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Mammy (DVD Review)

3 May, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Available now via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive.
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Al Jolson, Lois Moran, Lowell Sherman.

If one were asked to name the No. 1 entertainer from the first half of the 20th century, the answer would have to be Bing Crosby, who dominated recordings, the movies and radio in a sweeping mass-media kind of way that obviously couldn’t even exist before that time. But judging from accounts of the day, No. 2 would likely be Al Jolson (though, time has been mighty kind to Louis Armstrong, who’d be another contender).

Time has not been kind to Jolson, whose film career was spotty at best (not that you can take 1927’s The Jazz Singer away from him, given that its brief “talkie” portions merely revolutionized the movies). For one thing, he died in 1950, which means he didn’t have the chance to show his stuff on TV the way peers Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor did to young baby boomers who were watching and can still remember. For another — and this is the big one — the blackface albatross that was a substantial part of Jolson’s career is never going to go away.

Michael Curtiz’s Mammy — which, in a surprise move for an on-demand title, has been made available in a restored version with two color sequences — celebrates a onetime blackface tradition that wasn’t even questioned (or, at least enough to make any waves) during what now seem like the prehistoric days of minstrel shows.

A specialized DVD venue such as this makes sense: It tends to attract more historically knowledgeable viewers, who know they’re getting — and Warner doesn’t have to spend a lot of promotion money, which then might call more attention to the content and offend those viewers not into history for history’s sake. In some context or other, movies (and especially those with Irving Berlin scores) get made to be shown, painful as the process can sometimes be. 

Speaking of pain, I can remember running, back in my film programming days, 1945’s on-DVD The Dolly Sisters at the AFI Theatre (sight unseen) and slinking down in my seat with a muttered “Jesus” to my wife when Betty Grable and June Haver came out in Technicolor blackface. And in 1946, there was more of the same in The Jolson Story — which, if you adjust for inflated dollars, is still one of the biggest hits in the history of Columbia Pictures.

The list goes on. Not long before, Crosby himself donned blackface in the still constantly shown Holiday Inn, which like the rest of Paramount’s pre-1949 talkie library, is controlled by Universal, which has apparently chickened out on giving a home release to 1943’s Bing biopic Dixie. It, after all, is an entire minstrel-ish movie devoted to Dixie composer Daniel Emmett — Crosby’s first color movie, not counting his bit in 1930’s King of Jazz, and with one of his biggest song hits ("Sunday, Monday" and "Always"). As late as 1952, Republic Pictures served up a Stephen Foster bio I Dream of Jeanie (pretty hard to do a Foster bio without minstrel numbers), and in 1953, even Joan Crawford went blackface in Technicolor Torch Song, a concept and execution that defy belief when you see it (which you can on a Crawford boxed set).

Adapted from a Berlin-scored play (Mr. Bones), this first all-talkie that Curtiz directed has a lot of familiar Jolson screen elements: perpetual songs (including a signature "Let Me Sing" and "I’m Happy"); Jolson cast as a character named Al; a romantic yen that isn’t going all that well (she’s played by actress Lois Moran, said to have been the real-life inspiration for the “Rosemary” character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night); and lots of sentiment with Al’s mommy (Louise Dresser, a kind of Jane Darwell type). The backdrop is something called the “Merry Meadow Minstrels,” whose owner’s daughter (Moran) has a fixation on another performer (Lowell Sherman, who looks at least 30 years too old for her). A mysterious gun goes off during a performance, wounding Sherman, and smitten suspect Al is soon riding the rails with the cops in pursuit.

The color sequences — in primitive two-color Technicolor that’s heavy on greens and reds, as if this were a Christmas pageant — occur late in the film. The second is the relatively brief finale, but the first is a long recreation of what a minstrel show must have been like, with the entire on-stage ensemble in blackface. Some of this recently discovered color footage still doesn’t exist, and the image goes back and forth between the legitimate color material and a sepia-tinted black-and-white print that fills in the gaps. It’s not perfect, but it works more than it doesn’t.

Interestingly, Mammy probably isn’t even the hottest potato in the Warner Archive Jolson canon. Wonder Bar (1934 and in most ways a much better movie) is degraded by Busby Berkeley’s notorious "Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule" fantasy number, which is just about the final word in big-screen racial insensitivity, down to its oversized watermelon slices.

And very interestingly, Curtiz hung around long enough to direct 1958’s King Creole, which means he is the only filmmaker — as if anyone could ever imagine this — who fashioned vehicles for Jolson and Elvis Presley. That he also directed Crosby in 1954’s White Christmas only intensifies his resume.

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