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The Jazz Singer (1927)

The_Jazz_Singer_1927_PosterThe Jazz Singer is one of those films I’ve intended to see a for a while, mostly for historical reasons, because I’d read that it wasn’t actually very good. Now that I’ve finally seen it, on the whole I agree. The movie is probably 70 or 80% silent, with some singing interludes and two scenes of brief dialogue. As a pure silent movie, it wouldn’t have been remembered at all. Not that the singing and talking makes it a better movie, but it does make it a more interesting one.

Jakie Rabinowitz (Bobby Gordon) has been trained by his father, Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland), to be a cantor like him at their local synagogue in a New York ghetto. But when Jakie is caught singing in a saloon, he beats him and Jakie runs away from home, saddening his mother’s heart (Eugenie Besserer).

Jakie grows up to become Jack Robin (now Al Jolson), a jazz singer struggling to make it big. He has a non-Jewish girlfriend, Mary Dale (May McAvoy), who does a novelty ballet act and he seems poised for success when he returns to New York and visits his mother and father. His mother is delighted, but his father still cannot forgive him. However, when Cantor Rabinowitz falls ill, his wish is that his son will sing in his place on the Day of Atonement, which happens to fall on the same day that Jakie is making his Broadway debut. There is about a half-hour of hand wringing until he makes his decision, feeling torn by conflicting identities as a Jewish man with a tradition and a history and as an ambitious, modern singer.

It’s pure melodrama, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing, except it strings us out too long at the end and the acting is on the whole pretty hammy, especially Jolson. The Jazz Singer was not his first film. He tried to make silent movies before without success and he also appeared in a short talkie film in 1926 called “A Plantation Act” where he sings several of his famous songs in his trademark blackface. It was one of many short talkies that were released by Warner Bros., using the Vitaphone system where sound was recorded on a record and played simultaneously with the film (if the needle didn’t skip or some other catastrophe occur to mess up the synchronization a la Singin’ In the Rain). Originally, Warner Bros. was planning to use the system for sound effects and musical accompaniment, but decided to risk an actual talkie feature.

Warner Oland shows Al Jolson the door while Eugenue

Warner Oland shows Al Jolson the door while Eugenie Besserer watches sadly

The Jazz Singer is actually not even the first talkie film. There had been different talkies made throughout the years, but never with any success. The sound was poor, the synchronization was poor and audiences never liked it. But The Jazz Singer was a hit and everyone knew that it had changed everything as studios rushed to make their own talkie features.

It actually took until Warner Bros.’ third talkie feature to make a film that was 100% sound. The Jazz Singer is still mostly silent, which ends up being distracting now, though it electrified audiences at the time. The transition between silent to song to talking works seamlessly, but as soon as Jolson speaks after the song, the silent spell is broken. It is a jolt when the film immediately returns to silent mode. This happens twice, with two scenes where Jolson speaks – though there are songs sprinkled throughout the entire movie, both contemporary songs and traditional Jewish songs.

He speaks his famous line, “wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” and later exchanges a bit of dialogue with his mother while playing the piano and singing for her. Most of this dialogue was supposedly ad-libbed and it is when Jolson seems most natural (relatively speaking). At least it sounds better than some of the stiff, stilted way people spoke in many early sound films. However, Jolson is still over the top, which he evidently learned to control by the time he made Hallelujah, I’m a Bum. He rolls his eyes and widens his eyes and cries when he sings “Mammy.” His style of singing turns songs like “Mammy” into mini melodramas. Was this his standard performance style during vaudeville?

Al Jolson was perhaps the biggest star of the early 1900s and I remember being taken aback the first time I saw him in a film (The Rose of Washington Square). Supposedly seeing him live was unlike anything, his charisma and energy. On film, he looks like too much, like he’s going to burst out of the film. There’s also the barrier of blackface. He uses blackface in a very deliberate way in The Jazz Singer. The point of the film seems to be that as a jazz singer, he is still “singing to his God,” but he has to remain Jewish and not lose touch with that side of him. The blackface represents the modern jazz singer. The film actually builds to the moment we see, and then hear him sing, in blackface. Oddly, it’s almost presented as a liberating moment when he has become most fully himself.

al-jolson-in-the-jazz-singer-(1927)-large-pictureI find the popularity of Al Jolson a fascinating subject. He has a weird kind of magnetic energy and charisma. His style is hammy (or melodramatic?), but his songs have a way of lodging themselves in my head (even the way he sings them). He puts me off and yet he still produces this odd little emotional thrill. It’s unique. I can’t help but wish I could have seen him live, simply to gage how much my reaction is because of the passage of time and how much is lost on screen.

My great-grandfather saw Al Jolson on vaudeville and absolutely loved it when sound came in. He never talked much about the silents with my grandmother. I think it’s because he loved music and what he called “singin’ and dancin’ films.” Silent movies had nearly every genre, but the one thing they couldn’t provide was singing. The Jazz Singer not only talked, but it sang and I think that is what really made the film so electric at the time. People who had never seen Jolson suddenly could. And they could hear him sing.

Random note: there is a brief Myrna Loy sighting in the film. She plays a chorus girl and gets one piece of dialogue (via intertitles). Supposedly, William Demarest is also in a bit role, but I did not find him.

“Toot, toot, tootsie!” – We get the first bit of spoken dialogue in the film, but when the song is done, everything goes back to silent.

 

 

The second instance where Jolson exchanges some dialogue with his mother, but as soon as his father comes back, we are once again back to silent. Symbolic, perhaps?

 

 

 

Al Jolson demonstrating how to sing a mini melodrama.

 

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2016 in Movies

 

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Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933) – A Rodgers and Hart Musical

hallelujah-im-a-bum-movie-poster-1933-1020681090Hallelujah, I’m a Bum is an idiosyncratic musical that manages to be both cynical and sweet. It stars Al Jolson, contains a number of extended rhythmic sections where characters speak in rhyming couplets, places Frank Morgan in a romantic role and celebrates careless irresponsibility in 1933, at the peak of the Depression. Although it’s not as well known as Jolson’s history-making The Jazz Singer, it is often mentioned as his best film, with his most understated and nuanced performance (though I’m not in a position to judge, having only seen him in the later The Rose of Washington Square). It is also possibly his most accessible film (apart from the film’s idiosyncrasies), because he does not perform in his trademark black face. 

Al Jolson is Bumper, a hobo who is called the Mayor of Central Park in New York City, where many hobos hang out. The real mayor of New York City is John Hastings (Frank Morgan), a worldly and dapper man who owes his life to Bumper. Hasting and Bumper are old friends and since Bumper won’t let Hasting get him a job, Hastings frequently passes cash to him.

Among Bumper’s friends are Acorn (Edgar Connor), who travels with him everywhere, Egghead (Harry Langdon), who is actually not a hobo but a socialist who believes in work and has a job picking up papers in the park, and Sunday (Chester Conklin), who drives people in his horse and carriage.

Egghead (Harry Langdon), Bumper (Al Jolson), and Acorn (Edgar Connor)

Egghead (Harry Langdon), Bumper (Al Jolson), and Acorn (Edgar Connor)

Although many films of 1933 dealt with the Depression, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum addresses it in a somewhat unique way: it romanticizes it. Bumper is a carefree and happy guy without strings, worries or fears who lives in good comradeship with all his friends. Of course, the cynic might point out that it’s because he is, as Egghead accuses him, a plutocrat at heart. He’s got a good thing going; deference from his peers and money from Hastings.

In contrast to Bumper is Mayor Hastings, a man of the world who must kiss babies and lay cornerstones to schools, even though he doesn’t care about it, thus satirizing the system that Bumper is successfully avoiding. What Hastings does care for is his mistress, June (Madge Evans). He’s crazy about her, but convinced that she’s having an affair with another man. His jealousy becomes so strong that she tries to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge.

June is rescued by Bumper, but unfortunately she can’t remember anything. Bumper is smitten, determined to take care of her, and she looks to him like a trusting child. But Bumper realizes that she can’t live in the park like he does. He needs to get her an apartment and in order to do that, he needs to get a job (which nearly causes a riot in Central Park when the work-averse hobos hear of it – non-work is a creed with them). But Bumper has fallen hard for her and begins to dream about working and making a home for June, who he calls Angel since he doesn’t know her name.

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Sunday, June and Bumper

He works diligently at a bank (stamping signatures on official letters; Acorn folds towels) and in the evening visits Angel at her apartment, bringing her small presents. She is delighted with him and everything and his only fear is that when she regains her memory, he’ll lose her.

But soon Bumper discovers that Angel is really June, the missing mistress of Hastings, who is grieving and contrite that June left him. When Bumper does discover it, he never hesitates, he simply brings Hastings to June, who recognizes him, regains her memory, but seems to forget all about Bumper and recoils when she sees him.

It is a great performance by Jolson, who simply sits quietly and lets you read the heartbreak on his face, though also gentle, selfless acceptance. Jolson evidently was much more hammy in his other films, though the two I’ve seen him in so far, he’s been relatively restrained, though still charismatic. The actor was apparently anything but gentle in his personal life, but in the film, he plays a really sweet guy underneath the carefree hobo cockiness.

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum surprised me by having more heart than I was expecting. I thought it was going to go pretty hard on the political satire, which it certainly is, but the gentle touch is what really stood out to me, as represented by Bumper. His world as a hobo, outside of civilization, represent a kind of state of nature, though the script is too wise to totally idealize the hobos, who promptly forget about how much they don’t need money to chase Bumper around the park when he discovers a $100 bill that he intends to return. Even Egghead, the socialist, gives chase and  wants a piece of it until Bumper reminds him that he needs to be ideologically consistent.

Frank Morgan and Al Jolson

Frank Morgan and Al Jolson

But when June loses her memory it is like she is reborn from worldly woman to trusting and childlike. Being a bum, not working, makes you outside of the system. Bumper, Acorn and his fellow hobos have an almost philosophical aversion to work, as if even to participate in sordid business taints one. But once Bumper begins to care for June, he can no longer afford to stay outside the system. His freedom comes from being unattached to anyone and when he loses June to Hastings, he regains his freedom.

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum also gives Frank Morgan a completely uncharacteristic role of sophisticated, casually corrupt and dapper romantic lead who wins the woman in the end. It’s the first time I’ve seen him play anything other than variations on his Wizard of Oz persona and he’s quite good at it, much less over-the-top than usual.

The songs were written by the songwriting team Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, whose success occurred primarily on the stage, but they did have a brief Hollywood fling in the early thirties. One musical was Love Me Tonight, with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, and another was Hallelujah, I’m a Bum. Ultimately, they preferred writing for the stage. Their score for Hallelujah, I’m a Bum isn’t quite as full of future standards as Love Me Tonight. It is a bit more cerebral, especially with all the talky/singing/rhyming sections. However, there are two songs that stand out.

One is the title song, “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” which Bumper sings celebrating the hobo lifestyle while June is contemplating suicide.

The other is the genuine, though lesser-known standard, “You Are Too Beautiful,” which Bumper sings to June in a very sweet scene.

If you want to hear the full song, Jolson recorded it later.

And here is an example of the rhyming couplets. Bumper has just returned from a trip down South and is being greeted by his fellow hobos, but before they discuss politics Egghead arrives.

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2015 in Movies

 

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The Rose of Washington Square (1939) – Not-So-Veiled Biopic of Fanny Brice

MV5BNDM4MjgzODM1NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDk4NzE2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Ever since first being introduced to Alice Faye, I have liked her movies. Her voice, as Alice Faye said, was deeper than the plots of her films, but there is a warm, nostalgic charm in her films that I enjoy. And I especially enjoy her voice and her singing. Michael Feinstein comments in a feature on the DVD of The Rose of Washington Square that she was an excellent swing singer, but she is extremely moving when she sings ballads and has a rich, warm voice that is lovely to listen to.

The story of Rose of Washington Square is extremely basic: about the enduring love of a woman for her charming, but ne’er-do-well husband. During the 1920s (the era of vaudeville, speakeasies and booze just off the ships) Rose Sargent (Alice Faye) and Ted Cotter (Al Jolson) are struggling vaudevillians trying to land a contract with a big-time agent. However, before they can do so, Rose meets Bart Clinton (Tyrone Power) at a hotel and they fall in love instantly. Ted Cotter gets his contract with agent Harry Long (William Frawley – always fun to see in a film), but Rose is no longer his partner. 

Instead, she gets a job at a speakeasy, where she sings a fun swing song with Louis Prima (of King Louis fame in The Jungle Book), who accompanies her on his trumpet, and she runs into Bart again. Bart, it turns out, is something of a small-time crook who occasionally plays with the bigger-time crooks. He’s more of a con artist. When she first meets him at the hotel and they fall in love, he skips out that same night without telling her because the police caught up with him when he tried to con a very expensive necklace out of Tiffany’s. But when she meets him again, she tells him she doesn’t care what he does. She loves him and nothing he does can make any difference.

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Tyrone Power, Alice Faye

Naturally, Ted Cotter does not like Bart much, but puts up with him for Rose’s sake. His career skyrockets, however, and Jolson sings many of his most famous songs: “Mammy,” “Toot Toot Tootsie,” California, Here I Come.” Meanwhile, Bart and Rose marry and her career takes off as well. But Bart is still no good, immature, and incapable of staying honest and he goes from one scrape to another of increasing magnitude. Meanwhile, his wife continues to stand by his side, no matter what, even when he must stand a public trial for theft.

She never gets angry…not once (unlike in Alexander’s Ragtime Band, where Faye and Power’s interaction is decidedly more fiery). But Rose has simply decided that she doesn’t care what he does; she wants him and she’s going to stand by him and it’s definitely a decision, even if she does say that her love is more like a fever, something you can’t cure or control.

In one way, it is yet another one of those stories glorifying the suffering wife standing by her crummy husband, but it’s actually a not terribly subtle rip-off of real people and a real event. At the beginning of Rose of Washington Square, there is a disclaimer saying the events and people in the film are purely fictitious, but no one believed it. The story almost exactly mirrors the story of vaudevillian Fanny Brice and her marriage to professional gambler, Nicky Arnstein, and everyone, including Fanny Brice herself, recognized it. She sued 20th Century Fox, Alice Faye, Tyrone Power and Al Jolson. They evidently settled it out of court.

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Alice Faye, Al Jolson

Fanny Brice was primarily a comedian, one of Florenz Ziegfeld’s biggest stars, but she could also reportedly break your heart with a song and her most heartbreaking song was “My Man,” which Faye sings in Rose of Washington Square. In fact, Faye sings a number of songs that Brice was famous for, but “My Man” is the emotional climax of the film, where Rose declares to the world that nothing’s going to change how much she loves Bart. According to the featurette on the DVD, whenever Brice would sing “My Man,”everyone knew that she was really singing about her love for Nicky Arnstein and it was like a very public confessional, with Brice literally singing her heart out while the audience cried.

Rose of Washington Square is the first film I have seen Al Jolson in. I must admit that he initially took me aback. His acting style is fairly understated (at least in this film), but when he’s singing he’s full of frenetic energy, almost twitchy, his entire body constantly in motion, and he nearly pops off the screen at you. Jolson is essentially playing Jolson in the movie, who always performed his songs in black face. But I can see why he was so popular; that twitchy energy is magnetic, if highly individual and takes a little getting used to.

Alice Faye and Tyrone Power made three movies together: Alexander’s Ragtime BandIn Old Chicago, and The Rose of Washington Square, though I have not yet seen In Old Chicago. But Alice Faye and Tyrone Power are a good match and I give them great credit for making it seem both plausible and natural that they would fall in love at first sight in The Rose of Washington Square. Power is best remembered as a swashbuckler, but he played cads, crooks and shady characters very well. He could have just a touch of the smarmy about him, but he was handsome and boyish enough to carry it off and keep audience sympathy.

Alice Faye sings 'Rose of Washington Square"

Alice Faye sings ‘Rose of Washington Square”

All in all, it’s a very enjoyable film with some great songs. I have not seen Funny Girl (another not-so-disguised biopic of Fanny Brice, starring Barbra Streisand), but it is credited as the main reason people still remember Fanny Brice at all. However, Rose of Washington Square is actually supposed to be a more accurate portrayal of Fanny Brice’s marriage to Nicky Arnstein, though Alice Faye is not very like Fanny Brice. But it gets the core of Fanny’s love for her husband right.

Although recorded much later than 1939, here is Alice Faye singing one of Fanny Brice’s songs; “Rose of Washington Square.”

Al Jolson reprises “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” in Rose of Washington Square, one of his hits which he also sang in the 1927 The Jazz Singer. This clip is from The Jazz Singer.

This version of “My Man” was sung by Fanny Brice in 1938 on the radio.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2015 in Movies

 

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