Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website.

Ask most movie fans. "What was the first 'talkie'?" and the most frequent reply has always been The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jolson. This is a "sort of" correct answer, but not really.

The earliest sound movies were made by synchronizing motion pictures to phonograph records. In 1926 (a year before The Jazz Singer), Warner Brother re-released the previous silent film Don Juan. Don Juan was shown with a soundtrack recording done by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Warner Brothers also released the first actual all-talking, feature-length motion picture in 1928. It was called Lights of New York. The following year, Twentieth-Century Fox released In Old Arizona, the first all-talkie feature with sound recorded directly on the film

The Jazz Singer was actually a silent movie with poorly synchronized musical numbers and a few sentences of spoken words. One of the main reasons The Jazz Singer is such a legendary film is because of its star: the immortal Al Jolson. Jolson was, by all accounts, the Elvis Presley of his time. At the time of The Jazz Singer's release, Jolson was one of the biggest stars in show business. (As a sidebar, Jolson did make several films after The Jazz Singer, but none came close to it in popularity or historical significance.)

Many current movie fans are familiar, at least somewhat, with Jolson and his show business legacy, but he had few current-day fans. This is mainly because Jolson's schtick was the "blackface" act, which is, to contemporary movie fans, silly and disgusting. "Blackface," which is captured for posterity in many films of the first half of the 20th century, is a sad reminder to most people of the ridicule and mistreatment of African-Americans. Such a thing would be unimaginable today.

Jolson didn't always use blackface in his act, but because most people of today only know him by The Jazz Singer, his reputation today is that of, while maybe not racist, still, a symbol of a very backward time. Also, Jolson's singing style, unlike that of Elvis, Frank Sinatra, or Dean Martin, does not hold up well. His songs seem rather hockey and schmaltzy. His singing style is clipped and choppy, not melodic. His dance moves also look rather silly and dated -as you see here:

An early musical number in The Jazz Singer. (YouTube link)

Supposedly, Jolson was not a nice man in real life, either. Most of his fellow performers say he was deeply insecure. According to his contemporary Groucho Marx, Jolson was so insecure that he would leave the water faucet running in his dressing room during performances, so he couldn't hear the applause for the acts before his.

During his Broadway appearances, Jolson would often stop the show in the middle and say to the audience, "Hey folks, do you want to hear the rest of the show or do you want to hear Jolie sing?" The crowd would inevitably applaud and cheer for the show to stop. At this point, "Jolie" (Jolsons's nickname) would sing some songs to the wildly appreciative crowd. One wonders how the rest of the cast of these shows reacted to his incredible display. Many were probably upset, but I imagine some must have enjoyed taking the rest of the night off." Man, what an ego -to pull off a stunt like that- and routinely, yet!

Jolson really wasn't such a great guy -or was he? No one is all bad (or all good). Al Jolson, like the rest of us, was not black-and-white (forgive the pun). Jolson was, ironically, an early crusader for the rights of African-Americans in show business. He insisted on the hiring and fair treatment of blacks at a time when it was far from the norm.  

Jolson crusaded for equal rights for African-Americans as early as 1911, when he was 25 years old. This was long before an "equal treatment" idea for African-Americans (in show business or anywhere else) was chic or fashionable. Jolson actually paved the way for the success of such legends as Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway.

Jolson was also the first entertainer to entertain the troops in World War II. A few years later, he also became the first entertainer to entertain the troops during the Korean War. Yes, even before Bob Hope!

In his later years, Jolson led a contented life of semiretirement. He remained a huge legend and icon. Even as late as 1948, with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and other singers on the scene, Jolson was voted America's "most popular male singer" in a prominent poll.

Jolson's life was the subject of a very popular film in 1947 called The Jolson Story. The film actually tried to explain the reason why blackface style singing was so popular with so many singers of the early part of the century. While still a bit awkward in retrospect, the tribute to Jolson and his legacy is quite fascinating and often touching. One realizes that while the writers of the film are trying to explain blackface to the viewers, one also suspects they are trying to explain it to themselves.

Al Jolson died after entertaining the troops in1950. He left a wife and two newly-adopted children. A "villain" to many in these very politically correct times, Jolson is, to even his most staunch supporters, a controversial figure. The truth is, Al Jolson was much like us all -a mixed bag.

Al Jolson performs the song "Mammy" in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer. (YouTube link)       

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Great story. Jolson's appeal is evident in the "Toot, Toot, Tootsie" video. He's not supposed to be a great singer or dancer. He's a comic!
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