“Let me sing and I’m happy.”
The idea of making a motion picture about the life of Al Jolson was shopped around on Jolson’s behalf by Sidney Skolsky, a former assistant at Warner Bros. Despite Jolson’s history with them, Warners themselves had no interest, believing Jolson to be passé. Only Columbia showed any interest, and with no one else to turn to, a deal was struck. Bruce Humberstone was borrowed from Fox to direct, but script development was slow and the assignment of a supervising producer was even slower. Finally, Sidney Buchman was hired for the task and Alfred Green replaced Humberstone as director when he became impatient with all the delays.
Considered for the role of Jolson were the likes of James Cagney, Danny Thomas, Jose Ferrer and Richard Conté, but in the end it was relative unknown Larry Parks who got the part. The Jolson Story was shot between late October 1945 and mid-March 1946, and premiered in New York in October 1946, where it received considerable critical acclaim and popular approval. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Actor, but won only for Musical Scoring and Sound Recording.
Following The Jolson Story‘s success, a sequel seemed inevitable, but it was on hold for a couple of years due to delays in reaching an agreement with Jolson and to a studio squabble with Parks who felt he had been ill-treated by Columbia in terms of his contractual arrangement with them. Jolson Sings Again finally went into production in early November 1948. Upon release, it also proved to be a success though of a more modest nature than the original. It was nominated for three Academy Awards including, amazingly enough, Best Writing, but won none.
Columbia has now released both Jolson films on DVD in classy-looking packages but with minimal content.
The Jolson Story — Young Asa Yoelson lives with his parents in Washington where his father is a cantor at the local synagogue. Asa also sings at the synagogue, but he is entranced by the performers at the local burlesque theatre and frequently sneaks away to attend the performances there. When vaudeville performer Steve Martin asks for the audience to sing during his act, Asa is the only one to respond. Martin soon realizes that Asa has a future in show business due to his great voice. Thus begins Asa’s career. Initially it takes him across the country as part of Martin’s act. Soon he branches out on his own and progresses quickly from chorus singer to a featured act while appearing in blackface with one of the country’s popular minstrel shows. Broadway beckons in the form of a small supporting act in a musical review. Yoelson, who by now has changed his name to Al Jolson, manages to use this as a springboard to stardom. He is soon the most popular headliner on Broadway. Offers from Hollywood soon follow and Jolson is chosen to star in the first sound feature, The Jazz Singer. At the same time, he meets Julie Benson, a performer in the Ziegfeld Follies. The two marry and eventually move out to Hollywood where both are starring in their own films. Julie is eager to retire from films, but for a long time, Al resists. Finally acceding to Julie’s wishes, he goes into a self-imposed retirement, but it’s clear his heart is still in singing.
Jolson Sings Again — After Julie leaves Al when she realizes that for him the audience will always come first, Al returns to show business. When his divorce from Julie becomes final, however, he acknowledges that singing no longer provides the charge it once did. He drifts around the country aimlessly and when his mother becomes ill, he cannot be contacted in time to return home before she dies. By now the Second World War has begun, and at the urging of Steve Martin (now Jolson’s manager), he reluctantly agrees to sign on as an entertainer for the troops. At first he believes no one will remember him, but he soon realizes that is not the case. During the war, he entertains tirelessly despite recurrences of malaria. During one of the periods of treatment for malaria he meets attractive nurse Ellen Clark and eventually marries her. Once the war is over, Ellen realizes that Al needs to get back into show business, but no one now wants him. A Hollywood musical benefit reluctantly includes him on its program and his singing there is a catalyst for a producer in attendance to propose a film about Jolson’s life.
As Hollywood biographies go, the two Jolson films aren’t bad at all, although The Jolson Story is definitely the classier of the two. The basic facts of Jolson’s career are preserved, from his gradual rise to stardom including his appearance in the minstrel acts, to his superstardom on Broadway and in early films, to his marriage to Ruby Keeler (Julie Benson in the film), to his entertainment of the troops, and finally the making of the film about his life. Documenting the latter in Jolson Sings Again leads to a rather bizarre situation on screen, but more about that later. Both films whitewash many aspects of Jolson’s life and there are the usual plot fabrications typical of Hollywood biographies, but the entertainment and enjoyment factors are high particularly for The Jolson Story.
The key thing and the best thing about either of these films is the music and its presentation. The decision was made early to use Jolson’s renditions of his songs and to this end, he rerecorded versions of all his popular hits. Larry Parks then spent weeks with Jolson and with his films and recordings getting the Jolson mannerisms and style down pat. Parks’ lip-synching of Jolson’s singing remains one of the finest such performances ever delivered on screen. There is no instance during either film when Parks is not completely convincing in performing the Jolson songs. And there are certainly plenty of them to examine. Virtually every Jolson standard makes its appearance: “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” “My Mammy,” “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World,” “You Made Me Love You,” “Swanee,” “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” “April Showers,” “California, Here I Come,” “There’s a Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” “About a Quarter to Nine,” “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,” “Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,” “Sonny Boy,” and “Anniversary Song.”
Although Columbia initially set The Jolson Story’s budget at just over a million dollars, studio boss Harry Cohn soon decided to go for broke and in the end in excess of $2.5 million was spent. The film was shot in Technicolor capturing the flavour of the times well and giving the film a gloss that helped to counter the film’s less than overwhelming cast, in terms of degree of star-power. What the cast lacked in box-office pull, however, it more than made up for in familiarity and competence. William Demarest, well known for his supporting work on Preston Sturges’ films, was borrowed from Paramount to play Steve Martin. Evelyn Keyes gave a very creditable and restrained performance as Julie Benson, while Ludwug Donath and Tamara Shayne provided relaxed and enjoyable, if rather stereotypical, portrayals of Jolson’s parents. Scotty Beckett as the young Jolson and Bill Goodwin as Broadway producer Tom Baron both were effective.
While The Jolson Story conveys the sense of a big-screen epic with its almost larger than life central figure, Jolson Sings Again seems more like a minor afterthought. It’s still a pleasant enough experience with sumptuous Technicolor and the Jolson songs, but these things can’t hide the fact that not much happens. Basically it’s a case of Jolson mopes, Jolson sings to troops, Jolson mopes, Jolson sings at benefit, Jolson on top again. Larry Parks once again impersonates Jolson impeccably and many of the players from the original reprise their roles, including William Demarest, Ludwig Donath, and Tamara Shayne. Barbara Hale is extremely attractive as Jolson new wife, but unfortunately the role calls for little else from her. The film becomes bizarre towards the end when it recounts the making of The Jolson Story and we end up with Larry Parks playing Al Jolson in Jolson Sings Again meeting Larry Parks playing Al Jolson in The Jolson Story. Much of the last part of the film shows a theatre screen playing footage from The Jolson Story, in fact I’d guess a good quarter of the film’s running time simply repeats parts of the original.
I had expected that Columbia would issue these two films on DVD long before now, because at least The Jolson Story was a major production for the company and a very good money-maker. As such, it was re-released theatrically in 1954 in a widescreen format with stereophonic sound, and then re-issued 15 years later in 70mm. In any event, we now have the discs and both films look pretty swell, basically blowing the previous laserdisc versions well out of the water. Columbia obviously has put in a substantial effort on the full frame transfers (in accord with the original aspect ratios) because the Technicolor films both look splendid. Aside from the odd speckle and minor scratch, the images are crisp, clear, and bright with colours that look very vibrant. The only quibbles I have are the occasional instance where skin colours look a little too orange and a few occurrences of noticeable edge effects. The sound tracks are advertised as Dolby Digital mono, but there are some definite though very limited directional effects to The Jolson Story, which suggests that the reprocessed 1954 stereo track may have been employed for its disc. In any event, the sound is quite dynamic although some instances of age-related hiss are evident when the sound is amplified.
Columbia, however, has really dropped the ball when it comes to supplementary material. All we get is the same two trailers (for Pal Joey and Lost Horizon) on each disc. Obviously neither has anything to do with Jolson. Yes, the films themselves are the most important things and Columbia’s work here is very good in that respect, but when other studios are making substantial efforts on the extras on their discs and at more attractive prices, it really makes Columbia stick out like a sore thumb.
Columbia has finally made the long-awaited Jolson films available on DVD and the wait has been worthwhile in terms of the films themselves. These are still items with considerable appeal due to the extensive repertoire of Jolson songs that is included and Larry Parks’ exceptional portrayal of Jolson. The Jolson Story is the better film, but on DVD both it and Jolson Sings Again look great. Unfortunately, the discs are otherwise bare-bones — Columbia having missed out on delivering special editions for films that deserve them.