On the Set with Al Jolson

This time we turn the spotlight on Al Jolson (1886-1950) who by sheer force of his personality became known as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.” It’s said that he bestowed the title on himself but the point is that nobody disputed it.
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There were four great male pop singers during the 20th century and in chronological order they were Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley. They all excelled in singing love songs but two of them were gentlemen – Crosby and Presley – and two of them were tough guys – Jolson and Sinatra:
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Al isn’t glaring at the camera in this production shot from WONDER BAR (1934). His scorn is directed towards an off-camera Ricardo Cortez who plays a gigolo in the story:
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The New York premiere of THE SINGING KID in April 1936. Al is partially hidden behind the microphone while Mrs. Jack Oakie speaks into it as her husband looks on. On the left is none other than Ruth Roland, the serial queen of the silent screen. After retiring from films, Ruth made a fortune in real estate. No wonder she’s smiling!
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Jolson played only one historical role in films – other than himself, that is. Al’s characterization of E.P. Christy, the minstrel man of the 19th century, won critical praises and stole the show. That’s Don Ameche as Stephen Foster and Andrea Leeds as his long-suffering wife in the Technicolor production, SWANEE RIVER (1939):
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Jolson was active in the Republican Party during the 1920s, campaigning for Warren Harding and even writing a song for him. Here Al visits President Calvin Coolidge at the White House in October 1924:
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Al was a sportsman and proudly displays his day’s catch:
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A deleted scene from ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE (1939), a nostalgic musical of the 1920s, which even in 1939 seemed like a long time ago:
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Al and his third wife Ruby Keeler in 1929, singing songs over the air to promote his new film, SAY IT WITH SONGS:
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After Broadway and Hollywood, Jolson became a major radio star during the 1930s and thereafter. But what’s the point in talking about Al – let’s listen to him. Click below to hear the Colgate Tooth Powder Show of January 5, 1943. Right smack in the middle of the Second World War, this show has plenty of jokes to keep up morale in dealing with the wartime challenges of rationing and shortages. Broadcast live from New York City, Al’s guest, Monty Woolley (The Man Who Came To Dinner) was such a hit that he became a regular on the show. Al performs a terrific medley of George Gershwin songs at the end:

All of the Jolson movies mentioned in this post are now available on DVD. Of course, the film that Al is primarily remembered for, THE JAZZ SINGER (1927), is also out on Blu-ray. Check ’em out!

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