Al Jolson - the most popular stage figure of the early 20th century, the man whose appearance in the first talkie, "The Jazz Singer," revolutionized the entire entertainment industry in 1927 - was one of the great icons of American culture. Mention his name, and virtually everyone has a picture of a man in blackface on bended knee, arms outstretched and singing "Mammy" in a chapped leather voice.
Important as he was though, from our viewpoint today there is something strange, outsized and hammy about him. When you look at the old films and listen to the records, there is more than a little 19th-century stage bombast and sentimentality in his manner, both qualities that we are extremely uncomfortable with in this Telegenic Age, in which nothing is acceptable unless it is "natural."And then there is our feeling about blackface. Virtually no performer but Judy Garland has dared to attempt it in the last 30 years, and even she only did it as a tribute to Jolson. The long history and subtle, subversive uses of it are known only to theater historians today; to the general public, it is a racial insult, and that serves to distance Jolson, whose trademark it was, even more from us.
The point of Herbert G. Goldman's "Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life," is that something is irrevocably lost to our complete understanding of Jolson's impact. The theatrical and social conditions that created his performing persona and led the public to embrace it wholeheartedly are long gone and must be grasped to comprehend him; what is difficult to know about his times today was obvious to anyone sitting in an orchestra seat at a performance of "Sinbad" in 1918. What is impossible for us is to experience what made him an untouchable legend: his performances on the stage. That was his element of true genius, and it cannot be duplicated.
The mechanical media gave an indication of that genius, but never really captured it. He was always somewhat uncomfortable performing in films or on radio or records, and besides, his personality was too big, too eccentric for those entertainment forms. Only the intimate human contact of a live theater house, no matter how vast, communicated Al Jolson to his audiences, like a single arrow, direct to a thousand brains.
Goldman, who spent several years in exhaustive research on his subject, gives a thoroughgoing account of Jolson, his background and his stage presence. Many telling firsthand descriptions of Jolson's stage performances from critics and others are included, and Goldman manages in that way to give us a full and lively sense of what seeing Jolson on the stage was like, which is no mean feat.
The book has several problems. First, the period of Jolson's greatest public impact is gone through in a dull and narrow manner. "The Jazz Singer" was a watershed event, recognized as such worldwide in its time, but you would never know it from the pallid discussion here. Then there is the 25-cent psychologizing about Jolson, written in the manner of popular magazines of 40 years ago. He tells us of the trauma of Jolson's witnessing of his mother's death when he was 8 years old, and then lays it on like boilerplate throughout the book to explain the man's essential loneliness and egomania, which manifested itself in his terrible relationships with women and others close to him.
That explanation is never deepened, just trotted out and attached at appropriate moments; the most interesting information in that regard occurs on Page 13, when Goldman tells us that lines Jolson interpolated into the song "Mammy" ("Mammy, mammy, look at me. Don't you know me? I'm your little boy") were what he wished that he had said as his mother stared uncomprehendingly at him when she died.
Most important of all, the book just isn't written very well. Except for the occasional fluid page, the prose is clunky, the organization stiff. It is as if a lawyer had a wonderful case in his notes, and then didn't present it convincingly in the courtroom. The information is there though, and for those interested, it is detailed and complete.