammy is the last of the big Jolson pictures to come out via the Archive. This version not only restores the sound and picture of its black-and-white components, but it restores an almost twenty-minute sequence that was in two-strip Technicolor, and has been unseen by audiences for, well, eighty years. The restoration was done from a nitrate print that was discovered in the Netherlands back around the turn of the decade, which Warner's George Feltenstein (a maven on Warner musicals, besides everything else great that he does) had Warner's Motion Picture Imaging department and the UCLA Film and Television Archives work on. (One challenge: all the title cards on this heretofore unknown print were, natch, in Dutch.) The Technicolor sequence in question is about an hour or so into the film, and depicts not just a long bit from the minstrel show, but a consequential piece of dramatic action—Fuller's framing for the on-stage murder of the show's interlocutor, Billy West (Lowell Sherman).
It's all fascinating and strangely beautiful stuff, a real window into a bygone era in all its ostensible glory...and, yes, all its ugliness too. As a press pitch for this disc points out, the Warner Archive Collection is "the perfect distribution arm for a film whose political (in)sensitivity may make it inappropriate for mainstream audiences, but whose historical importance makes it a ‘must-own’ for niche fans and historians." One could ponder this problem for days on end and not reach an entirely satisfactory conclusion, but I think this one is as good as your going to get. I hardly believe that a Mammy released in any context would provide much useful fodder for white supremacists. Same for the more racially dicey Little Rascals pictures that have recently surfaced under the Warner Archive banner. Although I doubt even this scrupulously scholarly approach will suffice to justify an authorized release of certain Looney Tunes shorts. In any event, you know if you are the audience for this particular piece. You may, in fact, be an audience for it without even knowing it. Far as I'm concerned, after almost a hundred years, that Jolson's still got a way of selling a song...