When life and art imitate one another

Premièring Halloween 1927, My Best Girl was the legendary Mary Pickford’s final silent, and her final film with her famous long, golden curls. With a budget of $483,103, it made $1,027,757 in the U.S. during its first theatrical run.

Another really special thing about this film is that she co-stars with her future third and final husband, Charles “Buddy” Rogers. Real life and art imitate one another most powerfully, as the film captures two real people falling in love just as their characters do.

Maggie Johnson (Mary) is an overworked, underappreciated stock girl by Merrill Department Store No. 4. Her luck starts to turn around when a salesgirl co-worker takes a five-minute break and asks Maggie to cover for her. While Maggie is behind the counter, she meets cutiepie Joe Grant (Buddy).

Maggie tries to interest Joe in several humorous balloons, but the ruse of Joe being a customer is blown when the manager gives him his timecard and says he’ll be working in the stockroom with Maggie.

In the stockroom, Joe is very incompetent and clumsy. Maggie thinks he’s the dumbest stock boy ever, and steps up as his mentor.

Little does she know he’s actually the son of Robert E. Merrill, owner of the store, and engaged to a woman named Millicent. Joe is working undercover to prove he can get ahead without the benefit of his family name. His engagement to Millicent is being kept secret (to everyone) till he gets a promotion.

Several days later, some of Maggie’s co-workers tease her about having a crush on Joe. One of these salesgirls is Carole Lombard in an early, uncredited role. When they tell her he’s on his way, she gets on the back of a truck to ride home. To snare Joe’s attention away from the salesgirls he’s fraternizing with, Maggie tosses her lunchbox off the back of the moving truck.

Joe runs after it and gives it back to her, and then Maggie pushes a bundle off the truck. Joe also runs after this and retrieves it. Finally, Maggie tosses off her lunchbox again. This time, after Joe retrieves it and gives it back to her, he gets on the truck with her.

During the ride home, Maggie shows Joe a picture of her oddball family, and invites him to dinner. We then meet the rest of the Johnsons.

Mr. Johnson (prolific character actor Lucien Littlefield) is a hardworking but henpecked postal worker, elderly, in poor health. Mrs. Johnson comes across as an emotionally manipulative narcissist. She goes to funerals every single day, even for strangers, and constantly uses smelling salts.

Maggie’s sister Liz is a flapper who’s dating Nick Powell, a man her parents are adamantly opposed to. They insist he’s no good, and that he’ll only cause trouble for her.

Things aren’t going so swimmingly at home, so Maggie pretends Liz is rehearsing a part in a play. She and Joe stay on the veranda while Liz fights with her parents. When Nick arrives, Maggie pretends he’s an actor coming to rehearse. Maggie also pretends a cop looking for Nick is an actor wearing a costume.

Finally, Maggie says it’s not a good time and asks for a raincheck.

At work, Maggie and Joe’s romance continues to blossom. Though Joe has been promoted to being Maggie’s boss, he still eats lunch with her every day in the stockroom. One afternoon, after Joe gets a note from his parents about a dinner party at which his engagement to Millicent will be announced, Maggie gives him a watch for a birthday present.

That day after work, they window-shop in the rain and stop by an ice-cream counter. Joe offers to take her to a restaurant, but she’s afraid it’ll put him in the poorhouse. Joe then suggests they eat by the Merrills, knowing his parents will be away.

It takes a little convincing, but finally Maggie is coaxed inside. Joe gets his servants to pretend he’s just another store employee who regularly comes to eat by his boss.

With the mansion to themselves but for the servants and Joe’s Great Dane, Maggie and Joe pretend they’re Mr. and Mrs. Merrill. The fancy food is very strange to Maggie, who says she can cook Joe much better stuff.

When the Merrills and Millicent come in, Joe’s cover is blown, and Maggie feels tricked and humiliated. She runs outside, and bumps into her parents on the street. They insist she come to night court to bail out Liz.

Joe tracks Maggie to court, and gets arrested after a fight with Nick, who implies a rich boy like Joe would only be interested in a poor stock girl like Maggie for one thing.

The next day, Mr. Merrill says Joe is leaving for Honolulu till the scandal blows over, and that he bought ship tickets for Mr. and Mrs. Merrill. He tries to buy Maggie off with $10,000.

When Joe comes to the house, the situation becomes even more complicated.

Though I prefer Mary’s heavy dramas like Tess of the Storm Country and The Love Light, her lighter films are fun to watch. It’s also so precious to watch her and Buddy falling in love on camera. They weren’t able to marry till 1937, after her divorce from Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., but their romance definitely came into bloom here.

I also love how Buddy was twelve years Mary’s junior! They were 23 and 35 while the film was being shot. Once you’ve fallen for a younger man, you’ll never go back.

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The Jazz Singer at 90, Part X (Common myths debunked)

Over the past 90 years, many myths and misconceptions have sprung up about TJS, the end of the silent era, and the dawn of sound. While many have a sliver of basis in truth, the truth is a lot different and more complex than popular opinion suggests.

Myth #1: TJS was the first talking picture.

As discussed in Part VI, sound-on-film technology had a long history, full of fits and starts, going back to 1894 or 1895. TJS was merely the most popular and successful, due largely to Al Jolson’s star power and charisma. This is similar to the oft-repeated myth about BOAN being the first feature-length film.

TJS also wasn’t even the first all-talking feature. That was 1928’s Lights of New York. TJS is at least 75% silent.

Myth #2: The silent era immediately ended after TJS came out

As discussed in Part IX, the transition from silent to sound film was very long and slow. Even if the entire film industry worldwide had decided, right then and there, to make sound the law of the land, they couldn’t wire all theatres for sound overnight. They also needed to buy a lot of expensive new equipment and film.

China, Japan, and Korea were largely silent well into the Thirties. They didn’t want to fix something that wasn’t broken. Japan also had the tradition of the benshi, a narrator who accompanied film screenings and was a star in his own right.

Myth #3: Most silent actors had horrible voices, and thus had to retire

Many actors had wonderful or at least competent voices, though they weren’t always best-served by early sound recording technology. People were so enamoured of talkies, they flocked to see anything and anyone. They didn’t mind voices which weren’t professionally trained, such as Clara Bow’s Brooklyn accent. All they cared about was hearing someone talk during a movie.

Some actors genuinely had very thick accents or serious speech impediments which prematurely ended their careers, but this wasn’t the norm. Rare exceptions included:

1. Karl Dane (né Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb), a funny-looking character actor who became a comedian in his own right. His thick Danish accent soon relegated him to lesser and lesser roles, until MGM yanked his contract. He tried several other careers, but nothing panned out. Deep in depression, he finally took his own life.

2. Many foreign exports, like Emil Jannings and Conrad Veidt. They had heavy accents combined with poor English. However, their acting careers continued when they returned to their home countries. Other foreign actors, like Nils Asther, took voice lessons and were cast in roles where accents were expected.

The same thing happened with the large community of Russian actors in France. In that case, going home wasn’t an option if they valued their lives and freedom.

3. Raymond Griffith, a comedian whose voice was barely above a whisper due to childhood vocal chord damage (screaming every night in a stage play). His final acting role was a dying French soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which had extra poignancy with his natural voice.

True blame goes to factors including:

1. ALL stars have a shelf life! Even actors who’ve been successful for several decades eventually slow down or lose popularity to the new generation. These actors just happened to reach their expiration date in the early sound era.

2. Some actors were looking towards retirement anyway. Vilma Bánky, for example, had a thick Hungarian accent, but wanted to leave acting for the full-time role of Rod La Rocque’s wife. She retired in 1930, just as she’d announced she would.

3. Studio politics and personality clashes. Enough said!

4. Even big-name silent stars, and the types of characters they played, were increasingly seen as outdated and unfashionable, reminders of a bygone era.

5. Marriage (or lack thereof). Many women either chose to retire upon or shortly after marriage, or had husbands who insisted they stop working to be full-time wives and mothers. William Haines refused to enter a lavender marriage and dump his boyfriend (whom he was with for 47 years, until his death).

Myth #4: John Gilbert had a terrible, squeaky voice

Jack’s career was sabotaged by the vile, vindictive Louis B. Mayer. He had a lovely voice and well-received talkie début, but Mayer kept giving him sub-par roles. The wonderful Irving Thalberg gave Jack some great films, and ex-lover Greta Garbo chose him as her leading man in Queen Christina (1933), but the damage had already been done.

His depression with inferior films and long periods of unemployment led to increasing alcoholism, and Jack died of a heart attack at age 36.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part VIII (A miraculously successful première and reception)

In loving memory of George Harrison, who left the material world 16 years ago today.

Sadly, none of the four Warner Bros. were able to attend the triumphant première of TJS on 6 October 1927. They’d been running themselves ragged with this film, since so much was riding upon its success. All this nonstop work took its toll on Sam’s health, and at the end of September, he was hospitalized.

Sam was diagnosed with a sinus infection, abscessed teeth, and a mastoid brain infection. After four surgeries, Sam fell into a coma. On 5 October, he fell victim to pneumonia caused by sinusitis, osteomyelitis, and subdural and epidural abscesses.

The other three brothers had to go home to California for the funeral, missing their flagship New York theatre’s première.

Samuel Louis Warner (né Schmuel Wonsal or Wonskolaser), 10 August 1887–5 October 1927

The première date was no accident. It was chosen deliberately because it was Yom Kippur, and TJS revolves so closely around that holiday.

Warner Bros. had been in deep financial straits for years. Taking on Vitaphone sound-on-film technology had only added another huge, risky financial burden. If this film flopped, it would be curtains.

Though TJS is, contrary to popular misconception, at least 75% silent, audiences still weren’t accustomed to hearing real sound during a film. This wasn’t just a synchronized soundtrack or sound effects, but actual human speech.

The audience applauded after every song, and went particularly wild after the conversation between Jack and his mother. By the end of the film, they’d gone wild, chanting Jolson’s name as they gave a standing ovation.

It was a miracle there wasn’t a single misstep during the synchronization of the film and discs. Had the projectionist not cued up any of those fifteen discs with the fifteen reels exactly in synch, Warner Bros. would’ve been both publicly and financially humiliated.

TJS met with predominantly rave reviews, in the mainstream press as well as the Jewish and African–American communities. While some reviewers noted it was more of a showcase for Jolson and/or a new technology, they nevertheless praised that aspect.

Had George Jessel or Eddie Cantor played the lead, things would’ve been so different. As talented and popular as they were, only Jolson could’ve carried it the way it needed to be. His superstardom, charisma, background, and larger than life personality elevated it beyond a B-movie into something really special.

This was truly one of those cases where someone was born to play a certain role, write a certain book, paint a certain painting, or record a certain album. While someone else could’ve done a competent job with the same material, it just wouldn’t be the same.

TJS was Warner Bros.’ biggest hit to date, only surpassed a year later by the all-talking The Singing Fool (also starring Jolson). Though many theatres weren’t wired for any kind of sound, and thus had to play an entirely silent version, it still proved itself as a big earner.

Film scholars and historians estimate TJS made $3.9 million ($126 million as of 2005) in the U.S., and $2.6 million worldwide, for an overall profit of $1,196,750. Warner Bros. had been saved.

In spite of its success, TJS was ruled ineligible for nomination by the first Academy Awards. As a partly-talking picture, it would’ve been unfair competition against the all-silent pictures.

TJS has been referenced and parodied countless times in popular media over the years, and was remade in 1952 (with Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee), 1959 (as a TV movie with Jerry Lewis), and 1980 (with Neil Diamond, Laurence Olivier, and Lucie Arnaz).

Jolson reprised the role in a radio adaptation on 10 August 1936 and 2 June 1947 on Lux Radio Theater.

In 1996, the National Film Registry chose TJS for preservation, based upon it being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” In 1998, the American Film Institute voted it the 90th best American film of all time.

But of course, the film’s greatest impact was in hastening the talkie revolution and sounding the death knell of the silent era.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part VII (The making of the film)

Had history unfolded differently, this man, George Albert Jessel, and not Al Jolson, would’ve played the lead in The Jazz Singer. One of Broadway’s most popular leading men, he was asked to star in the film adaptation of the play, and signed to a contract with Warner Bros.

4 June 1926, Warner Bros. acquired the play’s rights. In February 1927, Motion Picture World magazine ran a story announcing Jessel’s starring role, and that filming would begin the first of May.

When TJS was reconceived as a sound film, Jessel demanded a larger salary or new contract, which the struggling studio couldn’t afford. They still owed him money for three other films (all now lost), and couldn’t afford to produce any film with a major star.

Jessel also was outraged by the film’s ending, which differed from that of the play. He didn’t want to do that, with or without money.

Popular entertainer Eddie Cantor (né Edward Israel Itzkowitz) was offered the role next, but declined. He was a friend of Jessel’s, and felt sure the difference of opinion could be worked out. Cantor offered his assistance, but wasn’t invited to the negotiations.

By hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence), Al Jolson, whose early life was the inspiration for the story, was then offered the role, and accepted. Jessel may have been a very popular leading man on Broadway, but Jolson was a superstar at the height of his popularity.

Jessel and Jolson were also friends, but after Jolson accepted the role, they didn’t speak for a long time. It felt like a betrayal, after Jessel had confided in him about his problems with the studio. Jolson signed the contract without telling Jessel about his plans beforehand.

26 May 1927, Jolson signed a contract for eight weeks, starting July. His salary was $75,000 ($1,034,052 today).

Also cast were:

Warner Oland (né Johan Verner Ölund) as Cantor Rabinowitz. He was a Swedish-born actor best-known for playing Asian roles, in an era when it was common, de facto practice for white actors to play characters of other ethnicities.

Eugenie Besserer as Sara Rabinowitz. She usually played maternal roles.

May McAvoy as Mary Dale. Probably her best-known other role is Esther in Ben-Hur.

Otto Lederer (in the middle) as busybody gossip Moisha Yudelson.

Fellow Pittsburgher Bobby Gordon as 13-year-old Jakie Rabinowitz. He later became a film and TV director, and was the last surviving cast member of TJS.

Cantor Yossele (Josef) Rosenblatt as himself. He was considered the greatest cantor of his era, with a sweeping career spanning multiple cities and countries.

Richard Tucker (far left) as producer Harry Lee. He was the first official member of the Screen Actors Guild.

The synchronized musical performances are, in order:

“My Gal Sal” (dubbed by an unknown singer as Bobby Gordon lip-synchs)
“Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” (a popular 1912 song), also dubbed as Bobby Gordon lip-synchs
“Kol Nidre” (dubbed by Joseph Diskay with Warner Oland lip-synching)
“Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” (Jolson)
“Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’ Bye)” (Jolson)
“Kaddish” (Cantor Rosenblatt)
“Blue Skies” (Jolson)
“Kol Nidre” (Jolson)
“Mother of Mine, I Still Have You” (Jolson)
“My Mammy” (Jolson)

After “Blue Skies,” there’s a brief ad-libbed conversation between Jack and his mother. This comes to an abrupt halt when Cantor Rabinowitz enters and shouts, “STOP!” The dialogue then reverts back to intertitles.

The sound sequences were shot at a different speed from the normal silent sequences. If you watch very closely, you can pick up on the differences, particularly when one stops and the other starts.

The first time I saw TJS, I was jolted by these sound sequences. While I of course knew they’d be there, it’s a very uncanny, surreal feeling for a silent film to suddenly break into sound. I image that’s what it felt like to 1927 audiences.

The Winter Garden and Lower East Side scenes were shot on location. Though filming began in June, the Vitaphone sequences were mostly saved for late August, since they were so technologically complex. On 23 September, Motion Picture News reported production was complete.

The budget was $422,000 ($5.76 million today). This was a colossal sum for the financially struggling Warner Bros., who typically didn’t spend more than $250,000. Only the John Barrymore films Don Juan and The Sea Beast (both 1926) had been more expensive.

To finance TJS, Harry Warner stopped drawing his salary, moved his family to a smaller apartment, and pawned his wife’s jewelry. The brothers worked themselves ragged on the production, since a lot was riding on both this film and Vitaphone being successful.

This costly experiment paid off big-time, though Sam Warner sadly died just before the grand première.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part V (Let’s talk about blackface)

One of the reasons I was so annoyed and disappointed with The Rap Critic and his annoying girlfriend Lady Jess’s review of The Jazz Singer was because it was little more than one huge rant against blackface. They went total SJW and unfairly applied contemporary views to a radically different era.

Rap Critic admitted Al Jolson wasn’t a racist at all and that he did a lot of good things for the African–American community, but in the next breath said he didn’t care, because ZOMG, blackface! They “shamed” pretty much every major entertainer for using blackface, even once ever, in the pre-Civil Rights era.

I fully admit I was really nervous the first time I saw this film, knowing there was going to be blackface. Having been born in 1979, I grew up in a much different era, and also have lived the majority of my life in an area that’s about half-African–American.

A lot of the African–American kids at my awful junior high were much nicer and more accepting than the other white kids, which was my inspiration for creating Marjani Washington in Little Ragdoll.

And yet, when I saw the blackface scenes in context, I wasn’t offended or angry at all. As I researched the history of this now-discontinued performance style, I gained a greater understanding of its proper historical context.

The use of blackface in The Jazz Singer stems from minstrel shows, and as such is separate from that of white actors playing African–Americans (a subject for a whole other post!). Depending on context and intent, these performances could be positive, neutral, or perpetuate ugly, racist stereotypes.

There were definitely performers whose characters represented, e.g., oversexed people, pathological liars, thieves, lazy workers, easily-spooked cowards, and buffoons, but there were also plenty of other ethnic and racial stereotypes in the same era.

Other stock characters which would never be allowed today included drunken Irishmen, money-hungry Jewish pawnbrokers, and bumbling Italian immigrants. In the context of the era, most people wouldn’t have considered it unacceptably racist and offensive.

We can’t judge other eras’ standards of acceptability based upon our own. For example, it’s like nails on a chalkboard when I see a woman referred to as Mrs. Husband’s Full Name, but that was considered a married woman’s proper, respectable title. Most people never questioned that custom.

After minstrel shows declined in popularity, blackface moved to vaudeville. In Al Jolson’s case, it was a way of exposing white audiences to blues, ragtime, and jazz. This was an era when people “knew their place,” and as such typically wouldn’t know about that kind of music.

Blackface was also a way for him to step into a different persona, Gus, who was smarter than his white masters. He subtly poked fun at the idea of white supremacy by frequently helping them out of problems they’d created themselves, and being wily and wise-cracking.

In the 1926 Vitaphone short A Plantation Act, he performs three songs and pleasantly addresses his audience. It’s so matter-of-fact, with zero maliciousness or intended racism.

Blackface is integral to the story of The Jazz Singer. It wouldn’t be the same story or “a lot better,” as Rap Critic and his SJW girlfriend insisted, if the blackface were absent. It lets Jack Robin combine the Jewish cantorial tradition with modern jazz, letting out the anguished cry of both peoples in an impassioned prayer.

For the entire story, Jack has also been hiding from himself, running away from his roots, with a de-Judaized name, a radical break from his family and hometown, and blackface. He becomes a different person in blackface, with greater artistic freedom. Jakie Rabinowitz couldn’t do that.

In the climactic penultimate scene, his heart, soul, and identity are finally laid bare, in spite of his attempts to hide his origins. He releases the cry of “a jazz singer—singing to his God.”