Silent screen queen – An Irishman’s Diary about the forgotten career of May McAvoy

May McAvoy: star of ‘The Jazz Singer’ and ‘Ben Hur’

May McAvoy: star of ‘The Jazz Singer’ and ‘Ben Hur’

 

Most people could still identify Al Jolson as the main star of The Jazz Singer, the film that, released 90 years ago today, changed cinema history.

But you’d probably need to be a Hollywood historian now to recall the second name on the posters, although it was a famous name at that time.

The amnesia is partly explained by the fact that May McAvoy’s career did not long outlive the movie. This would later lead to a misconception that she was one of those actors whose careers had been destroyed by sound.  

Her voice had not actually featured in The Jazz Singer.

Revolutionary as the film was, it had barely two minutes of audible dialogue, none of it McAvoy’s. That and her subsequent disappearance from public view fed rumours that she must have had a lisp.

But on the contrary, her silencing was the result of a much more common condition then: marriage. Soon after The Jazz Singer, she became the wife of a banker called Maurice Cleary. He didn’t want her working, so she stopped.

The marriage didn’t last, of course. After collaborating on the production of a son (called Patrick), they divorced, following which she attempted a comeback, during the 1940s and 1950s. But she was reduced to bit parts then, and so was all but forgotten by the time she died, at the same age as the century, in 1984.

Of McAvoy’s roots in Ireland, I know precisely nothing. Such biographical material as I can find says only that she was raised in New York, in a well-off family who owned livery stables where the Waldorf Astoria hotel now stands.

One sketchy plot summary says she played 'Sheila, a feisty Irish girl' in love with 'Emmett, a somewhat shady Irish boy' 

She made her screen debut in a 1917 film called Hate, now also obscure. From there on, it was a steady rise to stardom, interrupted only when, like a good Irish girl, she refused a “scantily clad” role in Cecil B De Mille’s 1923 drama, Adam’s Rib.

Offered fewer parts by Paramount as a result, she bought herself out of the contract, going freelance. And as a “star-eyed goddess”, in the words of one critic, she was not short of work – her luminous looks propelling her to a joint-leading role as Esther in a silent-era classic, the 1925 epic Ben Hur.

Two years later, just before The Jazz Singer, she starred in a less epic movie, Irish Hearts. One sketchy plot summary says she played “Sheila, a feisty Irish girl” in love with “Emmett, a somewhat shady Irish boy” who takes up with “a brassy ‘flapper’ named Clarice”.

Alas, the film is now lost.

As for The Jazz Singer, if she didn’t contribute to the history-making soundtrack, McAvoy was at least in the frame. And sound apart, she may also have added an intriguing subplot to the film’s ethnic tale.

In the lead role, Jolson played Jakie Rabinowitz, a Jewish American who has been trained to follow his father’s profession as a synagogue cantor but, preferring popular music, rebels against tradition.

So doing, he takes the stage name of Jack Robin. And in what may or may not have been deliberate irony, his path to assimilating himself in White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America also includes wearing “blackface”.

Most audiences today would probably not even think of her character as Irish

You had to be white – physically and culturally – to do that. But as at least one social history of the movies has argued, it’s telling that Jolson’s character is helped towards mainstream acceptance by an actress then synonymous with “Colleen” roles (although she plays a “Mary Dale” in the film).

“While she kept her Irish-sounding name, McAvoy was accepted as white,” write Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin in America On Film (2009). “[And] in playing this role she embodies a successful example of Irish-American assimilation. Most audiences today would probably not even think of her character as Irish. May McAvoy/Mary Dale literally personifies the whiteness that Jack is moving towards.”

In this light, the circumstances in which McAvoy made her farewell to cinema three decades later may also be ironic. It was in the blockbusting 1959 remake of Ben Hur, wherein Esther was played by a real Israeli, Haya Harareet.  

McAvoy’s part, meanwhile, was as a mere extra, nameless and uncredited.

A year later, this paper’s Irishman’s Diarist – also unnamed but presumably the cinephile Seamus Kelly found an old poster from the 1925 Ben Hur, which he said had thrilled a generation of “schoolboys”, including him.

“I doubt if any one of them has forgotten [Ramon] Novarro and [Francis X] Bushman in the chariot race,” he wrote. “I doubt equally if any of them remembers the slightest thing about May McAvoy.”

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