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.

This ambivalence is further developed when, called to Broadway, Jack triumphantly returns to New York, heading immediately for the Lower East Side where, as a title informs us, ‘for those whose faces are turned towards the past, the years roll by unheeded.’ Finding his mother home alone, the Jazz Singer springs from her embrace to the parlour piano for a strenuous rendition of ‘Blue Skies’. In her only authentic moment in the film, Eugenie Besserer seems utterly flummoxed as Jolson interrupts the song midway to steal a kiss, promise her a new pink dress, offer her a new apartment in the Bronx, tempt her with a trip to Coney Island, all the while vamping on the keyboard.

It is this brief spoken interlude which is credited with destroying silent cinema. Already primed on the show-biz sensations of Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight and Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs, the 1927 audience reached a new plateau of hysteria. Although The Jazz Singer’s profit margin has been overestimated (by Rogin as well), the movie instantly established Warners as a powerful force in the industry and set off a scramble among the other studios to wire their theatres for sound. One of the first to grasp the implications of The Jazz Singer was the struggling animator Walt Disney, who released the first sound cartoon the following summer – a vehicle for the ‘white-gloved and black faced’ Mickey Mouse, as Rogin notes. Thus, the world’s two largest entertainment conglomerates – Time Warner and Walt Disney/Capital – were founded on a form of double ventriloquy, the unprecedented moving images of blackface minstrels.

The Jazz Singer’s mother-son reunion is broken when Cantor Rabinowitz appears and, catching his wife and Jack together at the piano, cries ‘Stop!’ – whereupon the film abruptly reverts to silence. The cantor denounces the jazz-singing prodigal. At first Jack attempts to pacify his father by suggesting that America transcends Jewishness: ‘If you were born here, you would feel as I do.’ But when the cantor accuses him of apostasy, a startlingly blunt title appears: ‘My songs mean as much to my audience as yours do to your congregation!’ This point is literalised on the afternoon of Jack’s Broadway opening which is, with cosmic inevitability and comic improbability, erev Yom Kippur. In the midst of Jack’s final rehearsal, his mother comes backstage to inform him that only by singing Kol Nidre in synagogue that night can he save his dying father (and, by extension, the Jewish community). Refusing this request, the freshly-blackened Jack rushes madly onstage and hurtles through the chorus line to intone a fevered incantation of mother worship, ‘Mother of Mine’. He is now the full-blown essence of ‘Jolson-ness’. Finishing the song to tumultuous acclaim, the tormented Jazz Singer returns to his dressing room where, gazing into the mirror, he sees not a blackfaced minstrel but a synagogue filled with praying Jews and realises he must return to the Lower East Side ‘before the sun is out of the sky.’ His producer warns him that, if he walks out, he will never play Broadway, but Jack elects to chant Kol Nidre.

It is this prayer which ends The Jazz Singer as it ran on Broadway, toured the country, and was televised in 1959 with Jerry Lewis in the tide role: the repentant son replaces his dying father as cantor, who had in turn replaced his father, who had in turn ... It was a ritual, sentimentalised affirmation of eternal Jewishness even in the thick of the New World. The film, however, provides a dreamlike reversal in which, back in blackface and back on Broadway, Jack goes down on one knee to sing ‘Mammy’ as Mama herself sits in the audience, the Cantor gone for ever from the picture.

If the movies are a literature, Jolson must be considered among the texts. Rogin, who teaches political science at Berkeley, is perhaps the most forceful and original left-wing historian of American cinema. Largely free of nostalgia (except, perhaps, for the culture of the Popular Front), he is also unafraid to take the movies seriously – or, indeed, overinterpret them. His long, justly celebrated essay on the movie career of Ronald Reagan, his analysis of The Birth of a Nation and his meditations on Cold War anti-Communist movies are characterised by their lucidity, invention and historical depth. He locates the origins of The Jazz Singer a century before the movie’s release, in the age of Andrew Jackson. As the frontiersmen Daniel Boone and Natty Bumppo emerged as national heroes for an increasingly urban America, so the blackface minstrel show developed as ‘the first and most pervasive form of American mass culture’, playing to audiences on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. For some cultural historians, America is founded on the original sin of genocide; for Rogin, the sin is slavery. Blackface is a product of European imperialism and worse – a shocking form of dehumanisation, a vampire rite in which one people enacts possession of another. ‘Seen in blackface and from the South, the United States is at once a Herrenvolk republic, where racial subordination hides class inequality, and a capitalist society permeated by longing for a lost, pre-industrial, feudal home.’ Call it Dixieland.

Supplying the music (Stephen Foster’s remains the most well known) that might attend the birth of American nationalism, the minstrel show effectively affirmed a new national identity. ‘Minstrelsy accepted ethnic difference by insisting on racial division,’ Rogin writes. It transformed ‘immigrants into Americans by differentiating them from the black Americans through whom they spoke’. It was the blackface masquerade that paradoxically made it possible for immigrant Europeans – first the Irish and then the Jews – to pass. Rogin quotes James Baldwin: ‘No one was white before he/she came to America.’

It is customary to derive American movies from the low comedy and ethnic knockabout of late 19th-century vaudeville, as well as the mishmash of spectacular attractions that characterised staged melodrama. Rogin argues that American cinema was born of blackface: Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, and David O. Selznick’s 1939 super-production Gone with the Wind ‘provide the scaffolding for American film history’ – although it takes us no further than the eve of the Second World War. This reading of Hollywood is anticipated by Leslie Fiedler’s ‘inadvertent epic’ – the metatext constructed through the conflation of such subliterary bestsellers as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Rev Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman (the basis for The Birth of a Nation), Gone with the Wind and Alex Haley’s Roots – to which we can now add the O.J. Simpson trial.

Rogin does not extend his historical schema beyond 1948, after which it might be argued that TV and pop music (and particularly their first synthesis, Elvis Presley) pick up and reinvent the blackface story. He does, however, introduce a new concept in Hollywood history with the formulation of New Deal blackface. The last stage of cinematic blackface, metaphoric as well as literal, represents a Democratic coalition of northern ethnics and southern whites – whether manifest in the person of the immigrant-Jewish Jazz Singer singing about his Alabama home or the immigrant-Irish slave-owning O’Hara family striving to protect their plantation in Gone with the Wind. Rogin’s other examples include the Eddie Cantor showcase Whoopee! (1930); Will Rogers’s Judge Priest (1934); the movies that paired Shirley Temple with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson; the post-vaudeville musical Babes in Arms (1939); Holiday Inn, which featured ‘White Christmas’ (1942); and The Jazz Singer revisions, The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949). None has attracted much scholarly attention, although all were tremendously popular.

In dealing with much that has been repressed, Blackface, White Noise necessarily touches on two extremely sensitive subjects. The first is Jews and Hollywood. The irony of Neal Gabler’s title, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood – an account, among other things, of the ways in which immigrant Jewish entrepreneurs sought to demonstrate their Americanness – is lost when the book is cited by the Afrocentric theorist Leonard Jeffries or the Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Abdul Muhammed as proof of a Jewish conspiracy to malign African-Americans. Here, Rogin is not as forceful as he might be in explaining the ethnic dynamic in the grand Gesamtkunstwerk of American show business. That key figures in his argument such as D.W. Griffith, the studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck, the bandleader Paul Whiteman, the creators of the radio show ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’, and the Jolson impersonator Larry Parks were neither Jews nor immigrants suggests that some larger game was afoot.

In 1924, the year that Calvin Coolidge, with the support of the Klu Klux Klan, was elected President, and the nativist lobby succeeded in shutting the Golden Door, World’s Work magazine (which had run a series of articles characterising Jewish immigrants as the Typhoid Marys of political subversion) published The Jews in America – a book whose dust-jacket wondered whether, ‘with their un-American creed’, Jews ‘will ever be absorbed into the American commonwealth’. Absorbed yes, but also absorbing madly.

The immigrant Jew, liberated from the psychological shackles of Europe, had the option not only of exploring secular modes of Jewish-ness, but of submerging himself alongside other wildly disparate groups in the creation of a new national identity – what Rogin calls ‘melting pot culture’. One could argue that Chaplin’s Little Tramp was a form of Jewface while – in a more deliberate appropriation of Jewish identity – Irene Wallace, the first actress to specialise in Jewish roles, was actually (and was widely publicised as being) Scots-Irish. Nonetheless, three years after The Jazz Singer broke the sound barrier, Carl Jung remarked in a 1930 piece (‘Your Negroid and Indian Behaviour’) addressed to the American public that white Americans walked, talked, laughed and engaged in the ‘boundless noisy sociality’ of African Negroes.

This brings us to the book’s other touchy subject – the ambivalent relationship between American Jews and African Americans, one of the longest-running intellectual vaudeville shows in American life, which has inspired innumerable books, symposia. New York Times OpEd pieces, New Republic cover stories and a major exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York. Rogin argues that the Jewish affinity for blackface and the Jewish interest in civil rights both have their origins in the immigrant Jewish working-class encounter with American anti-semitism. ‘Like the Jewish struggle for racial justice ... urban entertainment created an alternative, polyglot world, in which the children of Jewish immigrants found new, cosmopolitan identities.’

The Jazz Singer, Rogin notes, is a misnomer except that, in the popular culture of the Twenties, jazz signified a ‘special Jewish/black interaction’. (Today we might simply call it showbiz.) Henry Ford’s virulently anti-semitic Dearborn Independent, which serialised The Protocols of the Elders of Zion for much of the Twenties, denounced ‘Jewish jazz’ as ‘the moron music of the Yiddish Trust’, comparing its ‘sly suggestion’ and ‘abandoned sensuous notes’ to the insidious corrupting power of those ‘Jewish’ motion pictures – ‘reeking of filth’ and ‘slimy with sex’. The notion of jazz as a particular Negro-Jewish symbiosis would be reiterated by the Nazis.

The interest in black music shown by Jewish popular composers – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Harold Arlen (as well as Benny Goodman, the white King of Swing) – was undeniably strong. Mark Slobin, who has written several invaluable accounts of Jewish music in America, points out that, in addition to Jolson, virtually every major Jewish-American entertainer of the Twenties – Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, even the Yiddish musical comedy star Molly Picon – made use of blackface: ‘Some of them explicitly state, in memoirs, the comfort they derived from putting on that all-American mask of burnt cork. In blackface, they were no longer the immigrant – they were one with the soul of America as represented by the grotesque co-optation of the slave’s persona.’ (Later, they might simply anglicise their names.)

‘In a decade when Jewish aggression was feared and blacks kept securely in their place,’ Rogan says, ‘and when white collegians considered blacks less aggressive than Jews, the black mask of deference enforced on one pariah group covered the ambition attributed to the other.’ The Jazz Singer, in other words, is a rite of initiation in which immigrant Jews learn to play Uncle Tom.

Although the change in the immigration laws effectively halted then influx, greenhorn Jews were common figures in American movies during the advent and early days of sound. Most, in a continuation of their vaudeville stereotype, were comic figures. Their children, however, were generally models of successful adaptation. Hollywood constructed ‘Americanism’ as an unproblematic process of assimilation and intermarriage – an idealisation of the mad taken by the movie moguls themselves.

The Jazz Singer is also a Jewish story. Even before the movie was exported, the play had entered the Yiddish theatrical repertoire in Poland. For Rogin, its ‘structuring absence’ is the question of anti-semitism. All of the hero’s problems, he points out, lie with his traditionalist father and none with the gentiles. This is not precisely true: the Jazz Singer is required to choose between Jewish law and Christian entertainment. There can be no compromise: the big show must go on, even if it is to open on the most sacred night of the Jewish calendar, despite the pleading of the Jewish community for its apostate to return. It is correct, however, to say that ‘Cantor Rabinowitz’s hostility to American entertainment is not balanced by any American hostility to Jews.’

Anti-semitism is an issue precisely because it does not exist in the world of The Jazz Singer. That a 1927 Hollywood movie would raise, let alone explore, the problem is only slightly less unlikely than the thought of a Cotton Club production number devoted to Nat Turner’s slave revolt. Indeed, Jews discreetly vanished altogether from the imaginary landscape of American movie screens a decade before the Nazi project attempted to have them vanish from the world. Even after the Second World War, a mild statement such as Gentlemen’s Agreement (1946) could only have been produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, the most prominent gentile mogul in Hollywood.

The quintessential American must rebel against the rule of the father, the traditional Jew accepts it. The Jazz Singer is a metaphorical account of Jewish modernisation – it illustrates the secularising of religious impulses and the ensuing crisis in Jewish identity. The cantorate was a major site for the struggle between the sacred and the secular. ‘A cantor is not an actor,’ Sholom Aleichem explains in Yosele Solovey, his 1889 novel about a young khazan’s rise and fall.

Jews certainly love to hear good singing, admire virtuosity and vocal feats in the synagogue; however, the cantor must never forget he is called sheliekh tsiber, a messenger of the congregation, an advocate, a representative, and consequently the congregation demands of him that he be a person of impeccable virtue, a respectable Jew, not a profligate. A house of worship is not a theatre.

A cantor is not an actor, a synagogue is not a theatre. Yet the archetypal Yiddish stage performer is a cantor’s son or daughter. The Polish-Yiddish diva, Ester-Rokhl Kaminska, was the child of a cantor, as is the actress heroine of Sholom Aleichem’s Wandering Stars. Yiddish theatre stars Boris Thomashefsky and Sigmund Mogulesko, the American Yiddish composer Sholom Secunda, and the Soviet Yiddish poet Peretz Markish were all either cantors’ sons or child-cantors or both.

The prominence of the cantor had steadily increased throughout the diaspora despite rabbinical disapproval. By the time Sholom Aleichem wrote Yosele Solovey, virtuoso cantors were venerated as stars. But, as if in recognition of the Old Testament injunction against idolatry, such celebrity invited punishment. The clearest case was Yoel-Dovid Levinshteyn-Strashunsky (1816-50), popularly known as the Vilner Balebesl for his marriage at 13 to the daughter of a wealthy Vilna merchant. (Balebesl is the diminutive for balebos, from the Hebrew for master of the house.) Legend has it that, while on tour, Strashunsky fell in love with a Polish singer and eloped with her to Vienna. This impetuous affair cost the cantor his voice and his sanity. He returned east a mute penitent, wandering from shtetl to shtetl before his solitary death in an asylum.

In Mark Amshteyn’s Yiddish play Der Vilner Balebesl, Strashunsky embodies the contradiction of the Jewish artist, torn between traditional imperatives and a desire to participate in the culture of the West. In the Thirties, two Yiddish-language movie versions of this story were produced in the US, both featuring Moishe Oysher (a cantor) and both alluding to The Jazz Singer. Like that of the Jazz Singer, the defection of the Balebesl spells catastrophe for the Jews: ‘they have many singers,’ the cantor’s father (also a cantor) reproaches him in one movie, ‘but we have only you.’ But the Balebesl is a universalist. ‘Even in Polish, they will hear my Jewish sorrow,’ he replies. Abandoning family and position, the Balebesl leaves for Warsaw, sings opera, is feted by Christians, consorts with a countess. But all turns to ashes. He returns to Vilna on the Day of Atonement to find his child dead and his wife out of her mind. In Central Europe, the fruits of assimilation were seen – not unreasonably – as madness, ruin and death. In America it was a different story.

Although Jolson never appeared in the Yiddish theatre, nor sang more than a few Yiddish songs, as the foremost Jewish-American celebrity of his day, he had a particular significance for Jewish audiences and performers. Brash and egocentric, street-smart and driven, a compulsive gambler and womaniser, yet insecure and apt to wrap himself in the American flag, Jolson was not simply cut from the same cloth as the so-called movie moguls but a flamboyant distillation of their composite identity.

The Warners shot The Jazz Singer’s Lower East Side scenes on location and used the Winter Garden Theatre (Jolson’s ‘personal kingdom’) for the final number; they reconstructed the Orchard Street Synagogue on a Hollywood back-lot and included Yosele Rosenblatt in the performance, and the surplus of authenticity invested in the film they advertised as their ‘Supreme Triumph’ is very striking. The Jazz Singer’s souvenir programme includes the terse declaration that ‘the faithful portrayal of Jewish homelife is largely due to the unobtrusive assistance of Mr Benjamin Warner, father of the producers and ardent admirer of The Jazz Singer.’This statement, which attempts through paternal approval to sanction the overthrow of Jewish traditionalism depicted in the film, suggests the Warners were uneasily aware that the story of The Jazz Singer was that not only of Jolson or many of their employees, but also of themselves.

If Jolson seemed to the pioneering pop culture critic Gilbert Seldes to possess a ‘demonic’ vitality, according to his disciple George Jessel he represented something else. Jessel spoke at Jolson’s West Coast funeral (there were East Coast rites as well):

The Jewish people who emigrated from Europe to come here were a sad lot. Their humour came out of their troubles. Men of 35 seemed to take on the attitudes of their fathers and grandfathers, they walked with stooped shoulders. When they sang, they sang with lament in their hearts ... And then there came on the scene a young man, vibrantly pulsating with life and courage, who marched on the stage, head held high like a Roman Emperor, with a gaiety that was militant, uninhibited and unafraid ... Jolson is the happiest portrait that can ever be painted about an American of the Jewish faith.

Perhaps that happiness was itself a form of minstrelsy. In that case, the Jazz Singer is a kind of Jewish Faust and The Jazz Singer a movie about the psychic cost of becoming American. Rogin’s reading gives the movie a tragic dimension. The price of American success is not only the jettisoning of one’s own unhappy traditions but assuming responsibility for the unfortunate traditions of the others.