The Jazz Singer at 90, Part III (The life of Al Jolson)

It was hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) that George Jessel demanded too much salary from Warner Bros. for the lead role of The Jazz Singer. As talented and popular as Jessel was, Al Jolson was the only one with the charisma, star power, voice, and raw personal authenticity to carry the film and make it the first successful sound on film experiment.

Asa Yoelson was born 26 May 1886 in Sredniki, Russia (now Seredžius, Lithuania). Its Yiddish name was Srednik. Thankfully, he was spared the fate of the rest of Srednik’s Jewish community. On 4 September 1941, the Nazis murdered 193 people near Skrebėnai.

Asa was the baby of five children born to Moses Rubin Yoelson (1858–23 December 1945) and Nechama (Naomi) Cantor (1858–6 February 1895). His older siblings were Rose, Etta, a sister who died in infancy, and Hirsch (Harry).

Like many people in that era, he didn’t know when he was born, and chose 26 May 1886. His sister-in-law Margaret Weatherwax, however, claimed he was the same age as her father, born in 1881, and that he was 46 when he married her 18-year-old sister Ruby Keeler in 1928.

In 1891, Asa’s father immigrated to the U.S., and by 1894, he’d saved up enough money to bring his wife and children over. When they arrived, he was working as a cantor at Talmud Torah Congregation (now Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue) in Washington, D.C.

Sadly, Asa’s mother died in 1895, aged only 37. This sent him into a deep depression and withdrawal, and deeply affected him for the rest of his life. Later, his father remarried a woman named Ida, shown in the previous picture.

Asa was taken in by St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys (now Cardinal Gibbons School), a progressive orphanage in Baltimore. Another famous alum was Babe Ruth, who enrolled in 1902.

Asa and Hirsch were introduced to show business by entertainer Al Reeves in 1897, and began singing for money on street corners as Al and Harry. They often used the money for National Theatre shows.

In 1900, he moved to New York, where his first show was Children of the Ghetto. Then, in 1902, he began working for Walter L. Main’s Circus as an usher. Main was so impressed by his voice, he hired Asa as a singer in the Indian Medicine Side Show.

The circus folded that same year, leaving Asa unemployed. In 1903, he was hired for one show of Dainty Duchess Burlesquers. His rendition of “Be My Baby Bumble Bee” was so strong, he was kept for future shows.

This show too folded within the year, and Asa joined Hirsch, now a vaudeville performer called Harry. Though they gained nationwide bookings, live performances were no longer so popular, thanks to the rise of movies.

In 1904, the renamed Al began performing in blackface, which was a huge boost to his career. Harry left Al and their partner Joe Palmer following an argument, and the duo wasn’t as successful as the trio.

In 1906, Al was left solo. He soon became a nationally successful vaudeville singer. For awhile, he lived in San Francisco (wanting to cheer up earthquake survivors), then moved to New York in 1908 with his new wife Henrietta.

His singing career began growing by leaps and bounds after this move. By 1914, he was a huge star, and by 1920, he was Broadway’s biggest star.

Al went from strength to strength, becoming more popular and beloved with each new show and song. At 35, he became the youngest person to have a theatre named for him, Jolson’s 59th Street Theatre (later renamed the New Century Theatre, and razed in 1962).

In spite of how many modern people don’t understand the historical context and intent of blackface, this method of performing gave him a freedom to step into an alternate persona, disguise his true origins, express the Jewish liturgical tradition and cry of suffering, introduce jazz, blues, and ragtime to white audiences.

His blackface stage persona, Gus, was also smarter than his white masters, often helping them out of problems they’d made themselves. There was no bigotry or racism intended.

Al had many African–American friends, and promoted their careers at a time when Broadway barred them. He also demanded equal treatment for African–American co-stars, and was the only white person allowed into an all-Black Harlem nightclub.

When he learnt Eubie Blake and Noble Sissie, musicians he’d never met, had been denied service by a Connecticut restaurant, he tracked them down and took them to dinner himself. He and Blake became great friends.

The African–American community saw Al as a great friend and ally.

Over the course of his life, Al starred in many live shows and films, entertained the troops, recorded many songs, and starred on the radio many times.

He was married four times, to Henrietta Keller, Alma Osborne (professionally known as Ethel Delmar), Ruby Keeler, and Erie Galbraith. He adopted a child with Ruby in 1935, Al, Jr. He and Erie adopted Asa, Jr., in 1948, and Alicia in 1949.

With Ruby in 1934

With Erie and Asa, Jr., in 1948

While entertaining troops in the Pacific during WWII, Al got malaria and had to get his left lung removed. In Korea in 1950, the dust and dirt of the front clogged his remaining lung and sapped his health.

On 23 October 1950, he collapsed of a massive heart attack. His funeral was one of the largest in show business history.

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Le Voyage dans la Lune at 115, Part III (Reception and legacy)

Georges Méliès began filming Le Voyage in May 1902, and began selling prints to distributors after finishing in August. The hand-coloured print from Elisabeth Thuillier’s studio ran from September–December by Méliès’s Théâtre Robert-Houdin in Paris.

Jules-Eugène Legris, a co-worker and fellow magician, who appears in the final scene as the parade leader, screened the film after Thursday and Saturday matinées.

Black and white prints sold for 560 francs, and colour prints went for 1,000. Sadly, due to rampant piracy, Méliès never got most of the profits from this runaway blockbuster.

Not only was Méliès a victim of piracy and cheated of most of his rightful profits, he also wasn’t credited onscreen or in advertisements either. The only U.S. exhibitor who credited him during the first six months of the theatrical run was Thomas Lincoln Tally, of L.A.’s Electrical Theatre.

To try to nip this situation in the bud, Méliès opened a U.S. branch of his Star Film Company in New York in 1903, run by his brother Gaston. This studio sold his films directly and registered them with U.S. copyrights.

The catalogue introduced this English-language studio thus: “In opening a factory and office in New York we are prepared and determined energetically to pursue all counterfeiters and pirates. We will not speak twice, we will act!”

Méliès also made trade arrangements with companies including American Mutoscope and Biograph, Gaumont, the Charles Urban Trading Company, the Warwick Trading Company, and Robert W. Paul’s company. Fifteen cents per foot of film became the standard price.

In 1908, new price standardizations from the Motion Picture Patents Company made Méliès’s films outrageously expensive. Coupled with the fact that his films’ fantasy and magical themes fell out of fashion, this set the stage for his financial ruin and fall into obscurity.

Because of the film’s high price, Méliès at first was unsuccessful at selling prints to fairground exhibitors. However, when he gave one exhibitor a free print, it was a wild success from the very first showing. Fairgoers packed into the theatre until midnight, and the exhibitor immediately bought the film.

When Méliès reminded him of his initial reluctance to pony up the money, he offered 200 francs to make up for this insult and inconvenience.

The film ran continuously by L’Olympia in Paris for several months. Due to the abovediscussed piracy, the film also was a runaway success in the U.S. It ran in cities including New York, New Orleans, Kansas City, Washington, D.C., Detroit, L.A., and Cleveland.

Through 1904, it was a featured headline attraction in countries including Canada, Italy, and Germany. Truly, this was one of the most popular films in the early 20th century, across all markets.

Because of Méliès’s later financial woes and tanked reputation, many of the copies of his prints were lost. In 1917, the military occupied his office and melted down many of his films for silver and celluloid. The silver was used for ammo; the celluloid, boot heels.

When the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was razed to the ground in 1923, the prints stored there were sold to a second-hand film vendor by weight. Later that same year, Méliès burnt all remaining negatives in his garden in Montreuil, in a fit of anger.

In 1925, be became a toy and candy vendor by a stand in the Gare Montparnasse railway terminal in Paris, and his impressive body of film work seemed as though it had slipped into the foggy mists of time.

Thankfully, due to early film history devotees, Méliès was rediscovered in the late 1920s, and his reputation and popularity were restored. Two copies of Le Voyage were found, though both were incomplete. In 1997, a complete print was finally reconstructed.

In 1993, a hand-coloured print surfaced, believed to be from a Spanish distributor on account of the flag in the launching scene being coloured like the flag of Spain. From 2002–05, this print was restored against all odds, and in 2010, a complete restoration became publicly available. In 2011, the finishing touches were put on this restoration.

Le Voyage has had a most enormous impact on filmmakers and popular culture over the past 115 years. It made people realize films could be purely for entertainment, and that sci-fi films were not only possible, but could be popular as well.

The iconic image of the Moon with the spaceship in its eye has been referenced countless times in films, artwork, and other creative visual media.

Though Méliès didn’t think this was his greatest work, he acknowledged it was his most popular. This milestone film has more than earned its rightful place in cinematic history.

Le Voyage dans la Lune at 115, Part II (Behind the scenes)

In loving memory of Dante Alighieri, who departed this world 696 years ago today.

Georges Méliès’s sci-fi classic was inspired by the Jules Verne novels De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon) (1865) and Autour de la Lune (Around the Moon) (1870). Another prominent influence, albeit not personally cited by Méliès, seems to have been H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (French translation published 1902).

Still other influences suspected by film scholars include Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Le Voyage dans la Lune (produced 1875–76) and the 1901 Pan–American Exposition’s A Trip to the Moon ride in Buffalo. The latter cost fifty cents, and was one of the first space-themed rides. It was also the very first dark ride (think Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean).

Though film actors weren’t credited in 1902 (due in large part to how it was considered low-brow entertainment, inferior to theatre), we know Méliès played Prof. Barbenfouillis. He did everything in his films—acting, directing, writing, editing, producing, designing, special effects, publicity, technical details. As such, he was one of cinema’s very first auteurs.

All told, Méliès starred in at least 300 of his 520 films. He was a cinematic star without knowing it, before such a concept existed.

Other players were Bleuette Bernon as Phoebe (a very early character actor); magician Jules-Eugène Legris as parade leader; Henri Delannoy as rocket captain; salaried employee François Lallement as the Marines’ officer; Théâtre du Châtelet ballerinas as stars and cannon attendants; Folies Bergère acrobats as Selenites; and Théâtre de Cluny actor Victor André and music hall singers Delpierre, Farjaux, Kelm, and Brunnet as the other five astronomers.

Le Voyage was Méliès’s longest film to date, at 17 minutes (by Méliès’s preferred projection speed, 12–14 frames per second). Most DVD prints run closer to 13 minutes. It took three months to film, and had the extravagant budget of 10,000 francs ($1,296.95 in 2017 U.S. currency, if I calculated the inflation and conversion correctly).

Most of the money went towards the Selenites’ costumes and the mechanically-operated scenery. The backdrop of the glass-roofed workshop in which the spaceship is built was painted to resemble Méliès’s real glass-roofed studio.

Méliès’s cameramen were Théophile Michault and Lucien Tanguay, salaried employees of his Star Film Company, who also performed tasks such as setting up scenery and developing film.

His actors were hired on a film-by-film basis and paid one Louis d’or a day, which was much better pay than that offered by competitors. Another perk was taking a free meal with Méliès at noon every day.

In an era well before CGI, Méliès achieved many of his special effects via substitution splice. Filming stopped for something to be removed, changed, or added. The footage was then spliced together. Other methods included transitional dissolves, multiple exposures, pyrotechnics, and stage machinery.

Méliès was a magician prior to becoming a filmmaker, and most marvellously used all the tricks of his former trade to wonderful effect.

Some prints were hand-coloured by Elisabeth Thuillier, who began working with film in 1897. Her studio was an all-female business, and used four basic dyes—magenta, orange, bright yellow, and blue-green. The dyes were often mixed to create other colours, and changed tone depending upon the shade of grey underneath.

Mme. Thuillier hand-coloured all of Méliès’s films from 1897–1912.

Like many of Méliès’s other films, Le Voyage too was meant to be accompanied by a bonimenteur (narrator) explicating the action onscreen. While the general stories in his films can be followed without intertitles, there are crucial details missing without spoken narration.

Méliès advertised the film as a pièce à grand spectacle, a type of stage extravaganza popularised by Jules Verne and Adolphe d’Ennery. Some film historians also classify it as part of the féerie genre (fantasy with mechanical stage effects, awesome visuals, and lavish scenery).

The film also contains strong satirical and anti-imperialism themes, with its bumbling explorers, obvious violations of the laws of physics, the violent treatment of the Selenites, and the parading of a Selenite captive in the concluding victory parade.

Le Voyage dans la Lune at 115, Part I (General overview)

Released 1 September 1902 in France and 4 October in the U.S., Le Voyage dans la Lune is without a doubt the most famous film of the great Georges Méliès, and one of the most important films of cinematic history. That image of the Moon with the spaceship in its eye is iconic.

Méliès stars as Prof. Barbenfouillis, president of the Astronomic Club. One member of the club quite vociferously disagrees with his proposal for a voyage to the Moon, but Barbenfouillis shuts him up by throwing a book and papers at his head.

Ultimately, the mission is unanimously approved, and five other astronomers are chosen to come along—Nostradamus, Alcofrisbas, Omega, Micromegas, and Parafaragaramus. A most splendid spaceship is constructed for them, whose construction they get to witness.

When the big day arrives, the astronomers are seen off with great fanfare. On a signal, the cannon loaded with the spaceship launches our heroes.

After arrival on the Moon, the astronomers are delighted to see Earth rising. They’re also delighted by the craters. Unfortunately, just as they’re about to start exploring, an explosion sends them sprawling. They then stretch out to sleep, feeling very fatigued by their journey.

Seven gigantic stars (i.e., the Big Dipper) appear, and, slowly, women’s faces come out of the stars. They seem annoyed by the intrusion of the explorers. The stars are then replaced by a lovely vision of Phoebus on the crescent, Saturn in his globe, and two charming young girls holding up a star.

By order of Phoebus, the exolorers are punished by a downpour of freezing snow, which wakes everyone up. While the snowstorm is still raging, they escape into a giant crater, and find a landscape of enormous mushrooms in a grotto.

Barbenfouillis plants his umbrella in the ground to compare its size against the mushrooms, but the umbrella suddenly takes root and transforms into a mushroom which begins growing to giant proportions.

Selenites, inhabitants of the Moon, emerge from underneath the mushrooms and attack the explorers. Barbenfouillis attacks one with his umbrella, which makes him burst into a thousand pieces. However, the Selenites keep coming, and the explorers are overpowered.

When the explorers are brought, bound, to the king’s palace, Barbenfouillis breaks free of his restraints, dashes for the King, grabs him, and throws him on the ground. The King breaks into a thousand pieces, and the explorers escape.

With the Selenite Army hot on their heels, the explorers run as fast as they can. They manage to disintegrate enough of their pursuers to escape into the spaceship. Only Barbenfouillis is left behind.

Not to be deterred, Barbenfouillis grabs onto the rope attached to the ship. His weight causes it to fall off the Moon, with the remainder of the Selenite Army unable to catch them. The shell falls with sickening rapidity, and lands in the ocean.

Due to the way the ship is constructed, it easily rises back to the surface, and is towed to port by a ship. The explorers are given a heroes’ welcome.

A twofer of antique horror

If you celebrate Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, may you have a lovely holiday!

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The Haunted Curiosity Shop, released in the U.K. in 1901, is now 115 years old. This great-granddaddy of horror was directed by Walter R. Booth, a pioneer of British cinema. Just like his French counterpart Georges Méliès, he too was a magician before turning to filmmaking. He worked with Robert W. Paul and Charles Urban, also pioneers of British cinema.

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Booth mostly did trick films (i.e., featuring special effects), and pioneered the usage of hand-drawing techniques which enabled animation. Indeed, he directed Britain’s very first animated film, The Hand of the Artist (1906).

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At just shy of two minutes, the film is very simple. An old man who runs a curiosity shop is beguiled by all manner of spooky tricks and apparitions, including a floating skull; a magically and gradually materializing girl who transmogrifies into an old woman and back again; a mummy; a skeleton; and a giant head growing ever larger.

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The Merry Frolics of Satan, released in France as Les Quatre Cents Farces du Diable (The 400 Tricks of the Devil), came out in 1906, and is now 110 years old. The film was directed by none other than the legendary Georges Méliès, who also stars as Mephistopheles.

The film, described by Méliès as a grande pièce fantastique in 35 scenes, is a contemporary, comedic adaptation of the Faust legend. It draws upon a stage play, Les Quatre Cents Coups du Diable, which débuted 23 December 1905 by the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

That 1905 play was in turn based upon Les Pilules du Diable, which premièred 16 February 1839 by the Théâtre National de Cirque-Olympique in Paris. Both of these plays were féeries, a uniquely French theatrical genre with fantasy plots, lavish scenery, incredible visuals, and mechanical stage effects.

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William Crackford, an English inventor and engineer, is in his workshop when he gets visited by a messenger who breaks the news that Alcofrisbas, a famous alchemist, wants to sell him a very powerful talisman. Intrigued, Crackford and his servant John travel to Alcofrisbas’s lab, where a lot of magical tricks transpire.

Crackford and John say they’re planning a high-speed trip around the world, and Alcofrisbas guarantees his help. Seven assistants march out, and help him with making a lot of magical pills. When a pill is thrown onto the ground, any wish will be granted.

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Crackford is so excited by these pills, he doesn’t read the fine print on the contract he signs, and thus has no idea he’s sold his soul to the Devil. After Crackford and John depart, Alcofrisbas transforms back into his true identity: Mephistopheles. The assistants are the Seven Deadly Sins.

When Crackford comes home, he doesn’t waste a moment in commencing his preparations for the journey, and shows off the pills to his wife and daughters. He produces a trunk out of which two servants climb. This trunk becomes a Matryoshka doll, with more and more trunks and servants, until finally the trunks turn into a miniature train.

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The train, loaded with Crackford’s family and luggage, begins its journey, and is met with ridicule instead of fanfare. A little accident on a bridge threatens to derail the entire journey, but Crackford won’t be deterred, and continues on with John.

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They stop by an inn, at which a disguised Mephistopheles is the proprietor. More magic tricks and sorcery commence, until finally Crackford and John run out and make their escape with a strange horse and buggy. Mephistopheles follows them in a car, and there’s another accident with a live volcano.

The carriage continues its journey through outer space, until a thunderstorm sends the travellers plummeting earthward, right into a dining room. Crackford is about to finally have some dinner when Mephistopheles arrives, demanding Crackford fulfill the contract’s terms.

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Sorry this soundtrack isn’t entirely appropriate (annoying background laughter and sound effects), but this was the only video I could find with any musical accompaniment. This also lacks the voice-over narration which was part of many Méliès films and took the place of intertitles.