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Al Jolson movie 'Mammy' now on DVD, in limited release

Susan King
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

The 1930 movie musical "Mammy" is an important — if almost shockingly politically incorrect — piece in the canon of the legendary Al Jolson's career.

"Mammy" stars "The World's Greatest Entertainer" — a moniker Jolson had for 40 years — in his only feature that was shot partly in early two-strip Technicolor. The score was by the legendary Irving Berlin and includes the standard "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy." The film was directed by Michael Curtiz, who later won the Oscar for "Casablanca."

For years, the color footage in "Mammy" had disappeared. All that had survived the decades were time-ravaged black-and-white prints. Then in 2002 the UCLA Film & Television Archive unveiled its restoration of "Mammy" complete with those color sequences, which had been discovered in the Nederlands Filmmuseum.

UCLA's restoration work has been digitally fine-tuned for its DVD release by Warner Home Video this week.

But the DVD is not getting a wide distribution. "Mammy" is being released through Warner Archive Collection (www.warnerarchive.com), which is targeted at film buffs.

The reason?

Jolson was one of numerous performers — including Eddie Cantor and Bing Crosby — who appeared both on stage and in film in blackface performing musical numbers. In "Mammy," Jolson plays one of the stars of a minstrel show touring small towns in the early 1900s. Jolson himself got his start in minstrel shows before he became the biggest stars on Broadway in the teens and '20s.

"Blackface" was the term coined for the theatrical makeup used in U.S. minstrel shows where white actors wore black makeup on their faces complete with exaggerated mouths. The first big minstrel show occurred in 1843, eventually evolving into a three-act program featuring songs, dances and comedy.

The minstrel shows began to wane in the late 19th century, but blackface acts found a home in vaudeville, on stage and eventually in film (Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Joan Crawford were among those who performed such musical numbers). Blackface continued in features and even cartoons until the 1950s — just a decade before the Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964.

"We are very, very sensitive to the issue of blackface," says George Feltenstein, senior vice president of the theatrical catalog for Warner Home Video.

"The archive collection makes it possible for us to release a film like this in an historical context as opposed to someone just innocently putting the movie on a shelf in a store not knowing what it is and running the risk of being viewed out of context."

But for Jolson fans, "it is a dream come true to own a copy. True film buffs have been dying for this to come out. We all thought it was lost. ..."

"Mammy" was the fourth film Jolson made under contract to Warner Bros. His 1927 feature debut in 'The Jazz Singer" changed the face of filmmaking. Though "Jazz Singer" was technically a silent film, sound was employed for all of Jolson's electrifying numbers, as well as for a few lines of dialogue. "Jazz Singer" was the death knell to the silent era. And moviegoers wanted more musicals.

By the time "Mammy" was released, though, musicals were beginning to lose their vogue with audiences. "Mammy" still managed to become a hit, but Jolson's film career took a tumble after 1930.

Feltenstein admits Jolson's legacy "is forever tainted" because most people today only know him for his blackface routines. But Jolson, who died in 1950 at the age of 64, was far more than that.

"His influence on American popular music can't even be quantified," says Feltenstein.

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