"Al Jolson, the greatest of them all" - so they said

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Smari1989

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"Al Jolson, the greatest of them all" - so they said

PostMon Mar 20, 2017 4:20 pm

Jack Benny said so. Walter Kerr said so. Heck, Al Jolson himself (reportedly) said so. "The greatest entertainer of all time." Yet as much as I can enjoy Jolson's recordings and film appearances, I strongly suspect you had to see him onstage to truly get why he was so revered (by himself and others alike). Are there some good clips/documentaries/etc available that capture his greatness, in a way that records and films inevitably cannot? Thanks.
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bobfells

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Re: "Al Jolson, the greatest of them all" - so they said

PostMon Mar 20, 2017 7:50 pm

The typical comment from people who saw Al Jolson in the flesh (so to speak) is that films and recordings never fully captured his appeal or his charisma. I've heard the same comment made about Caruso, Toscanini, John Barrymore, the Lunts, and many others. I'm sure there's a certain amount of truth to this but there's another factor to consider: some of the most charismatic personalities of the theater did not convey that quality on film. The early talkies proved this and most Broadway stars soon retreated back to NY after proving they had no film "presence." Among the exceptions was Al Jolson who seemed almost too big for the medium of films.

To answer your question, I found two audio recordings that manage to capture what must have been his appeal live. The first might be called Jolson Unscripted: an Oct 1946 late night radio interview with Barry Gray in NYC. It runs about 80 minutes and was recorded off-the-air on a home recorder. The second is the only recording of Jolson entertaining the troops during the Korean War. Recorded in September 1950 a month before his death he gives a live show at a US airbase in Japan. It runs about 30 minutes and is a real hoot. Both recordings are not professionally made but the Jolson of the stage bursts through dynamically. There's also a 1949 Steve Allen radio broadcast where Jolie is again unscripted and terrific. That one exists in terrific sound.

Don't rule out some of his films such as GO INTO YOUR DANCE, WONDER BAR, and HALLELUJAH I'M A BUM. He handled scripted dialogue awkwardly and sometimes when he's moving around in a scene you can see him looking for his mark where to stop. Still you can't take your eyes off him and in one film where he's not the star, SWANEE RIVER, he steals every scene he's in. Check out his Colgate show from 1943. While scripted of course, he seems to be enjoying himself.

Hope this helps.
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Re: "Al Jolson, the greatest of them all" - so they said

PostMon Mar 20, 2017 8:47 pm

bobfells wrote:Don't rule out some of his films such as GO INTO YOUR DANCE, WONDER BAR, and HALLELUJAH I'M A BUM. He handled scripted dialogue awkwardly and sometimes when he's moving around in a scene you can see him looking for his mark where to stop. Still you can't take your eyes off him and in one film where he's not the star, SWANEE RIVER, he steals every scene he's in. Check out his Colgate show from 1943. While scripted of course, he seems to be enjoying himself.

Hope this helps.


While I was never a big Jolson fan, I do like him in Hallelujah, I'm a Bum, more than in anything else I've seen. The movie itself is so offbeat and charming, and Jolson seems more relaxed than usual. It's more of an ensemble than a Jolson vehicle, and he works well with his co-stars, and doesn't play to the balcony. And frankly, it's a relief that he never reaches for the burnt cork.
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Re: "Al Jolson, the greatest of them all" - so they said

PostMon Mar 20, 2017 9:30 pm

Wm. Charles Morrow wrote:While I was never a big Jolson fan, I do like him in Hallelujah, I'm a Bum, more than in anything else I've seen. The movie itself is so offbeat and charming, and Jolson seems more relaxed than usual. It's more of an ensemble than a Jolson vehicle, and he works well with his co-stars, and doesn't play to the balcony. And frankly, it's a relief that he never reaches for the burnt cork.


Director Lewis Milestone reportedly made Jolson repeat every scene until he got all the stiffness out of his acting style. This film was actually made twice - the first time with Roland Young as the mayor. He become ill or some such thing and Frank Morgan was brought in to reshoot all of Young's scenes. This meant Jolson had to reshoot all his scenes with Morgan, which were many. The "relaxed" performance may be due to boredom.
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Re: "Al Jolson, the greatest of them all" - so they said

PostTue Mar 21, 2017 2:48 am

There are any amount of performers who were an absolute whizz on the stage but were a complete washout as far as films go. In Australia one who stands out is the comedian Roy "Mo" Rene who commanded a great stage popularity from the 1920's through the 1940's. Possibly he could get away with slightly more risque material in live performance - but he was also able to raise a laugh just by sticking his head around the curtain. He made only one film - "Strike Me Lucky" in 1935 which was a huge bomb at the box office. His appearances on the wireless usually went out on the air live, so a degree of his spontaneity could be maintained through that medium.
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Re: "Al Jolson, the greatest of them all" - so they said

PostTue Mar 21, 2017 5:07 am

I believe Jolson's very first talkie appearance, in 1926's AL JOLSON IN A PLANTATION ACT, a one reel Vitaphone short shot almost a year before THE JAZZ SINGER, is closest in capturing his stage presence. You'll recall that after the Library of Congress found the picture portion in a can mis-labeled JAZZ SINGER TRAILER, our Vitaphone Project launched an all out effort to locate the equally long missing disk. We found it in a barn in Towson, MD a year later. It was cracked in five places and epoxied together such that the grooves didn't line up. But expert record restored Jim Cooprider was able to fix it and UCLA restored it.
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Re: "Al Jolson, the greatest of them all" - so they said

PostTue Mar 21, 2017 6:00 am

I think many in show business who fully appreciated Jolson's talent were able to see him in his famed Sunday night concerts at the Winter Garden. Here he was unencumbered by scripts and "acting" but was simply there to be himself, to sing, tell jokes and ad-lib like crazy. From all the extant recordings - especially radio - you can tell that Jolson had incredible energy and one can only imagine him letting loose and holding court over a largely show folk audience. Someone recently asked me if I could live now or in an earlier time which would I choose. I chose now because I like now due to our enlightened age and the wonderful technologies that allow us to enjoy the past. But I sure would love to have been able to see Jolson in his prime on a Sunday night at the Winter Garden.

As for film - perhaps my vote for the best example of Jolson at full tilt would be doing "The Night Boat to Albany" in MAMMY.
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Re: "Al Jolson, the greatest of them all" - so they said

PostTue Mar 21, 2017 6:04 am

I think Jolson's genius can best be experienced through his musical recordings. He was a performer of his time, a showman who played to the back of the house, so he can come off as abrasive to someone unaccustomed to that style, especially visually. However, I think his Decca recordings which were used in his biopic are truly remarkable. He could belt out a tune like nobody else, sing with a power that few achieve, especially at his age at the time. He also sang with nuance. He could break your heart ("Sonny Boy") and make your heart light ("I'm Sittin' on Top of the World," "Carolina in the Morning," "When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin Along"). I love hearing him sing "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" because I think it reflected his true feelings about performing.

If you're looking to experience why he was so wonderful, please avoid his radio show. While it can be somewhat entertaining in small doses, the jokes are pretty lame and he doesn't come off so well.
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Re: "Al Jolson, the greatest of them all" - so they said

PostTue Mar 21, 2017 8:01 am

Quote: "If you're looking to experience why he was so wonderful, please avoid his radio show. While it can be somewhat entertaining in small doses, the jokes are pretty lame and he doesn't come off so well."

It really depends on the radio series. SHELL CHATEAU 1935-36 has lame jokes and Jolie stiffly reading some introductions of various performers. On the plus side, his live singing of many songs he never commercially recorded such as from the then-current Warner Bros. musicals is terrific. Also, as an avid sports fan he obviously enjoyed interviewing many sports figures and even though these were scripted the exchanges are quite lively. On one show an old time boxer (I forget his name) had trouble reading his lines so Jolie pulled the script away from him and they just talked. The old man came to life.

Al's next show for Lifebouy was a high energy show with Jolie clearly enjoying himself. Only about ten shows survive from the three year run but they are in great sound and hugely entertaining. His Colgate show 1942-43 is likewise very good but only four shows survive, the run of January 1943. Jolie was teamed with Monty Woolly (of all people) and they really click. His last series, Kraft Music Hall, (he was its first host in 1933-34) has great singing but corny jokes and teams him oddly with Oscar Levant. But the guest stars are top notch - Al has a wonderful routine with Bogart where they joke about their much younger wives and how neither showed their faces in their recent films (Jolson Story and Dark Passage). In all, there is more gold than dross to be mined from Jolson's radio career.
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Re: "Al Jolson, the greatest of them all" - so they said

PostTue Mar 21, 2017 9:40 am

Thanks for the responses!

Bobfells, I'll check out the audio recordings you mentioned. I rather like HALLELUJAH I'M A BUM - the sketchy "romanticizing" of a bum's life notwithstanding, it's a quite enjoyable film. But nice though it is, Jolson's performance in the film doesn't (and probably wasn't meant to) suggest much of his extraordinary stage presence.

I agree, Maliejandra, that the soundtrack to Jolson's biopic is quite awesome; his voice only got better towards the end.

It may seem curious that charisma onstage far from always meant charisma onscreen - on the other hand, it makes perfect sense in a way. Despite sharing many similarities, in the end they're quite different mediums. Like many others, I care very little for Hal Roach-comedian Ben Blue (based on what I've seen of him, anyway) but I understand that his style worked far better with a live audience.
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Re: "Al Jolson, the greatest of them all" - so they said

PostTue Mar 21, 2017 10:18 am

His rendition of "Toot Toot Tootsie" in The Jazz Singer, to me anyway (acoustic and early electric era personalities are a staple of my 78rpm collection) shows him at his best in terms of a filmed performance of one of his songs (minus the overdone whistling segment in the middle). The second chorus especially, with the camera placement. There's an immediacy about it, and I can get a sense of the energy that he must have radiated. He's also doing some sort of hip movement that seems uncharacteristic for entertainers of that time.

I'll take that particular performance by that balding 42 year-old when it comes to a filmed rendition of a 1920's pop song!!
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Re: "Al Jolson, the greatest of them all" - so they said

PostTue Mar 21, 2017 4:24 pm

From reading every scrap I could find about Jolson, I've come to the conclusion that much of his stage appeal derived from his spontaneity and not having to worry overmuch about plot scenes. He could read an audience like few other performers.

With the exception of "A Plantation Act," noted above, that's exactly what he lost when he made movies.
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Re: "Al Jolson, the greatest of them all" - so they said

PostTue Mar 21, 2017 4:33 pm

jcp7701 wrote:His rendition of "Toot Toot Tootsie" in The Jazz Singer, to me anyway (acoustic and early electric era personalities are a staple of my 78rpm collection) shows him at his best in terms of a filmed performance of one of his songs (minus the overdone whistling segment in the middle). The second chorus especially, with the camera placement. There's an immediacy about it, and I can get a sense of the energy that he must have radiated. He's also doing some sort of hip movement that seems uncharacteristic for entertainers of that time.

I'll take that particular performance by that balding 42 year-old when it comes to a filmed rendition of a 1920's pop song!!

A lot of the credit for the success of that scene (other than Jolson himself), belongs to director Alan Crosland. His clever staging utterly disguised the problem of the performer's having to be immobile while singing or speaking.

In comparison, look at Jolson singing "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" in "The Singing Fool." Except for a brief dance step, Lloyd Bacon's direction places Al in the middle of an empty dance floor looking like one of his feet is nailed to the floor.
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Re: "Al Jolson, the greatest of them all" - so they said

PostWed Mar 22, 2017 10:50 am

Any recommendations for books about Jolson, or for that matter, Ruby Keeler? I live in Keeler's birthplace, and have enjoyed her in films, but have never done much indepth reading about her life and career. Or her marriage to Jolson, which I understand wasn't the happiest. Also curious about the veracity of the anecdote where she reportedly said, "Al Jolson was the greatest entertainer in the world ... I know because he told me so every day that we were married."
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Re: "Al Jolson, the greatest of them all" - so they said

PostWed Mar 22, 2017 12:12 pm

s.w.a.c. wrote:Any recommendations for books about Jolson, or for that matter, Ruby Keeler? I live in Keeler's birthplace, and have enjoyed her in films, but have never done much indepth reading about her life and career. Or her marriage to Jolson, which I understand wasn't the happiest. Also curious about the veracity of the anecdote where she reportedly said, "Al Jolson was the greatest entertainer in the world ... I know because he told me so every day that we were married."


Herbert Goldman's JOLSON: THE LEGEND COMES TO LIFE is a great Jolson bio. Heck, it may be the best celebrity bio of all time. And he does a great job of describing why he was unparalleled on the stage.

And I'll ditto what jcp7701 said about THE JAZZ SINGER, except for me, it's his singing of "Mammy" at the end: it's like he reaches through the screen and grabs you (well, me, anyway) by the throat. It's that burst of energy that so many goat glands try to achieve yet never did. I think it's also why so many of his 100% talkies are less successful: you don't get as big a burst of energy when he pops out of a talkie and starts doing his stage act.
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Re: "Al Jolson, the greatest of them all" - so they said

PostWed Mar 22, 2017 2:58 pm

I saw the recommendation for Goldman's book here some time ago and bought it.It is one of the best showbiz blogs I have ever read.you feel you really get to understand Jolson.
I saw The Jolson Story 12 times at the cinema.Got all his films and loads of albums.My late father adored his Yiddish songs.

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