According to Wikipedia, in his time, Al Jolson was a superstar. He was, apparently, the first person to make a stage show “spectacular.” He built runways off the stage so he could get closer to the audience and he worked the crowd like a rock star. Well, I guess it’d be more appropriate to say rock stars work the crowd like Jolson.
The movie “Hallelujah I’m a Bum” is from 1933. I don’t have TCM and the movie’s not streaming anywhere so I doubt I’ll ever see it. I have no idea if Al is wearing blackface in this movie but it was his trademark so I imagine they shoehorned it in there somewhere. Here’s a clip from the movie. It’s Al singing the title track. It’s a pretty catchy tune.
I hear the masses cry out, “Oh sweet mother, please tell me she’s not going to talk about blackface again!” I think I’ve worn through at least seven soapboxes and absolutely everyone’s patience on that subject. And yet, here I stand dusting off trusty soapbox number eight. Don’t worry though, it’s flimsy wood and I’m no fly weight so I’ll probably bust through it and have to stop before this little post becomes a 62 chapter dissertation.
Even though blackface performances are racist, I do not think most folks who did it in the movies were deliberately trying to be offensive. I doubt they gave much thought to how the people they were portraying might feel about it at all. They were just doing a bit that was popular with White audiences at the time.
I’ve seen a couple Jolson’s blackface routines. He does not appear to be broadly mocking stereotypes like Bing did in his “Abraham” number from the movie “Holiday Inn.” Nor does he seem to be giving anyone a well meaning but misguided tribute like both Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell did with their individual tributes to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. He’s just a showman who knows what his audience likes and expects from him and he does it. On my patented Beautiful Offense-O-Meter he ranks dead center. Translation: I would never go out of my way to see it but it doesn’t tick me off much when I do.