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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A King in New York at 60, Part II (Behind the scenes)

In 1957, Charles Chaplin and his family had left the U.S. for good and settled in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland. His re-entry permit for the U.S. was revoked in 1952, and he didn’t try to return. His fourth and final wife, Oona, handled his remaining affairs, such as the sale of his studio and their Beverly Hills home.

Chaplin’s final professional ties to the U.S. were severed in 1955, when he sold the last of his United Artists stock. Given the personal and political attacks he’d weathered since at least 1942, and the widespread boycotts of Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952), he knew A King in New York wouldn’t be shown in the U.S. at all.

Chaplin no longer had the luxury of his own studio, all the time he wanted for filming and editing, or loyal employees. He now had to rent expensive, unfriendly studios by the minute and work with strangers. AKINY was wrapped in a record twelve weeks.

The rushed production really shows in the frequently improper lighting. Though Chaplin hired legendary cameraman Georges Périnal, there often wasn’t enough time to light the set properly before filming. Many of the shots are dark and shabby instead of crisp, focused, and light.

Chaplin always spent a lot of time editing his work to a high level of perfection, but this wasn’t possible now. As much as I love a good satire, I have to agree the film suffers from taking on way too many targets—plastic surgery, TV commercials, widescreen movies, popular music, celebrities, politics, materialism, the HUAC, social pretension.

Shows like American Dad and Family Guy can wear thin after awhile, since everything is up for lampooning, with not much treated seriously. Even a deliberately over the top satire needs to rein it in to avoid coming across as cartoonish and divorced from any semblance of the real world.

If the film had stuck to a few well-developed targets, instead of stuffing in everything but the kitchen sink, the satire would’ve been even stronger and funnier. The storyline with Rupert is so strong, so relevant both then and now (for different reasons). It would’ve been even better had it been introduced earlier.

A few other things could’ve been worked in as secondary targets, maybe TV commercials, materialism, and social pretension. It’s not that the film isn’t funny or brilliant, just that it’s trying to do way too much at once.

AKINY was filmed in London, in spite of the title. Chaplin didn’t return to the U.S. until 1972, when his reputation finally was rehabilitated. The London scenery and architecture don’t exactly suggest a true New York setting.

The role of 10-year-old Rupert, like that of little Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921), was crucial. At the last minute, Chaplin’s son Michael was chosen. Michael (now 71 years old) is Chaplin’s second child from his fourth and final marriage, and the fifth of his eleven total children.

At first, Charles and Oona wanted to keep Michael’s true identity secret through the pseudonym John Bolton, but Michael insisted upon using his real name. He plays Rupert brilliantly, and inspired debates by his parents in later years as to whether he or Jackie Coogan were the better actor.

Oona always argued in favor of her son’s performance.

AKINY generally got good reviews in Europe, where it did well commercially. Though it’s a social, political, cultural, and comedic study of 1950s America, the jokes and deeper themes are timeless. In some ways, the lack of an editor may have enhanced its appeal.

Sometimes an honest story with rough edges is more compelling than a polished and defanged one.

A King in New York at 60, Part I (General overview)

Released 12 September 1957, A King in New York was Chaplin’s final starring role, his swan song proper. The film wasn’t released in the U.S. till 8 March 1972, the same year he received an honorary Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.”

While the film satirizes too many targets, instead of focusing on one or two things, it’s nonetheless a brilliant comedy. I think it might be my second-favorite of his talkies, after Monsieur Verdoux.

The film opens as a mob storms the palace of King Igor Shahdov of Estrovia (Chaplin), calling for his head. Their attempt at vigilante justice is denied, as he’s already escaped by air and taken everything with him.

After Shahdov lands in New York, he gives a press conference where he reveals he was overthrown because he wanted atomic energy for domestic use instead of bombs. He dreams of creating an atomic utopia.

On his first night out on the town, Shahdov is thrust headfirst into 1950s pop culture and current events. In a scene harkening back to his silent days, he has to mime what he and Ambassador Jaume want for dinner over the impossible noise of the house band behind them.

In the morning, Shahdov discovers Prime Minister Voudel has taken off to South America with all his funds and securities. Jaume wants to expose him as a thief and liar, but Shahdov realizes they have no legal claim without records. All the books and records were left behind in Estrovia when they fled.

Jaume reminds him he still has his atomic plans, but Shahdov says it’ll be difficult to finance blueprints. Shahdov doesn’t want word of this to get around, since he’d rather be thought of as a successful crook than destitute monarch.

Shahdov’s estranged wife Irene then comes for a visit. Though they’re divorcing, they have a very cordial relationship. Irene doesn’t even want alimony.

Shahdov eavesdrops on a woman next door (Dawn Addams), Ann Kay, singing in the bathtub, and comes to her rescue when she shouts for help. While he’s massaging Ann’s hurt ankle, he discovers she’s attending a dinner party he begged off. His smittenness makes him change his mind.

Unbeknownst to Shahdov, this dinner party is being televised live. Between Ann’s deodorant and toothpaste commercials, Shahdov is talked into reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy.

The public is quite impressed with Shahdov’s performance, and he’s asked to do TV commercials. Angry and feeling tricked, he turns down all the offers, and even rips up a check.

Shahdov digs through the garbage for the check after realizing what dire straits he’s in. He also accepts an invitation to speak at a progressive school (think Montessori or Waldorf).

By the school, Shahdov meets 10-year-old Rupert Macabee (Chaplin’s son Michael), editor of the school paper. He’s very advanced for his age, and gives Shahdov quite the lecture.

The visit to the school ends in humiliation for Shahdov.

Since he’s so deep in the hole, Shahdov accepts $50,000 to act in a whiskey commercial. The ad is a smash hit, and leads to many more ads with large payouts.

Ann convinces Shahdov to have a facelift to increase his appeal and salary, but no one is happy with the results. To try to cheer him up, Ann takes him to see a slapstick comedy show. This scene too harkens back to Chaplin’s silent roots.

Shahdov’s new face comes undone when he’s laughing, and he has to have his old face restored.

Shahdov runs into Rupert without a coat in the snow, and invites him to his hotel room. Rupert admits he ran away from school because his parents were arrested for being Communists.

Shahdov’s friendship with Rupert lands him in lots of trouble. There are chilling parallels to the real-life activities of the HUAC.

I highly recommend this if you’re interested in Chaplin’s later years. Whatever you might think of his politics or personal life, there’s no denying he was a genius.

Ben-Hur at 90, Part III (Why I far prefer the original)

Exhibit A: The Leading Man

Whom do you find more believable as a Middle Eastern Jew who ages from 17–25, the Mexican-born Ramón Novarro, or Charlton Heston, of British and Scottish descent?

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Obviously, good actors can make you believe in their performances even if they’re not exactly like their characters. Ramón was gay in real life, but that doesn’t mean I disbelieve the romances he has with women in his films. I can’t help but wonder how he really felt inside, being forced to do these romantic scenes when he wasn’t attracted to women, but it’s not something that distracts me from enjoying a movie.

Ramón was also in his early twenties while the picture was being shot, as compared to how Heston was 36. Heston was way too old to believably play a young man, whereas Ramón was not only in his character’s real age range, but also had very soft, boyish facial features which kept him looking young. In spite of his baby face, he was totally able to look more stereotypically masculine when the scene called for it. The 1959 remake had to alter the script so Ben-Hur starts out older than he is in the book.

Plus, I just feel Ben-Hur’s character so much more with Ramón. He gets lost in his character and makes us believe he’s not just acting. Let’s be honest, Heston didn’t exactly have a huge amount of range or subtlety, and comes across as wooden more often than not. He’s physically but not emotionally compelling, even in scenes which are supposed to be very emotional and dramatic.

Exhibit B: Length and Focus!

The 1925 original is almost 2.5 hours, but the time goes by like that, and I’m never thinking about how much time is passing. The focus is also on all the right places, without too much time spent on subplots like the plight of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister or the scenes from the life of Jesus. Obviously, those subplots are an important part of the story, but since this isn’t a story with multiple leading characters, the focus remains right where it should, on Ben-Hur.

The remake is 3.5 hours, which wouldn’t be a problem at all for me if it were actually a riveting, focused story. I adore long films, just as I adore long books, but the length has to work for that particular story. A gripping film can last 5 hours and feel like only 15 minutes have gone by because it’s that good, whereas a bad film that’s less than an hour long can seem to drag on forever.

A lot of scenes in the remake could’ve been shortened or cut, particularly all the “As you know, Bob” dialogue. I understand wanting to not be an exact remake, but that still could’ve been accomplished by cutting a lot of fat. Sometimes it seems like they just wanted to show off their costumes and sets, the epic scope, and the massive cast. Until the famous chariot race, the remake moves pretty slowly for me, above and beyond a typical film which just takes longer than usual to establish itself and get to the action.

Exhibit C: Timelessness

I’ll be honest, the Fifties and Sixties aren’t my favorite decades for film. I’m not saying I think every single film is awful or that there were only a few good films made during that time, but in general, it really seems like a lot of films from that era haven’t aged too well. I’m just not a fan of the acting style from that era. The original film meanwhile speaks a universal language with silence, and doesn’t need such frequent dialogue to convey a great story.

I often have a feeling akin to, “I’m watching a person from the Fifties/Sixties, acting in a movie made in the Fifties/Sixties, instead of watching an actor in a movie that just so happens to have been made in [any other decade].”

Exhibit D: Emotional Impact

As I said, Heston is physically but not emotionally compelling, whereas Ramón really gets lost in his character and comes across as far more than just someone playing a role. Ramón also had more than one basic facial expression. Due to the remake’s length, a lot of things are unnecessarily drawn out, whereas the original kept them focused and to the point. The leprosy storyline in particular is much better done in the original. It just felt unemotional and unrealistic in the remake.

Exhibit E: The Subtitle

For a film with the subtitle A Tale of the Christ, the remake really doesn’t spend an awful lot of time depicting the life of Jesus or the religious message found in the original. It even completely removes the rather important storyline about how Ben-Hur becomes a Jesus follower. Their encounter on the Via Dolorosa is so much more emotional and believable in the original.

What the Remake Does Get Right:

The chariot race. While I find the silent version more dramatic, the sound version is still quite good.

Better development of the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala. In the original, Messala is a villain almost from the jump, and we don’t really get a plausible sense he and Ben-Hur were ever best friends or why Messala turned on him so quickly.

A dark-featured Esther (Haya Harareet). May McAvoy was really pretty and portrayed innocence well, and there’s honestly no such thing as “looking Jewish,” but by first century standards, it’s a lot less likely a Jewish woman would’ve had blonde curls and blue eyes. Their relationship also has more substance, though I didn’t feel any real chemistry.

WeWriWa—“School isn’t a fashion show”

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. This is the last week I’ll be sharing from my recent release Little Ragdoll, which is currently available on Kindle, Kobo, and Nook and soon to be in print. I’m skipping a little ahead to close out on a hopeful note.

After the Troy sisters have been reminded that they’re at Woolworth’s to buy school supplies, not to argue with mean girls, they continue with their errand. They don’t have much money to spend, but at least Woolworth’s prices are generally very cheap anyway.

***

“It’s not fair,” Adicia complains as they wander into the next aisle. “All the other girls get new clothes for school. My clothes are twelve years old.”

“Those girls won’t look twice at their new clothes in six months,” Emeline predicts. “They’ll throw them away, or give them to charity if they have any sense, when a newer fashion comes along. They don’t care about getting clothes that last for a long time.”

“School isn’t a fashion show,” Lucine says. “You can wear the most expensive, newest clothes in the world, but it won’t matter if you’re not using your brain.”

***

Next week will be a quick visit to my hiatused 1980s historical Justine Grown Up (starring Adicia’s baby sister), in honor of the special holiday which falls on August tenth. (You’ll also get to see the lovely framed poster I sleep underneath.) The week afterwards, you’ll get to meet my brave Marines from my WIP!

As soon as I finally get a new computer, I’ll be able to do more visits on Sundays. My computer has been slowly dying for months now, and the death rattle coming from the left fan isn’t getting any better, though having a fan right behind the machine helps.