The Legend Comes to Life
By Herbert G. Goldman; Oxford; 411 pages.
For a while the whole world was enchanted with Al Jolson. Robert Benchley, who was no pushover, wrote in 1925: “To sit and feel the lift of Jolson’s personality is to know what the coiners of the word ‘personality’ meant. … There is something supernatural back of it. … When Jolson enters, it is as if an electric current had been run along the wires under the seats where the hats are stuck. … He trembles his under lip, and your heart breaks with a loud snap. He sings, and you totter out to send a night letter to your mother. …”
The personality was so vivid, in fact, that even today—four decades since his death, half a century since he was last onstage in a big show—almost everyone has a pretty clear sense of Al Jolson: the energy, the high spirits, the amazing flow of that warm, plangent voice.
Herbert Goldman has pursued the figure behind that image with impressive thoroughness (he has, for instance, read every issue of Variety published between the paper’s inception in 1905 and September 1951, when Jolson was buried in Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles), and the man he has retrieved is, not surprisingly, a more complicated person than the sunny friend to all mankind who yelled about “Mammy!”
Al Jolson, writes Goldman, “was a Jew, probably the first man of his faith well known as a Jew and idolized by the American public.” He was born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania, came to America as a small boy, and, when he was eight years old, saw his mother die in childbirth. Goldman believes, reasonably enough, that the traumatic sight defined Jolson’s life, leaving him forever “an emotional child … a self-assured braggart who was terrified of being alone, a sentimentalist … who made life miserable for most of those around him, and a lothario who chased, conquered, and, in turn, ignored young women.” He was all that, but he was also the greatest star of his era. He quickly fought his way up through the vaudeville circuits, and the Shuberts were billing his name above their shows’ titles by 1917. In 1921 Lee Shubert renamed his brand-new Imperial “JoIson’s Fifty-ninth Street Theatre,” making the thirty-five-year-old Jolson the youngest man in American history to have a theater named after him.
Of course it was Jolson who starred in the movie that changed everything. When, in 1927, he sang and talked for a few moments in The Jazz Singer , he left the silents dead in his wake. But the man who is most associated with the advent of the talkies all but lost his career to them. The profound, incandescent charm that could overwhelm the toughest theater audience simply evaporated on the screen. Part of the reason lies in the fact that the great showman just did not understand the new medium. A reporter gave a grisly account of Jolson’s showing him what “the public really” wanted at a screening of the rushes of Little Pal in 1929. “The lights went out, and the screen began doing its stuff. David Lee lay stiff and still on the ground—he had just been run over by a truck. A crowd of extras, gathered around the body, were repeating, over and over, ‘He’s hurt’—‘Poor little chap’—‘He’s hurt!’ Then Al burst through. ‘My boy!’ he literally screamed; ‘my little boy! They’ve killed you! Oh, my little pal!’ This continued for about ten minutes.” Afterward Jolson explained that “we have to broaden everything in talkies. …”
He slipped all through the 1930s. Eventually a movie did retrieve his career, but he wasn’t in it. In 1946 the immensely successful The Jolson Story , starring Larry Parks (who lip-synced to the real Jolson’s singing), made the entertainer popular with a new generation.
When Jolson died a few years later, most of his contemporaries paid him the predictable tributes—a particularly fervid one came from the everodious George Jessel—but Fanny Brice said simply, “I never liked him.” You probably won’t either. Yet Goldman’s biography is worth reading, despite the idiosyncrasies of its subject and the occasional startling infelicities of its author, for the sense it gives of the tangy theater world that Jolson came to dominate and that the movies destroyed: a world of a thousand tank towns, each with its opera house, and a whole civilization forever on the move between them.