There was a time when blackface wasn’t such a big deal. White performers would show up with greasepaint on their faces and sing plantation songs and do dances that as “white folks,” were beyond propriety. If you read Where Dead Voices Gather, Nick Tosches’ brilliant biography of the blackface performer Emmett Miller, you get a great feel for the place vaudeville and minstrelsy had in the entertainment of the early 20th century.
This is the world in which Al Jolson was a megastar. Born in Lithuania in 1886, the young Asa Yoelsen moved to Baltimore as a child, where he wound up at the same reform school as Babe Ruth. He discovered music fairly early, appearing in vaudeville productions of various kinds from the beginning of the century. His star rose steadily through the first decade of the 1900s, and by 1911, when he returned to New York after a few years on the West Coast for his first solo revue on Broadway, he was a full-blown national sensation. Every Broadway production kept his star rising for the next decade, and at the premiere of Bombo in 1921, Jolson received 37 curtain calls.
In a lot of ways, Al Jolson was the first rock star, or pop idol, of the modern era. He was mobbed wherever he went, his performances were so thoroughly over the top that they seemed silly, and he was vulnerable in a way that only certain opera characters were before that time. Granted, no small amount of that was due to his being able to don blackface to get over in ways that he couldn’t as himself, but still, there was no one better. His blackface served as a metaphor for Jewish oppression, and that was how (white, theatergoing) America saw it.
In fact, that was the plot of the original production of The Jazz Singer, which premiered on this day in 1927. Jolson plays Jack Robin, a blackface performer who has to choose between singing for his disapproving parents and the adoring crowd. (I won’t spoil the ending, but you can probably guess how it works out.) The movie is perfectly serviceable, but it does feature the first lines of dialogue ever spoken in a feature film, and the musical sequences (Jolson sings six songs; it’s largely a showcase for his talent) are sung live. This caused a sensation at the time, and to say that this film killed the silent film industry is not inaccurate. (The first-ever Academy Awards were held the following year, and while The Jazz Singer would have been eligible, they excluded it from consideration, so as to give the other movies a chance.)
The 1980 remake starred Neil Diamond as a Jewish cantor who sang with a soul group at night. There is a blackface scene, but they get past that bit pretty quickly. (It’s terrible, though the soundtrack did feature “America” and “Love On The Rocks,” and Neil is still touring today, so I guess it all ultimately worked out.)
These two clips feature the first live-tracked singing captured on film, followed immediately by the first spoken line (“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”), sandwiched between two of Jolson’s hits at the time. Although the singing style is rather different than today (it was 90 years ago, to be sure), Jolson’s pantomime & tight vibrato voice still get “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” over just fine. And the basic rave-up “Toot Toot Tootsie” is an no-brainer of an encore.