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Al Jolson and the D.W. Griffith Papers

Essay by review  •  November 30, 2010  •  Research Paper  •  1,915 Words (8 Pages)  •  983 Views

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History must necessarily be conceived as an overdetermined set of phenomena.

In this light, the notion of the causal relationship as AЃЁB must be modified to include multiple catalysts, in which case A, B, C, D, and so on, would all be seen to initiate E. In addition, each of these instigators result from several other factors themselves, and, in conjunction with an altogether different set, may likely be the root of one or more separate occurrences. A dense network of relationships, continually crisscrossing and overlapping one another, has thus been established to illustrate historical change.

The recording and writing of history, however, as opposed to the actual goings-on, is a very different thing. Herein, events previously existing in a temporal flux, are isolated and transcribed in some fashion; plucked, essentially, from the aforementioned causal web. In one sense, the result is a primary source, a document, in this case, derived from first-hand experience. In another, however, a contextual loss must also be seen as emanating from this practice, for while the underlying factors remain latent in the text, the entire backdrop is removed in the process. From these are borne secondary sources, compilations of primary (and secondary) sources given a narrative structure and woven together to paint a picture of reality. However, in this third translation, the loss of several of these mechanisms, the conscious omission of others on account of the authorЃfs agenda, and/or the imposed linearity, often with respect to chronology, of many of these texts, all may be seen to aid in severely flattening the image. The occurrences concerning the proposed film, MammyЃfs Boy, or Black Magic, as well as the D. W. Griffith Papers and other, secondary sources, follow no less definitive a pattern. A distinct loss of these factors, originating from the papers themselves, and then further removed in the case of the other sources, is true here as well.

In general, the secondary sources in this investigation, all of which are biographical in nature, will be described in terms of their choices of inclusion and omission of these factors (including technological, aesthetic, social, economic, and personal), based on the totality of available factors which are discernable from the D.W. Griffith Papers. Martin Williams, in Griffith: First Artist of the Movies, mentions the Jolson incident only in brief. At the height of both of their careers, he describes GriffithЃfs proposal that Jolson perform a Ѓgtest.Ѓh ЃgJolson saw the test, and never returned to the Mamaroneck studio or explained his absence, although production on a Jolson feature was set for the following Monday and a crew was standing byЃh (133). Interestingly, the author offers no insight into the underlying circumstances regarding the ordeal.

Robert Henderson, in D.W. Griffith: His Life and Work, exemplifies the tendency of secondary sources to omit particular layers, or spheres, of influence. While addressing the social and economic factors which drove the Griffith Corporation to file suit against Jolson, several others in the realm of technological, aesthetic, and especially personal influence are not present. Monetary expenditures and losses are recorded in exact figures, and corporate interests and constraints are accounted for, however, there is no account of the distinction between JolsonЃfs and GriffithЃfs respective media; theater and [silent] film. Jolson, in a performance, ЃgЃcsings several songs to the audience, acting the songs throughout in the same manner that he sets upon the stage. Mr. Jolson is not a concert singerЃc[he] is a singing actor .Ѓh JolsonЃfs reluctance to enter into a silent medium, given his illustrious singing career, provides further insight into his motivation for abandoning the Griffith production. Furthermore, Ѓgthe contention that Mr. Jolson was convinced that his preliminary tests had shown him to be an outright failure on the screen ,Ѓh likewise afford the unsuspecting reader a glimpse of JolsonЃfs own impressions of the events; a side which has been altogether removed from the larger picture. Similarly, ЃgЃfI didnЃft run to Europe after seeing my test films, but because my doctor ordered me to take a rest and take it in a hurry ,ЃfЃh a statement by Jolson himself, establishes a contradictory account of the same phenomenon. While one may represent a disclosed, public statement, and the other his own private reasoningЃfs regarding the matter (perhaps both contain an element of truth), SchickelЃfs text clearly ignores JolsonЃfs perspective, irrespective of the validity of his objections.

Michael Freeland, in Jolson, takes quite a different approach. In his work, emphasis, by virtue of inclusion, is placed on the technological, aesthetic, and personal factors surrounding the issue, while social and economic concerns are not dealt with at all. The most notable of these include the relationship between, or apparent lack thereof in the authorЃfs eyes, the Griffith Corporation and Jolson himself. The entire debate over whether or not a breach in contract in fact took place, based on JolsonЃfs verbal agreement to proceed, but his refusal to sign a formal contract, are wholly ignored in this instance. The closest approximation, as found in the Jolson text, reads: ЃgBut Al insisted on one thing: there was to be no contractЃh (85). Contrary to this rather extreme generalization is a memorandum written to Albert Grey, GriffithЃfs brother and vice president, which mentions that, ЃgMr. Jolson agreed verballyЃcto give Mr. Griffith option on three other pictures making four in all .Ѓh Surely if Jolson and GriffithЃfs attorney reached an agreement pertaining to the production of subsequent films, the contractual issue becomes all the more relevant. Also, stipulated by this unsigned, but agreed upon, contract is the provision that, ЃgYou [Jolson] agree that during the periodЃcfor your appearance in the making of such photoplay, you will not act or appear in any other motion picture production for any other party ЃcЃh Jolson, in fact, did just this. Although the court ruled in his favor, based on the previously mentioned distinction between the Ѓgsinging actorЃh and screen actor, ЃgЃcthe fact that Mr. Jolson had made a film for the Vitaphone isЃcevidence which should have been submitted to the jury in this case ЃcЃh . This was the Griffith CompanyЃfs attempt to appeal the courtЃfs decision, though it was rejected as sufficient grounds to do so. Viewed as a whole, the complexity of these factors are have either been ignored, or overlooked, in FreelandЃfs book.

Herbert GoldmanЃfs, Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life, does a thorough job of

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