Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Jolson Story, The (1946)

Director: Alfred E. Green


Al Jolson was for a period was the biggest star in all American entertainment. He is the figure many envision on the subject of the introduction of sound to motion pictures when he starred in The Jazz Singer. How else would Hollywood pay tribute to this man, but by a biographical picture of his life story. With the over-simplification and over-glorification of his life’s details audiences were reintroduced to entertainment icon in a Technicolor musical spectacle in 1946. A great box office success, the picture revitalized public interest in the legend that once dominated show business.

The Jolson Story is a biographical picture of the life story of Al Jolson, the singer turned star entertainer of stage and screen. In this rosy life recounting, we follow as the young Asa Yoelson, played by former “Our Gang” child actor Scotty Beckett, as he grows up to become the famed entertainer Al Jolson (Larry Parks). Discovered by vaudevillian performer, Steve Martin (William Demarest), he is shown the ropes of performing with his attractive singing voice. Al’s relationship with Martin evolves with time as Al matures from mentor, to partner, and eventually into manager for Jolson.

We follow Al’s beginnings on the stages of burlesque houses, to his rise in minstrel shows where he took upon his famed blackface routine, eventually rising to become one of the most popular names in music and playing the starring role in the revolutionary talking picture, The Jazz Singer. Jolson meets and falls in love with Julie Benson (Evelyn Keyes), urging her as well to become a musical star, an idea her heart is not fully in. Julie’s desires are to domesticate her love, for them in marriage to retire to a quiet country life away from the hustle and bustle of show business. It becomes apparent to Julie that Jolson’s true love is as a performer, a fact Julie graciously accepts in a bittersweet ending with her leaving Jolson doing what he does best, performing to generous audiences.

This gloriously shot Technicolor tribute to Al Jolson, albeit beautiful and colorful as a Spring day, feels as hallow as a chocolate Easter bunny. Knowing full well that audiences of 1946 gobbled up this feature with great vigor, reaching into their collective nostalgic consciences to the time before World War II, bringing back to forefront the music and the man that entertained countless millions with his unique delivery and presence.

Now, well separated from the time when it was released, we can see the picture better for what it was, a prestige picture (even though by accident) that overly glorifies its subject to a point of unbelievability. Here we get a Hollywood incestual retelling of show business history, banking of profitability of nostalgia while allowing Hollywood politics to wash out uglier facts and details. It makes for a curious production that is beautiful on the outside, but cringeworthy on the inside.

Like the other biography pictures of popular showmen, such as The Great Ziegfeld or Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Jolson Story does much to exaggerate the tale of a man’s life story. This is executed by glorifying the aspects that best defined the subject, embellishing on the facts to lionize the figure and his story, and whitewashing over many, if not all, negative aspects to negate any disapproving truths. Much of this is due in part because Al Jolson and the figures that played roles in his life were still very much alive and Jolson had same great say in the movie about himself.

For starters, inaccuracies abound throughout the picture.  Firstly, there are no reports of Jolson being a child performer as seen in the first act of the picture. Perhaps writers decided to steal similar plot points from for The Jazz Singer to embellish Jolson’s tale, connecting him to his most popular work. William Demarest’s character, Steve Martin, was an amalgamation of individuals, friends, and managers in Jolson’s life, cleaned up and simplified, used to glorify Jolson’s life journey and generosity.

The most glaring modification to Jolson’s tale is the representation of Jolson’s wife Ruby Keeler in the film. Keeler, famous in her own right for her Hollywood performances in musicals such as 42nd Street, divorced Jolson in 1940 and wanted nothing to do with Jolson or his movie. To remedy this inconvenience the film created the character of Julie Benson, portrayed by Evelyn Keyes, a politically correct version of Keeler, but was not said to be her in any way. The Benson character is used to manifest Jolson’s love and compassion to, and allowing a sympathetic angle to which the film forces through to the audience as to how Jolson chooses entertaining as his first love in his failed marriage. The picture also leaves out that Jolson was married twice before, clearly whitewashing out his failure in relationships. It is facts like these with a retrospective mind that make me cringe at how Hollywood covered up for themselves, thinking audiences perceive that everything was simple and lovely in show business.

When Columbia optioned for Al Jolson’s life story the then 60-year-old entertainer sought to play a major part in the production. He was well past an age where he could portray himself, especially as a younger man. The role of Jolson is portrayed by Columbia contract player Larry Parks. The smaller major studio that was Columbia had trouble finding takers for famous leading men willing to play Jolson, reportedly being turned down by actors James Cagney and Danny Thomas. Larry Parks was more than willing to take on the role, as his career was chiefly as a supporting man when not working of B-pictures, and a starring role in an A-film was a massive break for him.

Parks did his homework to study and mimic the famed performer, impressively enough that when studio head Harry Cohn reviewed some early dailies, initially shot in black and white, he proclaimed an added studio investment into the picture, ordering it to be filmed in pricey and elaborate Technicolor. With all the hype and prestige that came with the picture Parks delivered a performance that garnered himself an Academy Award nomination. Parks’ career would begin to take off from this point, but would sadly come to a crashing halt when he was blacklisted due to Communist connections during Hollywood’s red scare in the early 1950s.

Al Jolson got himself into the picture by providing his own singing voice while Parks mouthed the words to Jolson’s music. Jolson does make a brief appearance in the film as himself in blackface from a distance where audiences would not realize that it was not Parks on screen.

Like Larry Parks, Evelyn Keyes had very little in terms of major motion picture exposure. With many credits to her name, Keyes was yet another Columbia contract player relegated largely to B-movies and sometime supporting roles in A-pictures. She did carry one major credit to her name with an appearance in Gone with the Wind where she briefly appears as one of Scarlett O’Hara’s sisters. Her role as Julie Benson would earn her some notoriety and chances at some better roles in a career, but not enough as she would declare her retirement from acting ten years later.

William Demarest would provide a bit of legitimacy for the picture. A character actor with initial experience in vaudeville, Demarest shared parallels with his character of Steve Martin. Demarest’s amalgamation role as Jolson’s friend/partner/manager is one of the warmest parts of the story, not award nomination worthy, although it did earn him a Best Supporting Actor nomination. His warm delivery of Steve provides the picture the most heart in a picture that did its best to stroke the ego of Al Jolson.

With its Technicolor production and a soundtrack full of nostalgic tunes, audiences found a renewed interest in Al Jolson and made the picture a massive box office success in 1946. The Jolson Story contained so many beloved songs of the recent past that the studio decided released an album filled with the collection of all the music featured in the picture. Previous movies had sold sheet music for music audiences had come to like from, but this was the first occasion where recordings for a major motion picture were sold in this manner. One can consider it the first modern soundtrack album, which too was widely popular in record sales, adding to the mystic of this picture and Al Jolson.

The Jolson Story did not set out to be a massive prestige picture, but somehow it evolved into one, albeit a simple fad for its time. With new interest in the performer himself, and the picture covering only a portion of his story, a sequel was released in 1949 entitled Jolson Sings Again, picking up where The Jolson Story left off, continuing his story in a similar manner. Time has not been as kind with this Hollywood biography film as others from this period. The film is warm and in a way inspiring, but it is too light on conflict, painting its Technicolor story through rose-colored glasses with too many embellishments to make it timeless. Today The Jolson Story is all but forgotten as a tale for an American story of a child of immigrants making it to the big time by his own will.

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