excerpt from: Music and the Racial Imagination
By Ronald Michael Radano, Philip Vilas Bohlman (2000)
The film A Star Is Born further complicates the issue of impersonation by having Judy “do” Al Jolson. . . . But the key moment in the number is Garland’s version of Al Jolson’s “Swanee.” By the early 1950s, Jolson’s blackface was a central figure of nostalgia in “American” mass culture, not only due to its role in the history of cinema from Singin’ in the Rain, but also in relation to the very popular new Jolson films of the late 1940s, The Al Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again, the latter being the top grossing film of 1949. Not only was Jolson’s figure a central mnemonic for an imagined national past, but Garland’s stardom was intimately associated with the nostalgia that this mnemonics guaranteed.
Garland did a tribute to Jolson in her concerts of 1951 at the London Palladium and at New York’s Palace Theater. Both concerts were central to this first of Judy Garland’s many comebacks and centered around her impersonation of Al Jolson and revival of vaudevillian “tradition.” Fricke quotes Garland as saying about the Palladium: “I suddenly knew that this was the beginning of a new life. . . . Hollywood thought I was through; then came the wonderful opportunity to appear at the London Palladium, where I can truthfully say Judy Garland was reborn.” The song “Swanee” then, as it appeared in A Star Is Born, was clearly identified with its blackface history, but further, Garland performing “Swanee” in her odd vocal drag of Jolson makes a claim about the relationship of this blackface tradition to the star’s own comeback, to the “rebirth” of Garland as star.
As Garland does “Swanee” in the film within the film, the connection to Jolson is made explicit in a number of ways. The dance number features what are referred to in the shooting schedule for the scene as “six colored dancers.” These dancers might well not be whites in blackface, but the dance moves they do behind Garland are clearly intended to be impersonations of vaudevillian minstrels. Four of the dancers are playing large tambourines, and the other two are holding stylized banjos as they dance. Each of the dancers smiles his way through the number, to make the impersonation of minstrel performance practice complete.
As the black dancers are doing impersonations of whites in blackface, Judy Garland is doing a drag impersonation of Jolson – not in blackface. Dressed with a top hat, a jacket and tie, and white gloves her costume is a stylized version of the Jolson attire. The crossing of gender that Judy’s drag performs stands in for the blackface she is prohibited from putting on. But the story doesn’t end here: her drag as Al Jolson is guaranteed a position as authentic and real by the implied blackface that his /her character enacts, by the claim to American folkishness that minstrel traditions in cinema seem to represent.