Jolson and Cab Calloway in “The Singing Kid”

16 02 2011


from Disintegrating the Musical: Black Performance and American Musical Film,  by Arthur Knight (2002)

Jolson’s film, The Singing Kid (1936), wanted to stage an explicit autocritique of the old-fashioned content of Jolson’s past while maintaining some of his modernist form and style. It wanted to both erase and celebrate boundaries and differences, including most emphatically the color line. 

The Singing Kid’s narrative opens with the multimedia star Al Jackson (Jolson) singing on the balcony of his sleek, modern penthouse. From another penthouse across the way, Cab  Calloway and his band join in, and the song, “I Love to Sing-a,” develops into a duet between Al and Cab. This number introduces and celebrates the Jolsonian verities (love of nature and song, romance, the South, the nation, mammy). Jolson sings the lyric – including the syncopated, punctuating, and accurate line, “microphone’s got [i.e. ruined] me!” – in his characteristic old-fashioned premicrophone, declamatory style.  . .  When Calloway begins singing in his characteristic style – in which the words are tools for exploring rhythm and stretching melody – it becomes clear that American culture is changing around Jolson and with (and through) Calloway. . .

We cut to Calloway and his band, who perform “Hi-De-Ho in Your Soul” – a fast-paced, collectivist party song (and written by Calloway) – in an all-black night-club. Al enters, and the song shifts to “Who’s the Swingin’est Man in Town?,” which Al performs as a call and response with Calloway and the black extras. This song is interrupted by the arrival of a blackfaced angel, who cues a shift to the mock sanctified “Save Me, Sister.” . . .

The medley seems meant to take seriously, if very superficially, the potential in black culture for interconnecting “opposites,” – in this instance the secular and religious, “swing” and “spiritual.” . . . The medley also suggests that African American culture – embodied by Cab Calloway, his band, and the extras and played by Jolson and the angel – might offer America something worth attending to, worth seriously imitating.

Click for more clips from the film The Singing Kid .



One response

8 04 2011

What a fantastic site! Thank you so much for this.

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