by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Charles and I got to watch a movie last night, and it was quite a good one: Mammy, Al Jolson’s fourth film, his second all-talkie (his first two, The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool, had been part-silent, part-talkie films) and the first in which he worked with a major director, Michael Curtiz. I’d seen this 1930 production once before on Turner Classic Movies in an all black-and-white print before the recent rediscovery of a print containing the original two-strip Technicolor sequences, a big minstrel-show production number and a parade finale. Alas, the one extant print with the Technicolor sequences didn’t contain them complete: there were bits where they had been spliced, sometimes missing just a few frames, sometimes whole seconds, and rather than use colorization technology to fill in the gaps in the color sequences from the black-and-white prints, the film restorers at UCLA and Warner Bros. decided to tint the black-and-white film sepia in an attempt to try to match it with the color footage. (This was the same technique used in movies like The Story of Seabiscuit, the 1949 version, in which black-and-white newsreel footage of Seabiscuit’s actual races was toned to try to match it to a film that was otherwise in color — and also in the 1975 disaster film The Hindenburg so they could use the original newsreels of the Hindenburg fire instead of having to recreate it on a special-effects stage.) Alas, the breaks were jarring, and even more jarring in the short frames than in the longer missing parts.
I’d quite liked Mammy the first time I saw it and it holds up well, though after seeing the intervening Jolson films The Singing Fool and Say It With Songs, it doesn’t seem like as much of a dramatic departure for Jolson than it did when the only prior Jolson film I’d seen was The Jazz Singer. Mammy was based on a story by songwriter Irving Berlin called “Mr. Bones,” and Berlin — whose song “Blue Skies” had been included in The Jazz Singer — got to do most of the score, including the movie’s obvious “plug” song, “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.” The imdb.com page on the film lists a running time of 84 minutes but the Warner Video Archive DVD we were watching is longer than that, thanks to a five-minute overture at the beginning and also an exit music sequence at the end — though, rather jarringly, they put the restoration credits to UCLA between the overture and the main title instead of before the overture, where they belonged. The disc also includes the original trailer for the film, which is staged as a phony “interview” with Jolson in which he says he’s always wanted to make a film about minstrels since he got his start in minstrelsy (indeed, the first person he worked for, minstrel-show owner Lew Dockstader, is mentioned in the dialogue as well as pretty obviously providing the real-life basis for the character of Meadows, the minstrel-show owner in the film, played by Hobart Bosworth) — and while the “interview” is obviously faked I suspect the sentiments are real.
Meadows’ minstrel show is floundering financially and in danger of being attached by the local sheriff (Jack Curtis) in the small town where they’re playing, but the “end man” star Al Fuller (Al Jolson) manages to talk the sheriff not only into not closing the show down but investing in it (selling his family farm to do so) and traveling with the company. The film mostly centers around the romantic intrigues involving Meadows’ daughter Nora (Lois Moran) and her love for the show’s interlocutor (the whiteface performer who stood in the center and introduced everybody as well as playing straight man in the comedy routines), Billy “Westy” West (the marvelously oily villain Lowell Sherman) — only Westy’s feelings about Nora, whatever they are, don’t stop him from making dates to see other women in the various towns the show plays. Al offers to stage a scene in which he will pretend to be in love with Nora, so Westy will get jealous, be more attentive to her and give up the other women — only Westy seems more relieved than anything else since he’s all too anxious to dump Nora onto Al, who’s really in (unrequited) love with her anyway. During the big production number (were minstrel shows ever really that large?), when Al is supposed to “shoot” Westy with a prop gun and then joke, “When I shoots ’em, they stays shot!,” Westy is wounded for real and Al is naturally suspected.
This happens about an hour into the film and the remaining half-hour looks dramatically different from the rest of the movie: the camerawork by Curtiz and cinematographer Barney McGill, pretty straightforward up until then, suddenly turns decidedly noir and the film leaves the Zeitgeist of the minstrelsy era and comes face-to-face with the realities of the Depression: Al Fuller, in hiding from the police, becomes a bum and rides the rails, hoboing his way to the small town where his mother (Louise Dresser) lives. Their confrontation scene features so much hugging and kissing it looks for a while like Al is about to go Oedipal, and Michael Freedland’s Jolson bio dismissed it as a blatant attempt to redo the mother-son scene in The Jazz Singer, but to my mind it actually works better than its predecessor, partly because Louise Dresser is a more sensitive actress than Eugenie Besserer and partly because the writing (by Joseph Jackson and Gordon Rigby) is quieter, more dignified and more emotionally insightful. Here, as in The Singing Fool and Say It With Songs, Jolson proves himself capable of subtle acting when he willed himself to be, and when his mom assures him she believes he’s innocent but advises him to go back and turn himself in so he can prove it in court, he does so — and in the closing scenes (which seem to come awfully hurriedly to keep down the film’s running time) he returns to the minstrel show, the other end man, Slats (Tully Marshall), turns out to have been Westy’s assailant (he sneaked real bullets into the “prop” gun so Westy would get shot and Al would look guilty), Westy is alive, fully recovered and back at his job, and Al is welcomed back to the troupe, given his old slot and billed as “Returning from Europe!”
Mammy is a movie that holds up surprisingly well even though Curtiz’s direction is less inventive than Lloyd Bacon’s was in Say It With Songs — and Irving Berlin’s score is a plus, though Jolson tapped other songwriters for his big novelty features with the minstrel company (Al Bryan and Fred Fisher for “Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle?” and Jean Schwartz’, Joe Young’s and Sam Lewis’ “Why Did They All Take the Night Boat to Albany?,” as well as an elaborate “opera” parody on “Yes, We Have No Bananas”) and “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” which Jolson does three times, is a victim of his relentless assault on certain songs: he goes higher than Berlin’s melody, he yelps, he leaps and he hammers the song home when it would work better if he sang it with quiet dignity (as indeed he did 16 years later in the opening credits of The Jolson Story). Jolson’s best singing here comes on his ballads, “Across the Breakfast Table Looking at You” (a song worth reviving despite its awkward title) and “To My Mammy,” Berlin’s attempt at writing a competitor to “My Mammy” and the other “mammy” songs Walter Donaldson had already written for Jolson. (“To My Mammy” includes the lyric “How much do I love you/I’ll tell you no lie/How deep is the ocean/How high is the sky?,” which Berlin recycled two years later for an even greater song, “How Deep Is the Ocean?”)
Much of Jolson’s vocal work in these early movies recalls the scene in Ziegfeld Girl, filmed in 1941, in which Charles Winninger, playing Judy Garland’s father, advises her to “sell” the song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” with the same annoying vocal moves with which Jolson tricks up “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” here — and Judy bombs until she decides to ignore her dad’s advice, sings the song as a straight ballad and wins the approval of the audience. It’s nice to have the color sequences back in Mammy (though, as mentioned above, it would have been even nicer if they’d used colorization to cover the gaps in the footage instead of just sepia-toning the extant black-and-white), and it’s clear from the overall quality that the restorers had access to an original set of the Mammy sound discs (Warners was still using the sound-on-disc Vitaphone process and wouldn’t abandon it until 1931) because the gaps in the picture don’t have corresponding glitches in the soundtrack. (Jolson was filmed in color only twice more: in the 1939 biopic Swanee River, in which Don Ameche played Stephen Foster and Jolson played E. P. Christy, the real-life minstrel who introduced many of Foster’s songs; and, uncredited, in the “Swanee” sequence of The Jolson Story.)
It’s even nicer to have the movie readily available — it’s worth seeing and yet more evidence that Jolson, as overbearing as he could be when he was allowed to get away with hamming and scene-stealing, could also be a remarkably subtle performer when he wanted to be and/or when a strong director forced him to be. Aside from The Jazz Singer, which gets shown today mostly for its historical importance, Jolson’s films are rarely revived (probably at least in part because the whole idea of blackface and the minstrel tradition from which his act derived have become politically passé), but quite a few of them are well worth seeing.