The Jazz SingerThe Jazz Singer’

Darryl F. Zanuck, a young executive with Warner Bros., suggested they use Vitaphone sound system in the song sequences of a full-length film. The company chose The Jazz Singer for which they owned the screen rights and which was already running to packed audiences on Broadway. The star of the show, George Jessel, wanted $10,000 as insurance before he would chance his career in these new-fangled talkies. Jack Warner couldn’t agree to that so he approached Jolson who he knew was interested the role.
Darryl F. Zanuck: “Jessel wants $10,000? For that kind of money, we could get Jolson.”
 
Jessel arrived in Los Angeles to make two silent films for Warners and stayed in the same hotel suite of the Biltmore Rendezvous as Jolson. Not saying a word to Jessel about The Jazz Singer, Jolson left early the next morning and signed with Warners Bros. to do the film. Jessel read it in the papers the next day and never forgave him.
Jolie:
“Go back to sleep, Georgie, I’m going to play golf.”

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 I’ll 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 we’ll hold up the scene until they get here and they can hear Al sing. The set is packed but we’ll make room for more.”


May McAvoy and Al JolsonThe 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 couldn’t 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 Dan’s 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 ain’t 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? I’m glad of it. I’d rather please you than anybody I know . . . Mama, listen, I’m gonna sing this like I will if I go on the stage. You know, with this show. I’m 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 wasn’t 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
Warner Bros. (1927)

Based upon the play by
Samson Raphaelson

Director: Alan Crosland
Scenario: Alfred A. Cohen
Conductor: Louis Silvers

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 night.”

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 ain’t 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 Jolson’s 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 Shubert’s offer of $12,500 a week for a four-week engagement in A Night in Spain at Chicago’s Four Cohans Theatre.
“I hope you know,” said Lee Shubert, “that this makes you the highest paid actor in the world.”
“I should be,” answered Al. “I’m working for the world’s richest producer.”
“I won’t 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, I’ve gotta have a song, yah hear? It’s a song to a little boy - a little guy who’s dying and his dad’s near heartbroken about it. Do Jolie a favour and yer won’t 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 Jolson’s career and The Singing Fool became the most successful movie of all time - till replaced by Gone with the Wind.

The Singing FoolIn The 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. Many’s the time I’ve 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
Warner Bros. (1928)

Director: Lloyd Bacon
Cast includes: Betty Bronson, Josephine Dunn, Davey Lee.

“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
‘What can I say?’ asked Al.
‘Sing!’ they demanded.”

New York Times : “The chief interest in this production is not in its transparent narrative, but in Mr. Jolson’s 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 Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, one of Hollywood’s 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 that’s 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 singer’s visit was similar to a prospective bridegroom calling on his future father-in-law. “Ruby loves yer,” Costello told him, “so you’d better marry her - or there won’t be a certain singer on Broadway no more. Get me?” Jolson bridled. He wasn’t used to being pushed around: “See, I got this picture opening next week. As soon as it opens, I’ll 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 Jolson’s ‘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 Ruby’s wedding went to Mark Hellinger.

Al and Ruby on honeymoon 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. “Who’s 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 didn’t want to let him go and thrilled by his reception, he said: “It’s 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 Ziegfield’s 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 Al.
“Honey, am I glad to hear your voice,” Al told her.
“Oh, Al, it’s wonderful. It’s a really great show . . .” Ruby began enthusiastically.
“That’s swell baby, swell. I’m in the midst of some tough shooting and I’ve not been feelin’ so well.”
“I’m sorry, Al. What’s wrong.”
“Ruby, I don’t know. These doctors tell me that I’m 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? That’s a laugh. Listen, baby, I need ya. Need ya awful bad. Why don’t you take the next train to Hollywood?”
“Al, I’d love to, but you know I can’t leave the show.”
“Can’t leave the show? What do you mean can’t leave the show? Listen, I’m your husband. Nobody has to go on.”
Al’s 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 Ruby’s business manager and he signed her up to dance for $1,000 a week in Flo Ziegfield’s new show called Show Girl, written by George and Ira Gershwin.
Ruby: “Flo called today. He’s putting a new show together . . . Al, I don’t know what to say. I’ve never been as happy as I’ve been just being your wife, but to be honest with you, I do miss the stage.”

Jolson’s 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 Jolson’s career.
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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 show folded.
Ruby: “I don’t 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.”

Variety’s 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 didn’t call himself, nobody will ever know - that was Jolson.

Jolson’s 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 Jolson’s 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 can’t find enough good pictures. All right - I’m reasonable. Can you find me two good pictures a year? No. Can you find me one? It seems they can’t. 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 Daly’s 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 ‘Ain’t that the cat’s pyjamas’, and ‘That’s the cat’s meow’, and ‘You tell ‘em, kid, I stutter.’”

Say It With Songs
Warner Bros. (1929)

Director: Lloyd Bacon
Songs: Jolson, DeSylva, Brown & Henderson
Conductor: Louis Silvers
Cast includes: Davey Lee, Marian Nixon.


Mammy
Warner Bros. (1930)
A Story By Irving Berlin

Director: Michael Curtiz
Conductor: Louis Silvers
Songs: Irving Berlin
Cast includes: Lois Moran, Louise Dresser, Noah Beery.

Big Boy
Warner Bros. (1930)

Director: Alan Crosland
Conductor: Louis Silvers

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 Ruby’s 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 heaven’s 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 Caesar’s ‘Oh, 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 couldn’t 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 . . .?”

Wonder Bar 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.”
“It’s almost eight o’clock.”
“It takes place in a night club, and the scenes are all picked out in spots.”
“Almost eight o’clock.”
“Pop, I’m trying to tell you about the new show. What’s at eight o’clock?”
“Amos ‘n’ Andy Show.”

 

 

The Wonder Bar
Nora Bayes,
New York (1931)

A Continental Novelty of
European Night Life

Lyrics: Irving Caesar
Music: Robert Katscher And Rowland Leigh

Los Angeles Times: “He also passed around the soft drinks, then he told a sad tale about his wife’s shoes - wooden shoes perforce, and becoming very sobby about it, finally rushing down the aisle to where Ruby Keeler was sitting and kissed her.”

The Wonder Bar didn’t get the usual Jolson rave revues and when matinee audiences declined, Jolson’s 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 Jolson’s 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 won’t go on’. But we’d push him on, and then . . . you couldn’t get him off.”

Warners wanted to sign up Ruby for a film but Al didn’t like the idea of Ruby playing in pictures. Since he had created Ruby’s career, he thought he could do with it what he liked. But after Warners pointed out to him that a little tap dancer couldn’t 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 42nd Street.
Ruby: “I know its hard work, Al, but I would like a try at this.”
Al:
“Don’t expect me to see yer work, Baby, I don’t 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: “I’ve just got a load of bum jokes here.” They smiled indulgently. Al couldn’t 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.

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