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Al Jolson: A Megastar Long Buried Under a Layer of Blackface
By TED GIOIA
Monica Almeida/ The New York Times
A statue of Al Jolson near his grave site in Los Angeles.
'Bamboozled': Trying On Blackface in a Flirtation With Fire (Oct. 6, 2000)
N a Sunday night in September 1918, the great operatic tenor Enrico Caruso stepped onstage at the Century Theater in New York to perform as part of a special program put on by the Army Tank Corps Welfare League. Caruso dazzled the audience with his rendition of Italian war songs, before launching into a surprising finale, the patriotic tune "Over There," which left the audience in a state of frenzy.
Who could follow this performance by the greatest singer of his day? The composer of "Over There," George M. Cohan, was also part of the program, but even he must have feared the prospect of matching this version of his most famous song. But one daring soul bounded out from off stage, looked impishly at the audience and confidently told the crowd: "Folks, you ain't heard nothin' yet." This single line, proclaimed by the 32-year-old Al Jolson, brought down the house, and before long the audience had all but forgotten about the great Caruso, as it responded to the man who was already being billed as "The World's Greatest Entertainer."
Almost a decade later, Jolson used the same line as part of his historic performance in "The Jazz Singer," a film that signaled the transition from silent to sound motion pictures. Here, Jolson's quip served as more than just personal boasting; it was a symbolic proclamation of the promising future of "talking" motion pictures. What a glorious future it was destined to be: everything about Hollywood movies turned out bigger and brasher than even Jolson could have imagined at the time.
But Al Jolson's own future would be far more problematic. A half-century after his death, on Oct. 23, 1950, one expects few memorials and public events to commemorate it. The man who was once the most popular entertainer in America certainly lives on in the public imagination, but increasingly as an egregious symbol of political incorrectness. Jolson was no saint, as all but his most ardent defenders are quick to admit. Even during his lifetime, he was deprecated for a host of vices, from selfishness to overweening pride. But with the passing years, these diminish in comparison to his chief transgression: his persistent use of the burnt-cork makeup commonly known as blackface.
Want to shock an audience in our jaded modern age? Forget "The Vagina Monologues." Don't bother reciting the complete litany of four-letter words. Instead, try performing in blackface. The controversy generated by Spike Lee's latest movie, "Bamboozled," which tries to wring humor out of the blackface tradition while also satirizing it, is only the latest in a series of instances in which the burnt-cork makeup has inflamed passions. Ted Danson faced even greater hostility after performing in blackface for a Friar's Club roast of Whoopi Goldberg in 1993. Although the stunt was planned with Ms. Goldberg's compliance, Mr. Danson was widely criticized. In recent years, several other related scandals have resulted in public outcry, ranging from the suspension of two New York firefighters and a policeman, the firing of a Wal-Mart manager in Washington and the disciplining of fraternity members in Georgia all for incidents involving blackface. While other performing taboos fall by the wayside, this one remains ever more strongly in force.
If blackface has its shameful poster boy, it is Al Jolson. Many other 20th-century performers from Shirley Temple to Bing Crosby donned the makeup for various roles, but Jolson adopted it as a core part of his public persona. From vaudeville to the cinema, Jolson brought his minstrel makeup kit with him. Although he frequently performed without burnt cork, it is the image of Jolson's black face and white-gloved outstretched palms that lives on in popular memory.
Jolson deserves better. His performances included less race-baiting and hate-mongering than any given hour with Chris Rock or Howard Stern, relying instead on his electric stage presence and sheer enthusiasm for pleasing his fans. Even his biggest detractors granted that Jolson, the supposed egomaniac, saved his kindest, gentlest moods for his moments onstage. He truly had little knack for the ridicule, irony and sarcasm that racist humor requires for its effect.
Instead, Jolson aimed to make each of his shows into a lovefest, lavishing his audiences with affection and giving them everything, even if he stinted in his off-stage relations with family and friends. Jolson himself was aware of this contrast between his private life and his public persona, and it even became an important theme of his most famous performance in "The Jazz Singer" and the later autobiographical film, "The Al Jolson Story."
Although Jolson did not star in the latter film, he did supply the vocal track, to which the actor Larry Parks lip-synced his part. Even at this late age Jolson was 60 when the film was released he showed that he had lost none of his magic. The scenes in which Jolson sings overshadow the rest of the film. The later Jolson had developed a deep resonance in the lower part of his range, perhaps to compensate for his inability to belt out high notes as he had in earlier years. Audiences responded with enthusiasm to the film, which proved to be the highest-grossing movie in one of Hollywood's most memorable years outdistancing other 1946 releases like "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Big Sleep," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Notorious" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice."
These late-career achievements only make us wish all the more that we were better able to evaluate Jolson in his prime. His finest work from his early career may be legendary, but like most legends it comes to us mostly by word of mouth, with little documentation to give it substance. Jolson's career in "talking movies" did not begin until he was 41 years old. Unlike today's stars, who draw on every tool of art and science to resist the ravages of time, Jolson looks very much middle-aged in his films, with a receding hairline and an unhealthy pallor to his potato-shaped face. At first glance, it's hard to understand his appeal based on his paltry looks and meager acting skills. But his performance is lackluster only until his singing scenes, when Jolson's features light up and he exudes an almost boyish charm. He looks years younger when he sings, his body seems charged with an unnatural vitality, and his reputation for being the greatest entertainer of his day suddenly seems credible.
These few scenes provide us with our closest glimpse of the Jolson who captivated Broadway, who dazzled London and who left behind ardent admirers in virtually every city where he appeared onstage in his prime years. When the Imperial, on 59th Street across from Central Park, was renamed in his honor in 1921, Jolson created a sensation on opening night, called back by the audience for no fewer than 37 curtain calls. An account from a 1916 newspaper describes another Jolson success: "I have never heard such cheering and such genuine enthusiasm given to a performer or a performance in all my experience as a theatergoer, which covers a period of more than 20 years. To be exact, Mr. Jolson stopped the show three times, and in each instance a scene was delayed and the audience simply wouldn't allow the performance to proceed. Mr. Jolson had to plead with the audience. Some of the people in the audience stood up, cheered and threw hats in the air simultaneously during the second act."
Jolson went to great lengths to maximize the impact of his stage appearances. He demanded that a long runway be constructed, allowing him to move into the midst of the audience. He did not hesitate to change the course of a performance to satisfy the crowd's demands, sometimes singing on into the night, long after the show was supposed to be finished. Above all, he used every resource his body could muster to deepen the impression he made, orchestrating his face, his eyes, his limbs, his voice to amplify the intended effect. The vibrato of his voice, for instance, is so often accompanied by a tremulous motion of his body. His gestures were sometimes so dramatic that they have become almost inseparable from our image of Jolson: the out-stretched arms, palms facing outward, the genuflection on one knee in front of his fans.
Despite these virtues, Jolson was in many ways an unlikely choice to lead the cinema into the modern age. An indifferent actor, he was at his worst when reciting dialogue a limitation that became painfully obvious in films that, after all, were distinguished for being "talkies." His gesticulations and movements were far better suited for the stage, where Jolson could project to the back row. In contrast he lacked the subtle modulations and nuances that bring vitality to close-up camera work. He was too old to play the romantic lead roles that, then as now, are the building blocks of Hollywood stardom. most of all, his long-standing use of blackface made Jolson seem like the last representative of the 19th century, not a harbinger of the brave new world of multimedia entertainment.
But even here, the matter is more complex than first meets the eye. In some respects, "The Jazz Singer" is daringly forward-looking. This story, which matches Jolson's own biography in many respects, tells of a young singer, Jack Robin, forced to decide between applying his talents to the synagogue, where his family had served as cantors for many generations, or to the stage as a popular entertainer. Yes, the acting is melodramatic and over- drawn, but the underlying themes of the anguish of assimilation, the complex emotions of ethnic pride, the conflict between tradition and modern ways are far deeper than the ones Hollywood routinely treats these days. And these issues have lost none of their pointedness at the dawn of the 21st century.
The irony is, of course, that Jolson is most derided for his insensitivity to issues of race and ethnicity. In fact, his career was distinguished by a more heartfelt understanding of these matters than the vast majority of his contemporaries. Even in the cinematic scenes most lambasted, for instance when Jolson sings "My Mammy" in blackface toward the close of "The Jazz Singer," the symbolic resonance is more open-ended than the stereotyped image might suggest. The scene comes when Robin is singing to his own mother, Sara, who sits in the audience, and deals more directly with the issue of Jewish assimilation and the family tensions it creates than with any attempt to demean blacks a theme that, in fact, plays no part in "The Jazz Singer."
Was Jolson a racist? Although he was guilty of many faults, Jolson showed no overt signs of ethnic hatred. Indeed, the songwriter and performer Noble Sissle, a longtime partner of the ragtime pioneer Eubie Blake, recalled Jolson's unprompted act of kindness after a Hartford restaurant refused to serve the two black musicians. A local newspaper mentioned the incident, and, Sissle later recalled: "To our everlasting amazement, we promptly got a call from Al Jolson. He was in town with his show and even though we were two very unimportant guys whom he'd never heard of until that morning, he was so sore about that story he wanted to make it up to us." The next evening, Jolson treated Sissle and Blake to dinner, insisting that "he'd punch anyone in the nose who tried to kick us out."
But what about the blackface? Some of Jolson's defenders have argued that the tradition reflected here is as old as Plautus and classical Rome, if not older: the theatrical presentation of the slave as comic and a sly commentator on the world of masters and rulers. "Jolson has recreated an ancient type," Gilbert Seldes said in 1923, "the scalawag servant with his surface dullness and hidden cleverness."
Jolson's own reasons for adopting blackface were more prosaic. After struggling as a young man to make his mark in vaudeville, Jolson tried the burnt-cork makeup, almost out of desperation, in late 1904. A fellow performer had counseled him that wearing blackface was like putting on a mask one looked, and even felt, more like a performer. The advice proved tremendously helpful: Jolson was energized by the new look; his stage demeanor became markedly more spontaneous, and audiences responded with enthusiasm. From that time on, Jolson continued to use burnt-cork makeup, perhaps not through any desire to degrade blacks, but simply to enhance the theatrical qualities of his performances.
Such justifications, however, make scant headway in today's atmosphere of greater sensitivity to matters of race and ethnicity. In an age when even "Huckleberry Finn" can be castigated as a racist work, one can hardly expect Al Jolson's reputation to be rehabilitated any time soon. Indeed, what Jolson intended may be interesting to the scholar or psychologist, but what his use of burnt cork represented to the mass public is a larger issue. Blackface evokes memories of the most unpleasant side of racial relations, and of an age in which white entertainers used the makeup to ridicule black Americans while brazenly borrowing from the rich black musical traditions that were rarely allowed direct expression in mainstream society.
This is heavy baggage for Al Jolson. True, he was the comeback kid of his day. His cinema career revitalized his flagging popularity in the late 1920's, just as "The Al Jolson Story" brought him back into the limelight 20 years later. Even after his death, Jolson somehow managed to keep center stage, commemorated in a huge monumental grave site within eyesight of the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles, dazzling thousands of commuters daily with a six- pillar structure towering over a 120-foot waterfall. Here, one finds an almost life-size statue of Jolson down on one knee with palms outspread, almost as if he is imploring motorists to give him one more chance. Perhaps they will some day, but for the time being Jolson promises to be remembered less for his talent, and more for his makeup.
Ted Gioia is the author of ``The History of Jazz'' and ``West Coast Jazz.''