This is a look at the life, stage, and film work of Al Jolson. There is no question that he used Blackface make-up, and that will be mentioned in relation to Jolson and other actors on both the legitimate stage and in motion pictures within the historical context as it relates to this blog's stated history goal.
The date of his birth becomes problematic also, as no birth records exist. According to Jolson, he was born on May 26, 1886, but in that year the Western (Gregorian Calendar) and the Russian (Julian Calendar) were not in alignment as they are now. Therefore, while Jolson gives us May 26th, if that was his Julian Calendar birth date, it would be June 7, 1886, on the Gregorian Calendar.
From 1881 into 1882, Moses and Nechama had experienced the second set of Russian Pogroms against the Jewish population within the Empire. More than 200 events of Antisemitism were recorded and ignored by the ruling Romanov family.
By 1891, Moses Yoelson had enough of the Russian Empire, and like many others in his and other Jewish communities. He left Nechama and the children in Srednike and traveled to the United States and New York City. He was soon qualified as both a Rabbi and Cantor within the New York City Jewish community, but without a study position at a synagogue and kept looking.
By that year of 1894, Moses Yoelson had found full-time work as a Cantor at "The Talmud Torah Congregation", in the Southwest Water Front, Yiddish, District of Washington, D.C.
On April 9, 1894, the rest of the Yoelson family arrived at the Port of New York, as steerage passengers, on the S.S. Umbria.
Reeves made his only known recordings with Columbia Records and Edison Records from 1891 and 1893, and around the same time had an inadvertent influence on the young Al Jolson's interest in show business.
My reader should have figured out the problem with "around the same time", in this quote.
We know that, based upon Al Jolson's stated birthdate, seven-years-old, Asa, and his family did not arrive in the United States until April 1894. Asa could have seen Reeves later, on the vaudeville stage, but this would have been after his seven-months at "Saint Mary's", or heard his recordings, possibly at "Saint Mary's", and that was the "inadvertent influence", without Asa actually ever seeing Reeves. However, that isn't made clear in the above quote, or others I have read.
Seeing his mother in her death throes traumatized young Asa, and he spent much of his life struggling with that trauma. After her death, he remained withdrawn for seven months until he met Al Reeves, who played the banjo, sang, and introduced him to show business.What is common in all the stories is there is no mention of the exact when, or where Asa Yoelson met Al Reeves. Presuming that his mother's death was in early 1895, around either April, or May. Then his meeting with Reeves should be around November, or December 1895.
However, there are dating problems with the "PBS" article also. It gives no specific birth date for Asa, and instead states that:
Jolson was born Asa Yoelson in Seredzius, Lithuania, sometime between 1883 and 1886.
Later in the article:
At age nine, Asa and his older brother Hirsch changed their names to Al and Harry,
If Asa was born in 1883, he would have been 9-years-old in 1892, but if he was born in 1886, as Al Jolson mentioned, he would be 9-years-old in the crucial year of 1895. I bring this up, because of the confusion researchers have with Al Jolson's youth as Asa Yoelson.
One last bit of confusion comes from this quote dated August 17, 2016, on the website "LIHearld", https://www.liherald.com/stories/al-jolsons-enduring-legacy,82704
Al Reeves, known as the "King of Burlesque" introduced Hirsh and Asa to show business in 1894.
Which again is the year they came to the United States and according to that article, three-years later, in 1897, the following took place.
Asa and Hirsch, changed their names to better fit into America.
From all my reading, there is little doubt that Hirsch became Harry, and the spelling of their last name was changed from Yoelson to Joelson. However, every article I have read, seems to clearly state that Asa became Al. However, if one reads the article at: https://jolson.org/man/kids/kids.html, One is left with the idea that Asa first became Albert, before shorting it to the nickname of Al. More later in this article.
The newly named brothers found themselves singing on Washington, D.C., street corners for tips and using the money to go to the Yiddish, "National Theater", watching the stage shows that included William Shakespeare translated into Yiddish.
Above, teenage Al Joelson.
Al's voice was starting to change and he began whistling, which would become one of his trademarks, as the boys continued singing on corners of Washington, D.C.'s streets. Apparently during this time, Harry ran off and joined the Yiddish Theatre.
However, according to a January, 1949, article in "Esquire Magazine", by Maurice Zolotov, that was condensed in "Reader Digest",
After serving as a drummer boy for a Pennsylvania regiment during the Spanish-American War, Asa ran off with a circus as a singer for $5 a month. The circus stranded him in Baltimore and he stayed there for six months. His father traced him and brought him back, but by now the boy was determined to be a vaudeville actor.
It should be noted that the "Spanish American War" was from Monday, April 25, to Friday, August 12, 1898. The article does not say how Al Joelson got to Pennsylvania from Washington, D.C., or why he joined the regiment.
However, Al and Harry came together once more in 1899, in D.C.'s, Yiddish theater, as "The Hebrew and the Cadet".
Above, standing is Harry Joelson, and seated is Al Joelson.
Al and Harry were now working through the William Morris Agency, and they teamed-up with long-time vaudevillian, Joe Palmer, to create a variety act for the vaudeville circuit. Harry and Al now made another name change, they dropped the "E" in their last names and became Harry and Al Jolson.
Joe Palmer was able to get the three bookings and tour the United States, but vaudeville was starting to face a new enemy, "The Nickelodeons". The word came partly from the "Nickel", the coin of admissions, and the Greek word "Odeion", meaning a roofed-over-theater.
In 1904, possibly from a suggestion by Joe Palmer, Al Jolson first wore "Blackface", at a Brooklyn, New York Theater. This brought him a large audience response, and he made the decision to use it in all his performances.
Above left to right, J.J. (Jacob J.), Lee, and Sam Shubert.
According to the French website, "Bruxellons! - Histo des musicals",
"La Belle Paree" was supposed to follow an heiress in Paris, but in reality it was more of a series of vaudeville sketches. Al Jolson portrayed Southern Aristocrat "Erastus Sparkler", in blackface, with a southern accent, but he was deliberately avoiding any stereotypical racial mannerism.
The next Shubert production, "Vera Violetta", ran for 112 performances. French singer, and actress Gaby Desyls, born Marie-Elise-Gabrielle Caire, was the headliner, but it was Jolson that received the loudest applause and had the audience asking him for more.
You ain't heard anything yet!
Then, he'd go into more songs to each audience's delight.
The following sheet music, with words by AL JOLSON, was a major seller, just because his name was on it.
During this production, another Al Jolson signature move took place. While singing "YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU, I Didn't Want To Do It", he dropped to his knees
Quoting the "Bruxdellons!" article:
Jolson recorded it on December 20, 1932, accompanied by "Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians".
Jerry Lewis, Martin's partner, in 1956.
Brenda Lee in 1959.
Aretha Franklin in 1961.
Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1966.
Nat King Cole, date unknown,
The following year, as I previously mentioned, Al Jolson and Henrietta Keller divorced.
While Al was now both a major Broadway and International star. Harry Jolson struggled, still in vaudeville, with the humiliation of now being billed as "Al Jolson's brother Harry".
On August 18, 1922, Al Jolson married actress/singer Ethel Delmar (Alma Osborne), and she accompanied her husband as he toured the United States for "Bombo". They would divorce on April 12, 1926. Below, Ethel around 1921.
He returned like the circus, bigger and brighter and newer than ever.... Last night's audience was flatteringly unwilling to go home, and when the show proper was over, Jolson reappeared before the curtain and sang more songs, old and new.
The following is from my article, "Josephine Baker: A Strong Woman of Color, Entertainer, Freedom Fighter, Civil Rights Activist and Role Model", found at:
In 1924 Josephine was part of the chorus in "The Chocolate Dandies". The show opened on September 1, 1924 and ran through November 22, 1924 for 96 performances. In what was a set up for the audience. Josephine was the last girl in the chorus line and acted as if she couldn't remember the dance number, but when the encore started. Baker not only knew the dance, but went into extremely complex dancing moves for that year.
Above Josephine Baker, as shown in the program for "The Chocolate Dandies". She is billed as both "That Comedy Chorus Girl" and "A Deserted Female". At the time of this production, according to her step son Jean-Claude, his step mother was:
The highest paid chorus girl in vaudeville.
An yes, she is wearing blackface make-up in this publicity photo for the show. The wearing of blackface, by Black performers, for White audiences, started with the inventor of tap dancing, William Henry Lane, known as "Master Juba", in the mid-1840's.
The practice used by White performers, such as Al Jolson in the, so-called, first talking motion picture, 1927's, "The Jazz Singer", was criticized by such prominent men as Fredrick Douglas. Yet, Negro Minstrel shows continued to use blackface, themselves, for white audiences. Which did not help to prevent racial stereotyping.
Appearing in "The Chocolate Dandies" had not been the first time Josephine Baker had worn blackface. According to some sources Freda wearing blackface as a street dancer was one of the complaints her mother, Carrie, had with the girl over becoming an entertainer.
When we think of white actors portraying African-Americans in the motion picture industry, the name of David Wark Griffith, immediately comes to mind and his 1915, "The Birth of a Nation". For those of my readers interested in the director. My article is "D.W. Griffith: 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) and 'Abraham Lincoln' (1930):The Odyssey of a Kentucky Born Motion Picture Innovator", at:
It was either 1915, or 1916 (the year varies depending upon the article). When Noble Mark Johnson founded "The Lincoln Motion Picture Company". The first all black motion picture business with the goal to fight racial stereotypes by showing Black Americans as they really were.
Above is the only picture I could locate of "The Lincoln Motion Picture Company". Noble Johnson stands over the others in the middle of the picture.
During the silent era, because of the film-stock used by some companies, Noble Johnson actually played white roles, but he is most known for his portrayals of Native-Americans, such as the "Warrior Chief, Red Shirt", below, in director John Ford's, 1949, "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon".
The motion picture that was never completed, according to Jay Douglas
Steinmetz, in his 2017, "Beyond Free Speech and Propaganda:
The Political Development of Hollywood, 1907-1927", was to have been 1922's, "His Darker Self". Al
Jolson was cast in the lead, but he dropped out of the motion picture. He believed that making a motion picture would endanger his stage
Steinmetz states that the 55-minute silent film was started in 1922, but after Jolson dropped out, production was cancelled. The story would be filmed by a different director, and with a different writer in 1924, starring blackface actor and comedian Lloyd Hamilton.
IMDb implies the footage shot with Al Jolson was turned into a short film, 1923's, "Mammy's Boy". Someone must have released that footage using the Arthur Caeser title, seen on the above poster. What makes this footage more interesting is that according to IMDb, it was directed and written by D.W. Griffith, without mentioning Arthur Caesar.
The first "Vitaphone" motion picture took the silent "Don Juan", released on August 6, 1926, starring John Barrymore, and adding synchronized sound effects and a musical score. The feature played as a silent movie everywhere, except in New York City, at the only movie theater, the "Warners' Theatre", equipped with the "Vitaphone System". "Don Juan" would be followed with synchronized music and sound effects by 1926's, "The Better Ole", and in 1927, prior to "The Jazz Singer", "When a Man Loves", "Old San Francisco", and "The First Auto", with some accidently picked-up spoken words, laughing, and cheering.
"A Plantation Act", released on October 7, 1926, was actually Al Jolson's first sound film appearance. It was a ten-minute "Vitaphone" short subject from "Warner Brothers". The short-had Jolson singing three songs in blackface. They were, "When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along)", "April Showers", and "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody".
"A Plantation Act" was considered lost and "The Jazz Singer" became, to film historians, many who didn't know the short existed, newspaper reviewers, and the general public, the first sound film with synchronized dialogue and music.
However, a copy of the 1926 short was located without sound in "The Library of Congress". Next, a broken into four-parts, "Vitaphone" sound disc, was located and with careful work by the "UCLA Film Archives", "A Plantation Act" was reconstructed.
THE JAZZ SINGER released on October 6, 1927
The motion picture was directed by Alan Crosland. Crosland started directing feature films with the 1917, feature length silent version of Scottish author Robert Lewis Stevenson's, "Kidnapped". For "Warner Brothers" he directed the synchronized sound films, 1926's, "Don Juan", and both 1927's, "When a Man Loves", and "Old San Francisco", before "The Jazz Singer". He would return to silents with 1928's, "Glorious Betsy", starring Dolores Costello
The play was turned into a motion picture screenplay by Alfred A. Cohn. He had just turned the Broadway comedy horror mystery, "The Cat and the Canary", into a motion picture screenplay. Cohn followed this picture with a pure horror story, 1927's, "The Gorilla".
Title cards, remember this was still basically a silent movie, are by Jack Jarmuth
The Basic Story Line:
All the following quoted dialogue are on title cards and not spoken on the "Vitaphone" process.
My son was to stand at my side and sing tonight—but now I have no son.
There are lots of jazz singers, but you have a tear in your voice.
I never want to see you again—you jazz singer!
Just before he leaves, "Jakie" tells the father that he loves:
I came home with a heart full of love, but you don't want to understand. Someday you'll understand, the same as Mama does.
Lying in his bed, weak and gaunt, "Sara's" husband tells her:
My son came to me in my dreams—he sang Kol Nidre so beautifully. If he would only sing like that tonight—surely, he would be forgiven.
His mother and one of the leaders of the synagogue that "Jakie/Jack" knows, "Moisha Yudelson", portrayed by Otto Lederer, enter his dressing room. The two plead with "Jack/Jakie" to come back to his father and sing on "Yom Kippur" for him. "Jack" is now torn between faith and stage.
His mother and "Moisha" go out into the audience seats during rehearsal, and hears "Jakie" sing "Mother of Mine, I Still Have You".
"Sara Rabinowitz" tells "Moisha Yudelson":
Here he belongs. If God wanted him in His house, He would have kept him there. He's not my boy anymore—he belongs to the whole world now.
After the dress rehearsal, "Jack" return to the "Rabinowitz" house and kneels beside his father. As the two speak as father and son, the "Cantor" tells the "Jazz Singer":
My son -- I love you!
His mother suggests that if he sang "Kol Nidre", it might heal his father.
"Mary" and the producer of the "April Follies" appear at the house and the producer warns him that he will never work on Broadway, if he doesn't appear opening night. Again, "JACK" and "JAKIE" are torn over what he should do?
"Mary" challenges him:
Were you lying when you said your career came before everything?He replies that:
I haven't sung Kol Nidre since I was a little boy.
His mother counters:
Do what is in your heart, Jakie—if you sing and God is not in your voice—your father will know.
While the producer adds:
You're a jazz singer at heart!
On opening night, at the theater, the audience is told there will be no performance that night. As he lies on his death bed, "Cantor Rabinowitz" listens to his son sing "Kol Nidre" and as the song continues, he says:
Mama, we have our son again.He passes away and his spirit sings with his son "Cantor Jakie Rabinowitz".
a jazz singer—singing to his God.
The movie ends at the Broadway production of a show called the "Back Room" at "The Winter Garden". In the audience is "Jakie Rabinowitz's" mother and "Moisha Yudelson" in the front row. The billed "Jack Robin", in blackface, turns to the two, and "Jakie Rabinowitz" sings "My Mammy" directly to his mother.
Here I go again, destroying the mystique of 1927's, "The Jazz Singer". Al Jolson's next motion picture was the film that put "The Talkies" as a must for all motion picture companies around the world.
THE SINGING FOOL the "Sound Version" premiered in New York City on September 19, 1928
The "Sound Version" was really a hybrid, part-silent, part-talking motion picture, but in that version over three-fourths were sound with dialogue. Only approximately, one-fourth of "The Singing Fool" was without sound dialogue, but was with music on the "Vitaphone" disc.
There was also a completely "Silent Version" with title cards and shorter in length, because the songs are not heard. My reader needs to understand, even after "The Jazz Singer, that many movie theater owners in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Europe, still could not afford even the basic "Vitaphone" system. They still showed only all-silent-motion pictures in 1928, but that would quickly start to change.
"The Singing Fool" was this motion picture that showed the power of talking feature films.
The final budget is listed at $388,000. While the worldwide box office was $5,280,000, when the average United States adult ticket price was 35 cents. As a result, the major United States studios stopped production of most silent movies and reshot sound segments.
Two such examples were Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's version of French author Jules Verne's, "The Mysterious Island". The film, starring Lionel Barrymore, had been in production since 1926. The studio stopped filming and re-shot small sequences with sound dialogue and the final feature wasn't released until September 14, 1929.
"Warner Brothers" was continuing changing already shot silents into part-talkies, such as the horror film, "The Terror", released on September 6, 1928, starring May McVoy, with an all-silent version released on October 28, 1928. Silents took longer, because of the editing of title cards into the shot film.
Below, a poster for a re-release of "The Singing Fool".
The screenplay by C. Graham Baker was based upon a short story by Leslie Burrows, who happened to be Baker. By his death in 1950, he had written 178-screenplays.
The title cards for both versions were written by Joseph Jackson, and he is also credited for the dialogue in both versions.
Al Stone, a singing waiter at Blackie Joe's café, writes a hit song and becomes a Broadway star, marrying Molly Winton, an ambitious, underhanded soubrette. Molly eventually leaves Al and goes off with John Perry, a racketeer, taking their young son with her. Al becomes a derelict and sometime later returns to Blackie Joe's, where Grace, the loyal cigarette girl, inspires him to make a comeback. Al's son dies in a hospital, and Al, going on stage like a trouper, sings the boy's favorite song. The pain caused by his son's death is dulled with the passage of time, and he goes to California with Grace.
Of course, "Al Stone's" son's favorite song is the Lew Brown, B. G. DeSylva, and Ray Henderson's, "Sonny Boy". The first song from a motion picture to sell over one-million-records. Eventually, it would sell a three-million, combination of records, sheet music, and piano rolls.
However, there were still a large amount of movie theaters that still had not converted to sound and a silent version using title cards was released by "Warner Brothers" on October 19, 1929.
Lloyd Bacon was back as the pictures director.
There were three writers on the project, the primary, who also came-up with the original story was Daryl Francis Zanuck. Zanuck had been writing screenplays since 1922, and would have written 84-screenplays by his last one in 1969. He became a producer in 1925, and co-produced with Hall Wallis, both 1931's, "Little Caesar" and "Public Enemy". Zanuck produced the first technicolor horror movie, 1932's, "Doctor X", starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, and the 1935 version of French author Victor Hugo's, "Les Misérables", starring Frederic March and Charles Laughton. Moving forward, Zanuck was the executive in charge of the production of director Robert Wise's, 1951, "The Day the Earth Stood Still", and in 1962, Daryl F. Zanuck made his dream Second World War motion picture, "The Longest Day".
The other writer on the original story was Harvey Gates. Gates started writing scenarios and screenplays in 1913. Among his work is the screenplay for May McAvoy's, 1928, "The Terror", the Wallace Beery and Clark Gable's, 1931, "Hell Divers", later Gates wrote both Bela Lugosi's, 1942,"Black Dragons", and "The Corpse Vanishes".
The third writer was Joseph Jackson, who had to turn the sound version into the silent version and write the title cards. He also worked on 1928's, "The Terror", Jackson's 52-screenplays ended in 1932, but not before he wrote another for Al Jolson.
Davey Lee portrayed "Little Pal". David Lee, he had just been in the action adventure, 1929's, "Frozen River", starring with first billing, "Rin Tin Tin".
Above, Marian Nixon, Davey Lee, and Holmes Herbert.
The screenplay was a little too much for viewers and critics to swallow and the film lost money. According to Edwin M. Bradley, in his 1996, "The First Hollywood Musicals: A Critical Filmography of 171 Features, 1927 Through 1932", the "Warner Brother Studio" owned, Los Angeles "Warners Theatre", pulled "Say It With Songs", 48-hours after it opened there.
Even the lines in some of Mr. Jolson's songs detract from their value, for his tuneful exhortation to a group of convicts is by no means inspiring.
John Mosher of "The New Yorker", August 17, 1929, wrote about Al Jolson singing the song "Little Pal":
Even the fantastically happy ending, when the sound of his voice cures the child of aphasia, does not eradicate the general impression of dreary and specious tragedy.The screenplay ends with "Joe", "Katherine", and "Little Pal", happily together again as a family.
On December 28, 1929, Al Jolson was seen in a cameo appearance as himself, in the Norma Talmadge, and Gilbert Roland, crime drama, "New York Nights".
Below, a photo of Mr. and Mrs. Al Jolson circa 1930.
The motion picture was directed by Michael Curtiz. Curtiz had been directing motion picture since 1912, two-years after "Mammy", he would direct the first two Technicolor horror movies, "Doctor X", and the "Mystery of the Wax Museum". However, most people know him for three motion pictures starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, 1935's, "Captain Blood" 1936's, "The Charge of the Light Brigade", and 1938's, "The Adventures of Robin Hood". Not to overlook 1942's, "Yankee Doodle Dandy", and "Casablanca".
The screenplay was based upon a play written by composer Irving Berlin. Who also wrote all the songs in both the play and motion picture. Of the fourteen songs in the film, the three most known are "Yes, We Have No Bananas", "Pretty Baby", and of course, "Mammy".
Al Jolson portrayed "Al Fuller".
Lois Moran portrayed "Nora Meadows". In 1927, Moran had a short affair with married author F. Scott Fitzgerald. That affair caused Fitzgerald to change one of the male characters in his novel "Tender is the Night", into "Rosemary Hoyt", a mirror image of Lois Moran.
Louise Dresser portrayed "Mother Fuller". Dresser was born on October 5, 1878 and started out as a burlesque dancer and moved to vaudeville in 1900. By 1910, she was a major Broadway star, and in 1922, made her first motion picture. In 1925, Louise Dresser co-starred with Rudolph Valentino in "The Eagle". During the first "Academy Awards", Dresser was nominated for "Best Actress" in the 1928 motion picture, "A Ship Comes In", about immigrants to the United States.
Following the Warner Brothers feature Big Boy (1930), Al Jolson vanished from movie screens for nearly three years. When he finally did reappear, it was in perhaps the most offbeat and innovative film of his career: (1933). An enormous amount of time, money and effort went into the final product, including three directors, a massive reshoot, two scores and a major cast change. The result, costing an astronomical $1.25 million, wound up a box-office flop but is considered by many to be Jolson's best picture - even though Jolson himself called it his worst.
The musical production numbers were by Busby Berkeley. He had just worked on the Eddie Cantor and Robert Young, 1932, "The Kid from Spain", all the following photos for "42nd Street", come from my article, "Busby Berkeley: Imagination In Dance On The Silver Screen", at:
Below, three scenes from the grand finale musical production, "42nd Street", starring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell.
However, the question was now being asked, which direction was her husband's career going?
WONDER BAR premiered in Miami, Florida, on February 18, 1934
The story actually is fill between the Busby Berkeley production numbers. The motion picture had an estimated budget of $675,000 and made the studio $2,035,000.
However, there were two scenes that just made it past the Hays Censorship Office in this very risqué screenplay. My reader must remember this motion picture was still Pre-Production-Code, that finally after changes, went into effect on June 13, 1934.
Boys will be boys
Wonder Bar has got about everything. Romance, flash, dash, class, color, songs, star-studded talent and almost every known requisite to assure sturdy attention and attendance.... It's Jolson's comeback picture in every respect.
Vaudeville was dead in the United States by the next motion picture I want to mention. Harry Jolson was out of work and Al made his brother manager for Ruby and himself.
Between "Golddiggers of 1933" and that next feature film I want to mention, Ruby Keeler had appeared in 1933's, "Footlight Parade", starring James Cagney, Joan Blondell, herself, and Dick Powell, 1934's, "Dames", with first billing, co-starring with her, were Dick Powell, and Joan Blondell, and "Flirtation Walk", starring Dick Powell, herself, and Pat O'Brien.
GO INTO YOUR DANCE released on April 20, 1935
"Warner Brothers" turned "Go Into Your Dance" into a major event. Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler together on-screen. In actuality it was designed to pump-up Al's declining career, "Variety" aside. Jolson was still a major draw outside of the United States, but the signs in the States were otherwise.
Al Jolson portrayed "Al Howard".
Ruby Keeler portrayed "Dorothy 'Dot' Wayne.
Above, Glenda Farrell and a seated Ruby Keeler Jolson.
Barton MacLane, billed as Barton Mac Lane, portrayed "Duke Hutchinson". Talk about a varied on-screen career, in 1936, he was in the Boris Karloff and Ricardo Cortez, "The Walking Dead", in 1937, he started co-starring with Glenda Farrell in the "Torchy Blane" series. 1941 was a big year for MacLane, he was featured in director Raoul Walsh's, "High Sierra", starring Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino, director Fritz Lang's, "Western Union", starring Robert Young and Randolph Scott, and director John Huston's, "The Maltese Falcon", starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. In 1944 he even showed up in "The Mummy's Ghost", and the overlooked and excellent, "Cry of the Werewolf".
Helen Morgan portrayed "Luana Wells". The great blues and torch singer Helen Morgan was in a rare motion picture appearance. In 1927, she had created the role of "Julie LaVerne", in the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's, "Show Boat", on Broadway. In 1936, she recreated the role in director James Whale's, yes the "Universal Picture's" horror film director, version of "Show Boat". That movie featured the great African-American singer, Paul Robeson, performing "Ol' Man River", and Helen Morgan singing both her signature song, "Bill", and "Can't Help Lovin' That Man of Mine".
For this feature film, she is the UNCREDITED singer of "The Little Things You Used to Do".
My readers may like my article that covers the 1936, "Show Boat", "PAUL ROBESON Before 'Ol Man River' To After Joseph McCarthy 'The Artist Must To Elect Fight", at:
Above, Theresa Harris portraying "Luana's Maid", and Helen Morgan.
Broadway Star "Al Howard" has a habit of walking out on hit shows. His sister "Molly" promises his agent that he will never do it again, but "Al" is band from Broadway and goes to Mexico. Tracking her brother down, "Molly" finds him on a drinking binge, "Molly" tells "Al' she done with him. However, "Molly" comes across "Dorothy" and asks her to form a team with "Al".
At first neither "Dorothy", or "Al" like the idea, but eventually they do team up. They become a major act in Chicago, and "Dorothy" has fallen in love with "Al", but thinks he's not in love with her. When it appears their going to break-up, "Molly" introduces her brother to "Duke Hutchinson", a gangster, who is willing to bring "Al's" dream of his own nightclub to life. "Duke" has one condition, the club must showcase his wife, "Luana Bell", a torch singer who wants to make a comeback and "Al" agrees.
However, "Dorothy" warns "Al" of the danger of fliting with "Duke's" sister, "Luana", but he doesn't listen to the sound advice.
"Duke" now gives "Al' an additional $30,000 to open his club, but he uses it to post bound for his sister, "Molly", who had been arrested on suspicion of murder. What that murder was, I could not locate, even on the TCM website, that has the same, word for word, synopsis of the movie.
At the climax, a gunman was sent by "Duke" to kill "Al", for not accepting a proposal by "Luana". "Duke" can't find the gunman after learning why "Al" used the money. The gunman is about to shoot "Al", but "Dorothy" steps in front of the man she loves, and is hit by a bullet. In the end he realizes he loves her.
Some say that the real-life Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler were part of the source for the characters of "Vicki Lester" and "Norman Maine" in 1937's, original "A Star is Born". Others say it was Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay. Mainly because the novel was written in 1935, the year of their divorce. On the other hand, look-up the 1932 motion picture, "What Price Hollywood?", that starred Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman.
I'd heard Al Jolson was doing a new film on the Coast, and since Duke Ellington and his band had done a film, wasn't it possible for me and the band to do this one with Jolson. Frenchy got on the phone to California, spoke to someone connected with the film and the next thing I knew the band and I were booked into Chicago on our way to California for the film, The Singing Kid. We had a hell of a time, although I had some pretty rough arguments with Harold Arlen, who had written the music. Arlen was the songwriter for many of the finest Cotton Club revues, but he had done some interpretations for The Singing Kid that I just couldn't go along with. He was trying to change my style and I was fighting it. Finally, Jolson stepped in and said to Arlen, 'Look, Cab knows what he wants to do; let him do it his way.' After that, Arlen left me alone. And talk about integration: Hell, when the band and I got out to Hollywood, we were treated like pure royalty. Here were Jolson and I living in adjacent penthouses in a very plush hotel. We were costars in the film so we received equal treatment, no question about it.
According to James Fisher's, 1994, "A Jolson: A Bio-bibliography":
The Singing Kid was not one of the studio's major attractions (it was released by the First National subsidiary), and Jolson did not even rate star billing.
For Ruby Keeler, it was starring in "Ready, Willing and Able", released on March 6, 1937.
Next, both of the Jolson's appeared with other "Warner Brothers" contract players as themselves, in an 18-minute-short, "A Day at Santa Anita", starring child star, Sybil Jason, the "The Singing Kid", portraying "Peaches Blackburn".
On August 13, 1937, Al Jolson found himself in another short subject. This was the 10-minute "Screen Snapshots Series 16, No. 12", shown before the feature films in a movie theater. The poster for this short read:
Another Delightful and Fascinating visit behind the scenes of the entertainment world.
Then both Mr. and Mrs. Al Jolson, appeared with other actors as themselves, in a 10-minute short, "Hollywood Handicap", also filmed at a favorite Hollywood hangout, the "Santa Anita" race track, and released on May 28, 1938.
It would be just 23-days-short-of-a-year later, before Al Jolson was seen on-screen once more.
ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE on May 5, 1939
Without using the real names of Jewish gambler Nicky Arnstein, and Jewish "Ziegfeld Follies" comedian, Fanny Brice, that would happen with the 1964 Broadway musical, "Funny Girl". This movie was based directly upon their story.
Tyrone Power portrayed "Barton Dewitt Clinton". Power was just seen in the title role of "Jesse James". He would follow this motion picture with 1939's, "Second Fiddle" co-starring ice skater Sonja Henie.
Alice Faye portrayed "Rose Sargent". Faye was just in 1939's, "Tail Spin", co-starring Constance Bennett.
"Ted Cotter", a successful Broadway minstrel, spots "Rose Sargent" performing at a vaudeville talent show. He takes a personal interest in "Rose" and he helps her become a rising star in the "Ziegfeld Follies".
"Ted" is having problems with his own act, from a box seat, "Whitey Bone", portrayed by Hobart Cavanaugh, very drunk, starts heckling "Ted". "Harry Rose", portrayed by William Frawley, both the manager for "Rose" and "Ted", thought it was part of an act and hired him to heckle "Ted" at every performance.
Meanwhile, "Rose" does not recognize "Ted's" love for her, but has fallen for gambler "Bart Clinton". "Bart's" activities get him arrested, "Ted" puts up his bail, but "Bart" skips town on both "Ted" and "Rose".
"Rose" pines for the missing "Bart", who one night comes to the follies, and hears her sing "My Man", the real song by Fanny Brice about her love for Nicky Arnstein.
The screenplay ends with "Bart" realizing the errors of his life and is sentenced to five-years in prison. As the "Rose of Washington Square", says she will wait for him.
While, "Rose of Washington Square" was a popular 1920's song, it was probably chosen, because one of Fanny Brice's signature songs was "Second Hand Rose". She also told Nicky Arnstein she would wait for him.
The movie is also a means for Al Jolson to sing some of his major songs, "Pretty Baby", "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody", "Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo' Bye')". "My Mammy", but "April Showers" was cut from the motion picture.
During 1939, Al Jolson was in the talking stages with producers George Hale, and Lee and J.J. Schubert, about a Broadway production entitled "Hold on to Your Hats". Ruby Keeler Jolson was also part of the talks, and was to star opposite of Al, but before the end of December, as mentioned, she had walked out on both her then husband and what would be Al’s last Broadway appearance.
From September 11, 1940 through February 1, 1941, "Hold on to Your Hats", starring Al Jolson, ran for 158-performances, at the "Sam S. Shubert Theatre".
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Navy bombed "Pearl Harbor", and the United States entered the Second World War.
... he dedicated himself to a new mission in life.... Even before the U.S.O. began to set up a formal program overseas, Jolson was deluging War and Navy Department brass with phone calls and wires. He requested permission to go anywhere in the world where there was an American serviceman who wouldn't mind listening to 'Sonny Boy' or 'Mammy'.... [and] early in 1942, Jolson became the first star to perform at a GI base in World War II.
In a interview with S. J. Woolf, for the "New York Times", September 27, 1942, entitled, "Army Minstrel", Al Jolson said:
When the war started ... [I] felt that it was up to me to do something, and the only thing I know is show business. I went around during the last war and I saw that the boys needed something besides chow and drills. I knew the same was true today, so I told the people in Washington that I would go anywhere and do an act for the Army.
Below, Jolson relaxing before another show for the soldiers.
In June 1942, arrangements were made to send Jolson to Alaska via Seattle and Washington. He gave two performances in Anchorage, each for an audience of 1,500 men. ‘Each show lasted an hour’, he reported to Variety, ‘and I almost wore out the knees of my pants singing ‘Mammy’. He neglected to mention that the GIs were there because a rumor had spread through the camp that either Lana Turner or Dorothy Lamour was going to appear. When Al walked onto the stage and was greeted by a disappointed, deafening silence, he cracked a couple of jokes and then talked about home and what he thought of Hitler and Hirohito. Then he sang a few songs. By the time the show had concluded the audience had forgotten all about Lana and Dorothy. The man truly was a born showman.
It was during the Alaskan tour that a young soldier called out to him: ‘Kiss my wife for me when you get back to New York, will you, Al?’ ‘I’ll do better than that’, Jolson called back. ‘I’ll take her out to dinner. What’s her name?’ He wrote down the lady’s name and phone number, then asked: ‘Are there any more?’ He jotted down as many names and numbers as he could, promising to call each and every one of them when he got home. And he did, informing mothers, wives and girlfriends that their men were safe and sound. A lot of GI’s would remember him fondly for that.
Below, Al Jolson and the troops in a special sponsored by "Colgate", January 19, 1943.
Look half-way down in the red section of the above poster, and my reader will see the name of Al Jolson.
Near the middle of 1946, at the "New York Friars Club", Mr. and Mrs. Jolson were in attendance to help honor singer, comedian, actress and radio personality, Sophie Tucker. According to comedian Alan King, in his 1997, book, "Name Dropping", the emcee for the event was comedian George Jessel, and he went off script and said:
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the easiest introduction I ever had to make. The world's greatest entertainer, Al Jolson.King continues:
The place is going wild. Jolson gets up, takes a bow, sits down ... people start banging with their feet, and he gets up, takes another bow, sits down again. It's chaos, and slowly, he seems to relent. He walks up onto the stage ... kids around with Sophie and gets a few laughs, but the people are yelling, 'Sing! Sing! Sing!'.... Then he says, 'I'd like to introduce you to my bride,' and this lovely young thing gets up and takes a bow. The audience doesn't care about the bride, they don't even care about Sophie Tucker. 'Sing! Sing! Sing!' they're screaming again. 'My wife has never seen me entertain', Jolson says, and looks over toward Lester Lanin, the orchestra leader: 'Maestro, is it true what they say about Dixie?Which, of course, was a 1936 song title and Al Jolson gave what that audience wanted.
Then from "Columbia Pictures" came:
THE JOLSON STORY released on October 10, 1946
Above one of the many posters for the movie in the United States. Below, even with the stricter censorship in the United Kingdom, one of the posters from 1946.
Al Jolson provided the singing voice for Larry Parks.
Below, the scene Harry Jolson always referred too.
William Demarest had just been seen in 1946's, "Our Hearts Were Growing Up", starring Gail Russell. He would follow this feature with the Betty Hutton comedy based upon the silent cliff-hangers, 1947's, "The Perils of Pauline". From 1965 into 1972, television audiences knew him as "Uncle Charley", on Fred MacMurray's, "My Three Sons".
"Al" is too busy for girls, performing to an audience is his life, but he meets up-and-coming dancer "Julie Benson". To him this is love at first sight and he proposes, and will not take a refusal. The two marry and she's now in his non-stop show-biz life style. He makes "The Jazz Singer", and signs for more movie deals. Although his mother is concerned over what her son is doing to "Julie". "Al" decides to stop being in show business and retires mistakenly thinking that is what "Julie" wants. He refuses all offers and will not even sing for family and friends. He has become miserable.
"Al's" father starts to sing the song that he and "Al's" mother sang on their wedding day. "Al" joins in and a change comes over him that "Julie" and "Mrs. Yoelson" notice. They all go to a nightclub and he is recognized and the crowd keeps wanting him to sing a song, but "Al" keeps putting them off.
Finally, he gets up and start to sing again, he is in his element, and "Julie" gets up and walks out of his life. The movie ends with "Al Jolson" singing a medley of his songs ending with "April Showers".
THE REST OF THE STORY
Larry Parks portrayed "Al Jolson/Larry Parks", with the singing voice of Al Jolson. Parks was sitting on top of the world until in 1951, he was called before "The House Committee on Un-American Activities". He had begged them to not be called before the committee, but eventually under threat of being "Blacklisted", he was, and in tears gave up the names they wanted. He was still "blacklisted" and "Columbia Pictures" dropped his contract with four-years left on it. He went to the United Kingdom and found work. He would leave the motion picture industry in 1962, after co-starring in director John Huston's, "Freud", with Anthony Perkins, and Susannah York, filmed in Germany. He started a housing construction business and with his wife actress Betty Garrett, "All in the Family", and "Laverne and Shirley", became successful apartment building owners.
After a premature retirement, "Al Jolson" returns to the stage. Without his wife, it's the fast lane, wine, women, race horses at Santa Anita, and travel. His father, portrayed by Ludwig Dorath, is worried about his son, but with the death of his mother, portrayed by Tamara Shayne, at the start of the Second World War, "Al Jolson" comes back to reality, and returns to the stage.
Once again teamed with his manager "Steve Martin", portrayed by William Demarest, "Al Jolson" travels the world entertaining the troops. Collapsing from exhaustion, he meets nurse "Ellen Clark", and learns there's more to life.
According to Michael Freedland, in his 1972, "Jolson - The Story of Al Jolson":
the United States answered the call of the United Nations Security Council ... and had gone to fight the North Koreans.... [Jolson] rang the White House again. 'I'm gonna go to Korea,' he told a startled official on the phone. 'No one seems to know anything about the USO, and it's up to President Truman to get me there.' He was promised that President Truman and General MacArthur who had taken command of the Korean front, would get to hear of his offer. But for four weeks there was nothing.... Finally, Louis A. Johnson, Secretary of Defense, sent Jolson a telegram. 'Sorry for delay but regret no funds for entertainment – STOP; USO disbanded – STOP.' The message was as much an assault on the Jolson sense of patriotism as the actual crossing of the 38th Parallel had been. 'What are they talkin' about', he thundered. 'Funds? Who needs funds? I got funds! I'll pay myself!'
According to Martin Abramson, in the previously mentioned, "The Real Story of Al Jolson":
On September 17, 1950, a dispatch from 8th Army Headquarters, Korea, announced, "Al Jolson, the first top-flight entertainer to reach the war-front, landed here today by plane from Los Angeles...." Jolson traveled to Korea at his own expense. "[A]nd a lean, smiling Jolson drove himself without letup through 42 shows in 16 days.
Back in the United States while playing cards at the St. Francis Hotel, on October 23,1950, 64-years-old, Al Jolson, had a massive heart attack and died. It would take days for family members to bring Erle Jolson out of shock.
Below, the grave site of Al Jolson, at the Hillside Memorial Park.
From "A Tribute to Al Jolson", by columnist Walter Winchell:
He was the first to entertain troops in World War Two, contracted malaria and lost a lung. Then in his upper sixties he was again the first to offer his singing gifts for bringing solace to the wounded and weary in Korea.
Today we know the exertion of his journey to Korea took a greater toll of his strength than perhaps even he realized. But he considered it his duty as an American to be there, and that was all that mattered to him. Jolson died in a San Francisco hotel. Yet he was as much a battle casualty as any American soldier who has fallen on the rocky slopes of Korea.... A star for more than 40 years, he earned his most glorious star rating at the end—a gold star