The Jolson Controversy


We are by now all old enough to remember who Al Jolson was, even if we weren’t around when the first sound feature film, “The Jazz Singer”, made filmic history.

I confess that as a kid, back in the 1940s, I was enamored with Jolie, and loved the Larry Parks biopic, “The Jolson Story”, made about him in 1946. I’ll even go further and confess to putting on blackface with a burnt cork and doing “Mammy” imitations in family gatherings. Of course, I had the full collection of 33 RPMs in a Jolson album issued at the time, though I didn’t catch the “Jazz Singer” until many years later. I was also delighted with other entertainers such as Eddie Cantor and I even still remember a film, which I’ve never seen trace of since, called “Dixie” (1943), starring Bing Crosby, which was all about minstrel men and vaudeville. Indeed, I had always had a soft spot for “vaude” and those of you who’ve thumbed through my history of Variety may have noticed that I dedicate quite a number of pages to Sime’s relationship to vaude. Indeed, Al Jolson used to advertise in Variety. His account was handled by an old-time ad salesman on 46th Street, Lester Jacob. Former ad manager, Mort Bryer, tells me that in appreciation of Lester’s efforts in Jolie’s behalf, Jolson sometime in the 1920s gave him a golden wristwatch engraved to “To my friend Lester Jacob. Al Jolson.” What the fate of the watch was after Jacob’s death is unknown.

Having lived abroad for so many years, and perhaps being somewhat out of touch with current American political correctness, I was quite taken aback a few years ago while in New York when a liberal college pal of mine pointed out how demeaning blackface entertainment was to African-Americans. Somehow, I had never thought about it. All those ministrel shows and films I saw as a kid and teen-ager were wrong? All that wonderful entertainment was a slur and was to be shunned in the future? Could it be possible that the Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson films would actually be banned or at least made unavailable in the future? Was a whole sector of American show biz now to be proscribed? And would the “Jazz Singer” now be held up to young Americans as a travesty? This, in fact, is what has happened.

The issue was poignantly raised a couple of weeks ago when ex-mugg Doug Galloway, a great fan of Jolie’s, alerted me to a self-righteous article that had been published in “Entertainment Weekly” lambasting not only Jolson but “The Jazz Singer” as well.

Here, I thought, was a subject appropriate for the muggs to mull over and comment upon, an issue perfectly tailored to their backgrounds, interests and the Old Variety. So we’ve decided to post Doug’s e-mail to me on the Simesite for your comments and feedback. I’m sure Roger would have approved. So would Sime.

The following was received from Doug on October 20:

Okay, Everyone:

This article was brought to my attention by good friend Maureen Solomon. It appears in the current issue of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY (October 19, 2007, with Patrick Dempsey on the cover), on page 111. Some of you may have already seen it, or heard about it, but in case you have not, you really should. This “reviewer” has totally slammed “The Jazz Singer”, and does so in such an uninformed and ridiculous manner, that somebody needs to say something in response. Somebody with tons more Jolson knowledge than myself. Any takers? If so, you may send an e-mail response to: or a regular letter to: Entertainment Weekly, 1675 Broadway, New York, NY 10019. Happy Reading!

(PS. Please copy in anything you send to for posting on the Simesite.)



SOUND AND FURY The Jazz Singer gave movies a voice, but the 1927 film starring Al Jolson (pictured) hits more than a few wrong notes today.

Release Date: Oct 16, 2007; Genres: Drama, Music; With: Al Jolson; Distributor: Warner Bros.

By Steve Daly

Why does the cover for The Jazz Singer a three-disc paean to the creaky 1927 Al Jolson flick (not to be confused with a wretched 1980 remake starring Neil Diamond) — show its leading man, arms out in a crooner’s pose, only in silhouette? Because there’s an ugly stereotype under wraps here, that’s why. The jacket soft-pedals the fact that Jolson spends a significant portion of Jazz Singer in blackface, masquerading as an African-American man — that is, as a grotesque, degrading approximation of one. Original posters for the movie featured Jolson’s made-up visage; hence the censored DVD image.

Jolson, of course, didn’t invent blackface. He was part of a larger pop-cultural obsession with ethnic impersonation. Born Asa Yoelson, the Jewish Lithuanian entertainer blunted his own ”racial” heritage (a term used freely at the time in discussing Jewish identity) by assuming the trappings of another. The gimmick helped make him a recording superstar… and pigeonholed him forever inside an indefensible minstrel-show tradition.

Are we supposed to celebrate The Jazz Singer unabashedly, as this DVD set does? Among the voluminous extras — a commentary track, a documentary on the dawn of “talking picture” technology, a huge, nearly four-hour sampling of early sound short films — you’ll find only passing, borderline-apologetic references to racial politics, and no one speaking from an African-American perspective. The movie itself, taken in context, still works — provided you can get past Jolson’s bug-eyed acting style. The plot is powerful because it’s so absurdly melodramatic: A stern Orthodox Jewish cantor (Warner Oland, who went on to caricature Asians in the Charlie Chan movies) wants his son, Jakie Rabinowitz (Jolson), to follow in his footsteps. But Jakie rebels. He leaves home, renames himself Jack Robin, lands a big Broadway show (that’s where the blackface comes in), and is savagely rejected by his father. Jolson has a freaky ability to portray the wounds of that rejection, especially when Jack clings to his mama (Eugenie Besserer) as recompense. After battling his parents, Jack suddenly reforms, punts his Broadway opening night, and serves as a one-time-only cantor to honor his father’s wishes as the old man lies deathly ill. It’s a four-hanky spectacle.

Watching Jolson treat Jewish ritual as just another form of “showmanship”, thereby equating blackface with cantorial melodies as an expression of a mournful history, remains a remarkable act of ethnic drag. Still, the sight of that dark makeup ultimately makes Jolson’s act seem less empathetic than condescending. Thankfully, history has moved beyond this movie and its attitudes. How sobering to be reminded that something so wrong could ever have been so popular. C