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The Warner Archive Collection upgrades its mission with the release of Mammy, a part-color archival restoration unsuited for release through conventional channels. One doesn't have to go back very far in film history to discover plenty of film content disparaging to minorities of all stripes; mainstream films reflected the attitudes of their times, racial and otherwise. Mammy is just the sort of film that might be protested today, if it were exhibited in an insensitive manner.
Mammy (1930) is one of the better musical vehicles starring the entertainment powerhouse Al Jolson, a celebrity of importance and impact far beyond any performer active today. Jolson frequently performed in blackface makeup, and many of his signature tunes were sentimental standards associated with the South: Swanee River, etc. In Mammy Jolson plays Al Fuller, top singer in the "Meadows Minstrel Show", an itinerant troupe that recreates the Minstrel tradition: white men and women in blackface, singing and dancing. Sometimes their dialogue and gestures affect the "sho nuff" southern black stereotype.
The ongoing restoration of early talkie musicals has unearthed its share of films with racially sensitive content, titles that join the unfortunate debate about whether or not films like Birth of a Nation and even Gone With the Wind should be permanently shelved. The debate is fueled by a general ignorance of film history. The best way to perpetuate negative stereotyping is to suppress the films involved, removing the historical evidence from view. Also, it's too easy to make snap judgments about the cultural climate seventy and eighty years ago, before the vast majority of us were even born. The big Hollywood moguls tended to be Jewish, but they didn't sit around purposely conspiring to denigrate blacks. These same filmmakers enthusiastically created plenty of comedy entertainment with appalling Jewish stereotypes.
That said, for some viewers Mammy will require some mental adjustment. Minstrel shows were a genre with an admittedly racist slant, but we're given to understand that the songs and jokes didn't satirize blacks, at least not directly. This movie, written and performed by New Yorkers, uses the Minstrel show tradition as the foundation for a standard backstage musical drama. It's of course a vehicle for Al Jolson all the way. He's on stage singing in every reel, starting with a parade in the rain as the Meadows troupe enters another town. The only mild racist joke I picked out is when Jolson's Al Fuller yells out "Mammy!" to someone in a crowd. The film cuts to an obvious Aunt Jemima type, smiling back. It's not mean-spirited, it's just standard operating procedure for a film of this era.
Irving Berlin's slight story provides melodramatic buffers between the songs. The Minstrel Show is losing money, and owner Meadows (Hobart Bosworth) is concerned that the law will shut them down. The show consists of an orchestra, a group of dancers and a large chorus, all of whom perform in blackface. Solo singers called End-Men sit on each wing; the only non-blackface performer is an emcee called the Interlocutor, who sets up jokes and introduces each part of the performance.
End Man Al Fuller (Jolson) loves Meadows' sweet daughter Nora (Lois Moran), but she's engaged to handsome Billy West, the Interlocutor (Lowell Sherman). The noble Fuller can stop off only a moment to see his long-suffering mother (Louise Dresser), and tell her a pack of well-meaning lies about how things are going to get better soon. When Al sees Billy West chasing other women, he tries to help Nora regain her fiancé's attention. The stunt backfires, and Al takes the blame. The company thinks that Al and Nora are an item. Another jealous performer switches the bullets in a prop gun, causing Al to shoot Billy during a performance. All assume that Al is guilty. Running from the law, Al tries to make it home to see his mother one more time.
Director Michael Curtiz stages scenes effectively but the early-talkie limitations keep his camera firmly anchored in most scenes. Every turn of this story is naturally addressed in song, especially the Jolson-Mother relationship, which seems pulled from the very roots of immigrant-oriented New York Theater. Irving Berlin's snappy song 'n' dance tunes Let Me Sing and I'm Happy directly express Jolson's joy in performing. One rather clever novelty number interprets the song Yes, We Have No Bananas! as filtered through a series of opera standards, dressing a group of Minstrels in various operatic costumes. Mammy was clearly intended as a nostalgic return to an earlier era of show business still familiar to the 1930 audience.
Jolson is certainly more engaging than in his famous part-talkie The Jazz Singer, where his mugging seemed almost out of control; but he's also less self-satisfied and bored than he appears in his later musicals, like 1934's Go Into Your Dance. Lois Moran (famous as a lover of F. Scott Fitzgerald) does a lot of simpering as the lovesick Nora, while Lowell Sherman's Billy turns out to be a stand-up guy. Billy and Al are good buddies -- Al covers for Billy's philandering, and Billy looks out for Al when he "gets plowed" with drink.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Mammy delivers a very clean transfer of this eighty year-old show. Until a few years ago it was only available in B&W, but an original print with sections in 2-strip Technicolor was found in the Netherlands. The musical numbers originally filmed in color presented a restoration challenge, as the rediscovered print was missing shots and pieces of shots. To include as much of the color as possible the restoration fills in missing snippets with sepia-toned older footage. The Technicolor is of course limited, reproducing greens and oranges and not much in between; the blackface makeup has a definite green tinge. A dance number with a dozen blackface dancers in large green skirts looks almost surreal, as all we can see of faces are exaggerated white painted lips.
We're told that all prints of Mammy are missing a pair of musical numbers dropped soon after the film premiered. One or both may have taken place in a prison setting now indicated only in dialogue: a scene with Al's jailbird pal (Tully Marshall) refers to an earlier relationship we don't see.
Happily, the elements that have survived for Mammy appear to be Silent-Aperture originals. Before sound-on-film technology the picture area of 35mm was much larger, but when early Vitaphone films were remastered later in the 1930s, the left extreme of the frame was often blotted out by the new optical soundtrack, leaving the projected picture lop-sided, off-center. Mammy looks properly balanced.
The disc includes an original trailer in which Al Jolson does a direct sell job for the musical. The Warner Archive Collection has just this month improved their product -- replacing their generic plain-wrap cover art with more attractive poster reproductions. The Collection was created to offer fans discs of titles deemed unprofitable to release through conventional DVD channels, but in this case it makes possible the release of a film that would otherwise be seen only in a museum setting.
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