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 Great Artists Series

 The Immortal
  Al Jolson  

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The Silver Screen:
The Film Career of Al Jolson


    Click on the video  icon to view either a video snippet or preview from a particular film described below. When an audio clip is provided, just click on the earphones icon supplied.
This short ten-minute film was released by Warner Brothers on October 7, 1926. It was one of the first short films that Vitaphone made; it was the first film that Al Jolson starred in. The film is set on a plantation and Jolson is in blackface. In this short he sings three songs that he made very popular: "April Showers," "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody," and "When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin' Along."

This short essentially served as a screen test for Jolson, as he starred in "The Jazz Singer" the very next year.


"The Jazz Singer" had its world premiere on October 6, 1927. It was the first full-length Hollywood feature film in which dialogue was spoken as part of the film's action. The majority of the film, however, is filled with vocal musical numbers and accompaniment that is synchronized with the sound. The film has a musical score, as well as musical sound effects and title/subtitle cards which are used throughout the entire film.

Jolson was not the film studio's first choice to play the lead in "The Jazz Singer." The role of Jakie Rabinowitz was offered to both Eddie Cantor and George Jessel, the latter having played the title role in the stage version of the film.

In this film, Jolson sings "Dirty Hands, Dirty Face," "Toot, Toot, Tootsie! (Goo' bye)," "Blue Skies," "Mother of Mine, I Still Have You," "Kol Nidre," and "My Mammy."

Click on the video icon above to see a video preview of the film and read a synopsis of the film.

      THE SINGING FOOL, 1928


"The Singing Fool" was released from Warner Brothers on August 17, 1928 and runs 105 minutes. The film was similar in structure to "The Jazz Singer" in that it was presented as a drama with periods of music interspersed within it. The movie was released both with and without sound.

In this film Jolson plays Al Stone, who is trying mightily to establish a singing career. We can see him singing "I'm Sittin' on Top of the World" in a speakeasy, where he is both a waiter and entertainer. One night while singing, he impresses an influential producer in the audience,  as well as a showgirl who also sees him perform. So Al Stone makes it successfully to Broadway and marries the showgirl. However, hard times follow for Stone; his wife takes their son he calls "Sonny Boy" and leaves him. Stone takes all of this badly; he becomes a loner and is very unhappy. Thanks to good friends he restarts his career and is soon back performing. However, he soon learns that his "Sonny Boy" lays dying in a hospital....

Songs from this film include: "There's a Rainbow 'Round my Shoulder," "Golden Gate," "I'm Sittin' on Top of the World," "It All Depends on You," "Keep Smiling at Trouble," "Sonny Boy," and "The Spaniard That Blighted My Life."

This film was immensely popular and was quite financially successful. This would solidify Jolson's place in the film world.

  Jolson was interviewed on "The Barry Gray Show" on October 27, 1946. Hear Jolson's anecdotes about the song "Sonny Boy" and the young boy Davey Lee, who acted in the film eighteen years earlier.  Click on the earphones icon to hear these anecdotes, as well as Jolson singing "Sonny Boy" on the Barry Gray radio show.

      SAY IT WITH SONGS, 1929

"Say It With Songs" was released by Warner Brothers on August 6, 1929, and starred Jolson with Davey Lee, the boy who played his "Sonny Boy" in "The Singing Fool." This film was very similar to "The Singing Fool," too similar for audiences, and thus it did not fare well at the box office.

In this film for the first time, Jolson played in a full-length talkie, unlike the other two where songs and music were interspersed within a film that was, more or less, a silent film. This film was also his first film where he did not sing a song in blackface. The more well-known songs in this film are: "Little Pal" and "Back in Your Own Back Yard." To hear "Back in Your Own Back Yard" as song in the film, click on the earphones icon on display next to the film title above.
      MAMMY, 1930   

"Mammy" was Al Jolson's fourth feature film, released by Warner Brothers on March 26, 1930. The film, an all-talkie, musical drama, also includes some Technicolor sequences.

This film parallels Jolson's early career with the Minstrels. Most notably, "Mammy" includes songs by Irving Berlin such as "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," "Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle?", "Yes, We Have No Bananas," "In the Morning," "Swanee River," and "To My Mammy."

  Hear Jolson talk about how he began to whistle as part of his act. Also hear Jolson sing "Swanee River" on the Barry Gray radio show in 1946. Click on the video icon above to see a video preview of the film.

      BIG BOY, 1930

"Big Boy" was an adaptation of the stage play of the same name, also starring Al Jolson, who had first acted in "Big Boy" on Broadway in 1925. The film version made it to the silver screen on September 11, 1930 at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City.

This is the first film in which Jolson performs entirely in blackface. He played Gus, a "negro jockey." He hopes to ride his boss' racehorse "Big Boy" to victory in the Kentucky Derby.

Songs in the film sung by Jolson include "Liza Lee," "Little Sunshine," "All God's Children," "Go Down, Moses," "Hooray for Baby and Me," and "Tomorrow is Another Day." To hear Jolson sing "Little Sunshine" as he did in the film, click on the earphones icon on display next to the film title above.

      HALLELUJAH, I'M A BUM, 1933

"Hallelujah, I'm a Bum, " a musical comedy, was first released on February 3, 1933. Subsequently, it was re-released under different titles, such as "The Heart of New York."

In this film, Al Jolson plays a New York tramp named "Bumper." It deals whimsically and satirically with the life of a hobo, of which there were a good number during these Depression years. Here he rescues a woman who wants to commit suicide--the woman happens to have amnesia and be the girlfriend of the mayor.

The music and lyrics for the film were written by Rodgers and Heart and includes such songs as "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" and "You Are Too Beautiful." Click on the video icon above to see a video preview of the film.

     WONDER BAR, 1934

"Wonder Bar" was released by First National Pictures in 1934 and featured musical numbers by Busby Berkeley. It is an adaptation of a Broadway musical of the same name.

"Wonder Bar" takes place in a nightclub in Paris; the plot line revolves around both a romance and a serious conflict. Within the story, many lavish musical productions take place (designed and directed by the famed Busby Berkeley.) Jolson plays Al Wonder, who is attracted to the character played by Dolores del Rio, who in turn has a passion for the character played by Ricardo Cortez.

Songs by Warren and Dubin include "Vive la France," "Why Do I Dream Those Dreams?", and "Don't Say Goodnight" (sung by Dick Powell.)

Jolson was interviewed on "The Barry Gray Show" on October 27, 1946. Hear one of Jolson's anecdotes about his father, concerning his role in "Wonder Bar," by clicking on the earphones icon .




"Go Into Your Dance" was the only film that Al Jolson and his third wife Ruby Keeler acted in together. Released on April 20, 1935, Jolson plays Al Howard, a Broadway star. However, he is irresponsible, gambles, and is lots of trouble to his producers, as he jaunts down to Mexico whenever he has the whim, even if it is during the run of a show. Howard's sister teams him up with Dorothy (Ruby), who is very talented. He becomes successful, wants to open up a club, borrows the money for it from a gangster whose girlfriend wants Al Howard...

The film contains such well-known songs as "A Quarter to Nine" and "A Latin from Manhattan." Click on the video icon above to see a video preview of the film.

      THE SINGING KID, 1936

In this film, Jolson plays Al Jackson, a neurotic Broadway star who loses his voice. Because of this, he goes off into the country to recuperate both mentally and physically. While there he falls for a farm girl (Beverly Roberts), the aunt of a precocious girl played by Sybil Jason.

The film, released by Warner Brothers in 1936, features such songs as:  "I Love to Sing-A," and "Your the Cure For What Ails Me," as well as such Jolson staples as "My Mammy," "Swanee," "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody," "California, Here I Come," "April Showers," "About a Quarter to Nine," and "Sonny Boy."

Click on the video icon above to see a video preview of the film.

This film takes place in the 1920s New York City. Jolson here has a supporting role. "Rose of Washington Square" is about a singer who gets involved with a con artist. This threatens her career with the Ziegfield Follies.  This story seems to have been based on the life of Fanny Brice (who sued 20th Century Fox for invasion of privacy and won.) The film stars Alice Faye and Tyrone Power.

Jolson plays Ted Cotter, who in this film sings the song "Avalon" and "Pretty Baby." In blackface he sings many of the songs he previously made famous: "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody," "Toot-Toot Tootsie, Goodbye," "Mammy," and "California, Here I Come." Here Jolson sing "Avalon" by clicking on the earphones icon next to the film title.
      SWANEE RIVER, 1939

In "Swanee River," released by 20th Century Fox on January 5, 1940, Jolson plays E.B. Christy, the famed minstrel. Don Ameche plays songwriter Stephen Foster, who wrote such songs as "Oh! Susanna," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)," and "De Camptown Races."

Jolson sings  these songs during the film. To hear Jolson sing "De Camptown Races", as well as a dialogue in Jolson's (E.B. Christy's) dressing room with his assistant as well as Don Ameche, simply click on the earphones icon next to the title above.








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This exhibition was made possible in part with the cooperation of the International Al Jolson Society.


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