My songs mean as much to my audience as yours do to your congregation

J. Hoberman

  • Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot by Michael Rogin
    California, 320 pp, $24.95, May 1996, ISBN 0 520 20407 7

Is there anything stranger than a pop star out of time? Before Elvis Presley, before Michael Jackson, there was Al Jolson – ‘the most popular entertainer of the first half of the 20th century,’ as Michael Rogin describes him. Eyes wide and mouth agape, arms outstretched and face painted black, Jolson concludes his performance in The Jazz Singer (1927) down on one knee, serenading the delighted actress who plays his mother in a voice as strong and piercing as a foghorn.

It is this curious icon which inspired Rogin’s formidable book. The Jolson who starred in Hollywood’s first feature-length partial-talkie – the movie which sounded the death knell for silent cinema – is himself a historical monument ‘condensing into a single figure the structures of white supremacist racial integration that built the United States: black labour in the realm of production, inter-racial nurture and sex (the latter as both a private practice and unifying public prohibition) in the realm of reproduction, and blackface minstrelsy in the realm of culture’. How did it happen?

Born in a Lithuanian shtetl some time in the mid-1880s, brought to America as a child on the crest of the great Jewish emigration from the Russian Pale, Jolson was the second son of an impoverished cantor (from a family of cantors), who escaped his father’s home to become a child saloon singer. By the first decade of the 20th century, he had assimilated the oldest conventions of New World show business – the burnt-cork make-up that was the central characterisation of America’s first indigenous theatrical form, the ‘mother song’ that had given sentimental comfort to three generations of pioneers – and imbued them with a ferocious vitality.

Jolson’s avant-garde introduction of syncopated ‘coon shouting’ into the dying world of the minstrel show had the same explosive effect on audiences that Presley’s fusion of black and white rural idioms would have nearly half a century later. As a performer Jolson inspired out-and-out impersonation. In the early days of his success, his black-faced, mammy-singing disciples included not only Eddie Cantor, George Burns, George Jessel and Sophie Tucker, but the future movie mogul Harry Cohn, the young Walter Winchell and his own older brother. Signed by the Shubert Brothers in 1911, Jolson was the first product of the bastard forms of vaudeville and minstrel show to be legitimised on Broadway’s Great White Way, where he addressed his audience with an unprecedented, aggressive familiarity – perching on the stage apron, jumping out among the spectators.

The Jolson story is at the heart of Blackface, White Noise, which is in many ways the narrative of The Jazz Singer. A cantor’s son from the Jewish slums of New York’s Lower East Side breaks with a thousand years of tradition and reinvents himself as ‘The World’s Greatest Entertainer’ by applying burnt cork and singing about his ‘Mammy from Alabammy’. In projecting the Jolson story on the movie screens of the world, The Jazz Singer also laid the foundations for a corporate giant. In April 1926, Warner Brothers – a scrappy minor studio whose major asset was the trained dog Rin-Tin-Tin – had formed a partnership with Western Electric, creating the Vitaphone Corporation for which, over the next few years, Sam Warner would produce scores of one and two-reel ‘Acts’ (mainly solo vaudeville performers, Jolson among them) with synchronous sound-on-disc accompaniment. That summer, the first Vita-phone programme – eight shorts (ranging from a speech by industry spokesman Will Hays to the overture to Tannhäuser to a song by novelty guitarist Roy Smeck), plus the feature-length Don Juan – had its première at the Warner Theatre in New York. Warners’ Vitaphone-experiment proved successful: a second programme opened in October, a third in February. Now the Warners were ready to produce a feature with music and incidental dialogue. On the advice of their top contract director Ernst Lubitsch, the brothers paid $50,000 for the rights to Samson Raphaelson’s The Jazz Singer which, though dismissed by Hearst’s New York American as ‘a garish and tawdry Hebrew play’, had run for a season on Broadway with George Jessel in the lead.

The Warners protected their investment by hiring Jolson himself to undertake a psycho-dramatic re-enactment of his youth, which is why The Jazz Singer retains the aura of a religious relic. (For years it was the only pre-1930 Hollywood movie – save Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings – regularly shown on American commercial television.) As such, it opens on a mournful note. To the accompaniment of a plaintive pseudo-semitic melody, a series of intertitles identifies the Jews as ‘a race older than civilisation’ whose culture is threatened by a new urban music which is ‘perhaps, the misunderstood utterance of prayer’. It is erev Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on New York’s Lower East Side and 13-year-old Jakie, son of Cantor and Sarah Rabinowitz, is to chant Kol Nidre in his father’s synagogue. Cut to Jakie performing ‘My Gal Sal’ in a local saloon. The cantor arrives, drags him home by his ear and there, despite Sarah’s supplications, administers the strap. Tearful Jakie runs away even as his father’s prayer wells up on the soundtrack.

A decade or more passes. In a studio reconstruction of Coffee Dan’s, San Francisco show business hang-out of the era, Jolson makes his first appearance as the mature Jakie, now known as Jack Robin. The entire scene is redolent of his liberation from tribal taboo. Jack wolfs down an unkosher breakfast with ragtime ebullience, turns a lusty eye on his gentile patroness and then launches into ‘Toot, Toot, Tootsie’ with lascivious assurance. But Jack’s attachment to the past is brought home by the next musical sequence: while on tour, he is drawn to a hall where the celebrated cantor Yosele Rosenblatt, himself an occasional vaudeville performer, is giving a concert.

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