The Jazz Singer
Jolson was initially paid one-third $75,000
cash down and rest in weekly instalments. He could never have
imagined what The Jazz
Singer would do to show business, but
Jolson had this uncanny knack of breaking new ground and being
the first to do anything.
Eppy: It might not be a bad deal, Al. The story is down your alley, and this new sound thing might put you over.
George Jessel: Is it any wonder I always felt bitter? It was my part and partly my story. Jolson got the role because he put money into it. But he was better at it than I would have been.
In Hollywood, the King of Broadway posed for pictures with Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks and was fêted as if he was now the King of Hollywood. It was typical Hollywood hype for nobody believed that Al Jolson and talking pictures would have any impact on their world. Shooting for The Jazz Singer began on 11 July 1927.
You tell me what you expect me to do
and Ill try to learn it and do it the best I can,
Jolson told surprised film director, Alan Crosland, who had been
briefed on the notorious Jolson temper. Jolson later told a
reporter: Everything was new and strange to me. I would do
a scene five times with tears in my eyes and then Alan Crosland
would say: Do it again - and put some feeling into
it. To watch Jolson in action, employees deserted all
the other Warner film sets.
Jack Warner, on a crowded film set: Guess we just better declare today a holiday. Tell everybody well hold up the scene until they get here and they can hear Al sing. The set is packed but well make room for more.
The Jazz Singer (pictured right May McAvoy and Al Jolson in scene from film) was originally planned to have no dialogue, only the songs recorded in sound. With Jolson on set it couldnt possibly turn out the way it was planned. The first sound recorded scene was filmed with Al singing Dirty Hands, Dirty Face to a crowd at Coffee Dans in San Francisco. The audience applauded as if he was on stage and Al - he never did take too much notice of a script - got right into the spirit of the thing: Wait a minute, wait a minute, he cried. You aint heard nothin yet. Wait a minute I tell yer . . . you wanna hear Toot Toot Tootsie? All right, hold on. He called to orchestra leader Lou Silvers: Lou, listen. You play Toot Toot Tootsie. Three choruses, you understand, and in the third chorus I whistle. Now give it to em hard and heavy. Go right ahead. The film was still running with the mikes switched on and those sentences were preserved for posterity.
After Warners had seen the rushes they knew
they had a hit and an additional scene was added where Jolson, as
Jack Robin, talks to his mother: Did you like that, mama?
Im glad of it. Id rather please you than anybody I
know . . . Mama, listen, Im gonna sing this like I will if
I go on the stage. You know, with this show. Im gonna sing
it jazzy. Now get this. It was all ad lib and he then
launched into another chorus of Blue Skies.
The talkies had begun and the film industry would never
be the same again.
Pearl Sieben: Choked with emotion he went into his song. The sob was there, the clenched fists, the tears ready to brim over. This was the maudlin sentiment for which many critics had condemned him, but it wasnt false. He felt it. It was part of his unstable nature, but it was sincere and never failed to touch an audience.
Instead of reopening in Big Boy, Jolson gave five performances a day at the Metropolitan in Los Angeles breaking box-office records. Regular vaudeville soon found it could not compete with this new picture house vaudeville where small musical productions were offered with a feature film.
The Jazz Singer
upon the play by
Cast includes: May McAvoy, Warner Oland, Eugenie Besserer, Cantor Josef Rosenblatt, William Demarest.
Herald Tribune: One of those
milling, battling mobs, that used to blockade cinema
premieres to watch the stars pass by in the days before
they moved all the studios to Hollywood, flooded the
sidewalk and street in front of the Warner Theatre that
On the night of 6 October 1927, The Jazz Singer was premièred at the Warner Theatre, New York.
People queued for hours jamming the sidewalk and Jolson had to
fight his way through the surging mob to get into the theatre.
Once inside, he said: This picture better be good, or I
aint coming out again. The crowded theatre of 1,800
people had no idea what was going to hit them and what they saw
was a charismatic feature that made them screech and shout and
nearly go crazy. The film ended with Jolson singing Mammy
to great applause and with the audience jumping to their feet,
demanding: Jolson, Jolson, Jolson! We want Jolson!
Running down the centre aisle to the stage, Jolson, in full view
of the audience, wiped the tears from his eyes. It was the
greatest moment in Al Jolsons stupendously successful life.
Next day wires buzzed between New York and California with
instructions from movie moguls to wire their studios for sound.
Hear ya got another hit, Al.
Never had anything else!
Some stars dismissed it as a novelty - Charlie Chaplin stuck to his cane and little moustache vowing never to make a talkie. But The Jazz Singer tolled the knell of silent pictures and killed off vaudeville. The film made $3,500,000 net profit. With a year to run on his contract with the Shuberts, Jolson had to re-open in the stage show Big Boy. Within days he had contracted a sore throat and the show finally closed.
Lee Shubert: Al feels fine until its time to go to work for me. Then he goes sick.
After taking a vacation in Palm Beach,
Florida, Jolson accepted Shuberts offer of $12,500 a week
for a four-week engagement in A Night in Spain at
I hope you know, said Lee Shubert, that this makes you the highest paid actor in the world.
I should be, answered Al. Im working for the worlds richest producer.
I wont stay rich if I have to keep paying actors like you.
Naturally, Warner Bros. wanted Al for another film, The Singing Fool, in which he would play the father of a dying boy. DeSylva, Brown and Henderson received a telephone call from Jolson asking them to write a song for the film. It sounded urgent: Listen fellers, Ive gotta have a song, yah hear? Its a song to a little boy - a little guy whos dying and his dads near heartbroken about it. Do Jolie a favour and yer wont regret it. As a gag, the songwriters put into the song every ounce of schmaltz they could muster. Audiences wept when they eventually heard it and Jolson laughed all the way to the bank. The recording of Sonny Boy became the most commercially successful song of Jolsons career and The Singing Fool became the most successful movie of all time - till replaced by Gone with the Wind.
Singing Fool (a scene
pictured right with Al) Jolson sang 'The Spaniard That Blighted My Life' written and performed by Billy Merson, a British
music hall comedian who was born in Nottingham. Billy went to
court claiming that people would now associate the song with
Jolson and not himself. Refusing an out of court settlement,
Billy won the case but then lost on an appeal technicality and
had to pay the full costs of the case.
Jolson: One reason I wanted to make a movie is to give a fifty cent show. Manys the time Ive stood in the box office in New York and seen someone ask: Have you got anything for fifty cents? and the ticket seller would bark out: Naw, nothing under two dollars.
The Singing Fool
There was not
a dry eye in the house when the film ended at the Winter
Garden premiere of The Singing Fool. Shouts of
Jolson! Jolson! Jolson! by the audience
brought Al up on the stage
New York Times :
The chief interest in this production is not in its
transparent narrative, but in Mr. Jolsons
inimitable singing. One waits after hearing a selection,
hoping for another, and one is not in the least
disappointed when he, as Al Stone, announces to the
patrons of his night club that he is going to sing
a thousand songs.
Ruby Keeler was the girl friend of Johnny Irish Costello, a gangster who frequented Broadway speak-easies. He protected the interests of Owney Madden who supplied bootleg whiskey to New York clubs. A trim, eighteen-years-old beauty, Ruby was also a speciality tap dancer in a show called Sidewalks of New York and as soon as Jolson saw her, he was smitten. Ruby was no innocent, knew all about speakeasies, but recognised the value of her naive charm when the occasion demanded. The attraction for Al was that she was unattainable, unspoiled and appealing to the decency of men who had any decency left. And there was a risk - a suitor could exit life in concrete boots.
After Sidewalks of New York
closed in Chicago, Ruby was booked for a tour of West Coast
picture houses and set off by rail accompanied by her sister
Helen. When their train pulled into Los Angeles station, Ruby was
surprised to find Al greeting her like an old friend. He insisted
that he could get her more money as a dancer at Graumans Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, one of Hollywoods smartest
clubs. Ruby was a little frightened - Johnny Costello might not
have approved - but she accepted. After each show at the club,
Ruby would receive a box of long-stemmed roses with a card signed
Guess who?. This would be followed by a request from
Al to take her to dinner. Ruby resisted at first but eventually
agreed and the couple became an item in the Hollywood
gossip mill. She was seen wearing a 5-carat diamond ring on her
return to New York.
Ruby Keeler: I was doing five shows a day. A mutual friend invited me and my sister to dinner and I agreed. Al was at their home and thats how it went. He had a big ring he had bought me and I said yes, I would marry him.
Ruby told Johnny Costello that she loved Al
and wanted to marry him. Johnny sent word he wanted to see Al.
The singers visit was similar to a prospective bridegroom
calling on his future father-in-law. Ruby loves yer,
Costello told him, so youd better marry her - or
there wont be a certain singer on Broadway no more. Get
me? Jolson bridled. He wasnt used to being pushed
around: See, I got this picture opening next week. As soon
as it opens, Ill marry her . . . I love the dame, I tell
yer. Costello had heard that Al had often slapped his first
wife: You got a bad rep with dames and I need some
insurance. Be a generous guy and give Ruby $1 million as a
wedding present - OK? Al had no choice but to agree.
Word of Jolsons present spread throughout the underworld and Jack (Legs) Diamond, thinking Al might be an easy touch, called him demanding $50,000 - or else. Jolson explained the situation to columnist Mark Hellinger who said he would see what he could do. The columnist rang Owney Madden and next morning Al received a telephone call from Legs Diamond claiming he had only been kidding. In return for the favour, the entire scoop of Al and Rubys wedding went to Mark Hellinger.
On 19 September 1928 there was not a dry eye in the Winter Garden at the end of the premiere of The Singing Fool and inside eighteen months the film had grossed $5 million. Two days after the premiere, Al and Ruby were married at Port Chester, New York. She was 19 and he was 43. That same evening the newly-weds boarded the Olympic about to sail for Europe and Al became angry when a small horde of reporters burst into their stateroom. Whos the dame? a reporter demanded and Jolson went for him. Someone intervened to break them up and it was left to Eppy to announce that Al and Ruby were married (pictured right Al and Ruby on honeymoon). After being fêted in Paris the couple moved on to London where Ruby began to wonder if she had married a man or a cult. Following the screening of his picture The Jazz Singer at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, Jolson went on stage and for twenty minutes kept the audience entertained with funny stories. They didnt want to let him go and thrilled by his reception, he said: Its better than New York. After this, I simply must appear on the London stage.
When the newly-weds returned to America,
Ruby started rehearsals for Ziegfields new Broadway show
starring Eddie Cantor. Al went on to Los Angeles where he signed
a contract with Warners for three more films worth $500,000 each.
Every night Al called Ruby long distance, and after Whoopee
had successfully opened in Pittsburgh, Ruby put a call through to
Honey, am I glad to hear your voice, Al told her.
Oh, Al, its wonderful. Its a really great show . . . Ruby began enthusiastically.
Thats swell baby, swell. Im in the midst of some tough shooting and Ive not been feelin so well.
Im sorry, Al. Whats wrong.
Ruby, I dont know. These doctors tell me that Im run down. They want me to sit in the sun, but how do I do that with all these Warner brothers running around loose?
You ought to lie down.
Lie down? Thats a laugh. Listen, baby, I need ya. Need ya awful bad. Why dont you take the next train to Hollywood?
Al, Id love to, but you know I cant leave the show.
Cant leave the show? What do you mean cant leave the show? Listen, Im your husband. Nobody has to go on.
Als appeals continued for a week until a worried Ruby finally broke her contract and quit the show. She arrived in Palm Springs to find him in radiant good health. Just knowing you were coming has done me wonders, Babe, Al explained. Ruby was too stunned to reply.
The Jolsons settled in a rambling
Spanish-style ranch house in Palm Springs and with more leisure
time, Al dabbled in various contracts. Unknown to Warners, Al
secretly signed a contract with Joseph M. Shenck, president of
United Artists, to star in four pictures. Signed on a brown paper
lunch bag, it later became known as the banana bag
contract. Al also became Rubys business manager and he
signed her up to dance for $1,000 a week in Flo Ziegfields
new show called Show Girl, written by George and Ira Gershwin.
Ruby: Flo called today. Hes putting a new show together . . . Al, I dont know what to say. Ive never been as happy as Ive been just being your wife, but to be honest with you, I do miss the stage.
Jolsons next film, Say It With Songs, was shot in 28 days and Jolson was not too happy
during filming. With Davey Lee as Little Pal, critics
noted that it was the same offering as The Singing Fool. One
critic claimed it was suitable as entertainment only to
immature personalities. It was the first flop of
A month later on 16 May 1929, at the first Academy Awards ceremony, the Warner brothers were given a special award for the first talking picture.
Show Girl opened for a pre-Broadway run in Boston on 25 June
1929. The high point of the number Liza,
easily the best song in the show, was where Ruby stepped into the
spotlight at the top of a magnificent series of platforms. Jolson
was sitting in the second row next to Ziegfield and couldnt
resist getting into the act. Rising from his seat, he stood in
the aisle and joined in the chorus: Liza . . . Liza . . .
skies are grey . . . When you belong to me . . . all the clouds
will roll away. The audience cheered and went crazy - a
famous moment in musical comedy history. Ziegfield told him:
Do that every night, Al, and you can have half the
show. So when the show moved to Broadway, Al went with it
too. Ruby tried to tell him that she didnt want him to
upstage her but it made little difference. They quarrelled - not
for the first time.
Show Girl was not the best of Ziegfield
shows and when Al returned to Hollywood to start a picture and
Ruby broke her ankle in a fall from the spiral staircase, the
Ruby: I dont know why he did it. I was just as surprised as anyone. I guess he just liked to sing.
Patsy Kelly: That was her show, not his.
Varietys headline on 30 October 1929 read: Wall Street Lays An Egg. Wall Street had crashed. Jolson was not as badly hit as many of his colleagues since most of his money was tied up in real estate - Ziegfield was financially ruined and Eddie Cantor wiped out completely. Whatever losses Jolson had, he took philosophically - he looked on making money as a game and saw the stock market as a sort of indoor racetrack. His stockbrokers and accountants rang round all his friends offering financial help if they needed it. Why he didnt call himself, nobody will ever know - that was Jolson.
Jolsons next two films with Warners, Mammy and Big Boy,
added up to three flops in a row. Only a glimmer of the real,
vibrant Al Jolson came through. The minstrel sequences revealed
Jolson as a great singer and comedian but his acting was
embarrassing, and none of the magic of the stage show Big Boy
came through on screen. Public tastes were changing. The audience
tired of the same old formula and tired of Jolsons acting.
As George Jessel was to say: It was attempting to trap the
Pacific ocean in a bottle.
In London the great showman C. B. Cochrane remarked: The Jolson I saw on screen is not the Jolson I knew in the flesh. It was a Jolson without a soul.
Jolson told a Screenland reporter: I made two good pictures. I made The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool. I showed em what I could do. Then they start telling me they cant find enough good pictures. All right - Im reasonable. Can you find me two good pictures a year? No. Can you find me one? It seems they cant. So I take what they give and live in hope. And I find that the pole is only greased one way - down.
Pearl Sieben: The roaring twenties were drawing to a close . . . Mae West wrote a play called Sex and when it opened at Dalys 63rd Street Theatre her manager and producer were arrested. She was sentenced to Welfare Island for ten days for corrupting the morals of youth. Jack Dempsey knocked out Carpentier in New Jersey before 75,000 fans and Paul Whiteman came to radio and became The King of Jazz. Everyone was saying Hot dog!, and Aint that the cats pyjamas, and Thats the cats meow, and You tell em, kid, I stutter.
Say It With Songs
Cast includes: Claudia Dell, Louise Closser Hale and the Monroe Jubilee Singers.
Gossip circulated that Al and Ruby were
scrapping but to outsiders they were a happy couple. Ruby
accompanied him to the races and prize-fights and painfully aware
that his neglect had ruined his first two marriages, Al shouted
about Ruby from the rooftops. And contrary to most mother-in-law
jokes, Al was genuinely fond of Rubys mother, who in turn
considered Al as the head of the family. She often came to him
for advice. Al got on well with all the Keeler family, liked
their close Irish family ties, and bought his mother-in-law a
house not far from their own.
Al: I put Ruby before my singing and singing is pretty sweet to me. Ruby is heavens harmony. She simply has no faults.
Jolson was scheduled to make Sons o Guns for United Artists in November 1930. In the meantime he played a week at Capitol Theatre, New York, doing five shows a day and filling the theatre with folks demanding encores. Many of the customers stayed all day. When he returned to Hollywood he found Joe Shenck had postponed Sons o Guns for two years - United Artists were predicting a bad time for screen musicals.
As the depression bit harder everyone was
in need of laughter and early in 1931 the Shuberts asked him to
appear as Monsieur Al Wonder in their new show The Wonder Bar - his first show on Broadway for five years. It was
also revolutionary. Set in a nightclub-cum-restaurant in Paris,
the show had no curtain and the café staff moved continually
about the stage during the performance. Jolson sang Irving
Donna Clara in English, German
and Russian and it so impressed Chaliapin, the great Russian bass
singer, that they became good friends.
Irving Caesar: Jolson had no trouble with it. He was a Litvak; he talked Litvak Yiddish. But he couldnt read it. Neither could I. I had to learn it by ear from a folk singer . . . I taught it to Al, and it was one of the greatest things he ever did.
Fedor Chaliapin: Arll, we both have no matinee today. Why not come around to my hotel and we have some wine and we have some caviar and perhaps a couple of girls . . .?
opened at the Belasco
Theatre, Washington, and Al visited his
parents in Lanier Place (pictured
right with his father). Al tried to
explain the show to his father: Pop, this is the greatest
show ever done. I sing in Yiddish. I sing in French.
Its almost eight oclock.
It takes place in a night club, and the scenes are all picked out in spots.
Almost eight oclock.
Pop, Im trying to tell you about the new show. Whats at eight oclock?
Amos n Andy Show.
The Wonder Bar
Continental Novelty of
Los Angeles Times: He also
passed around the soft drinks, then he told a sad tale
about his wifes shoes - wooden shoes perforce, and
becoming very sobby about it, finally rushing down the
aisle to where Ruby Keeler was sitting and kissed
The Wonder Bar didnt get the usual Jolson rave revues and when matinee audiences declined, Jolsons throat predictably hurt him. The doctors announced: A four-day vacation is necessary to safeguard his health. The next five performances were cancelled and the show closed altogether two weeks later.
The Jolsons spent the following weeks going to the races till The Wonder Bar opened a tour in the September. Eppy had secured Jolson a $6,000 weekly guarantee and the show played 76 performances in 37 cities. Each opening, in a new city, before a new audience, played havoc with Jolsons nerves. The man was a raving maniac on opening nights, recalled Patsy Kelly who played Elektra Pivonka in the show. Once I found him in a garbage can, saying: I wont go on. But wed push him on, and then . . . you couldnt get him off.
Warners wanted to sign up Ruby for a film
but Al didnt like the idea of Ruby playing in pictures.
Since he had created Rubys career, he thought he could do
with it what he liked. But after Warners pointed out to him that
a little tap dancer couldnt be much competition to a
singer, Al agreed, and at $2,000 a week she was signed up for a
part as a tap dancer in
Ruby: I know its hard work, Al, but I would like a try at this.
Al: Dont expect me to see yer work, Baby, I dont want to watch other guys kissin yer.
Chevrolet offered him his own radio show on the NBC network.
He sang all his hit songs, including Brother Can You Spare A Dime, and introduced a galaxy of other stars.
Never happy with the script, he kept telling producers:
Ive just got a load of bum jokes here. They
smiled indulgently. Al couldnt understand why everyone went
crazy in the control booth when he threw away the script and
ad-libbed his way through. Nor did the producers like the way he
moved about and away from the microphone. Eventually they gave
him two microphones.
George Burns: When Al sang Brother Can You Spare A Dime and turned his coat collar up and the brim of his hat down, you believed him so much that you wanted to empty your pockets to give him a dime for a cup of coffee. Yet everyone knew Jolson was worth $20 million.
Joe Schenck and director Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front) decided that Sons o Guns was dated and chose instead an original story entitled The New Yorker by Ben Hecht which took as its theme the Depression and its effects.