Format: DVD from Netflix (Story) and internet video (Again) on laptop.
Allegedlly, back in the day, Al Jolson was considered the commensurate performer. That being the case, it’s hardly surprising that a movie was made based on his life. It’s perhaps a little surprising that two movies were made based on his life and that both wound up on my Oscars lists. Still, if ever there was an opportunity for a double feature, two movies about Al Jolson with an almost identical cast list would clearly be it.
Before jumping into the movies, it’s worth talking for a moment about Larry Parks, who plays Jolson in both films. This is a guy for whom I feel very sorry. The Jolson Story was his coming out party and it made him a star. That stardom lasted only a couple of years, because Parks was indicted in the blacklist scandal, admitted to having once belonged to a communist cell, and his career was destroyed. And, the movie for which Parks is best remembered is one in which he performs a great deal in blackface. Here’s someone who clearly never caught a break.
Anyway, we start with Jolson as a boy and played as a boy by Scotty Beckett. In fact, at this point in his life, he’s not even named Al Jolson, but Asa Yoelson. He sings with his father (Ludwig Donath) in synagogue but is privately fascinated with show business. One day, while watching a show, the performer, a guy named Steve Martin (William Demarest) asks the crowd to sing along and only young Asa does. He stuns the crowd, and Steve wants him in the act. Both Asa’s father and mother (Tamara Shayne) protest, and Asa runs away to Baltimore to be in the show.
Of course he’s not successful in running away, and his parents come to collect him. He says he’ll keep running away if they won’t let him into show business, so they relent, and off he goes, touring with Steve. Soon enough, his voice changes and he switches to whistling, and also changes his name to Al Jolson. Success follows when he goes on stage for a drunk Tom Barron (Bill Goodwin), who performs a minstrel act. Jolson is discovered and moves on at the insistence of Steve. Success follows, although he leaves that show when he discovers jazz. Jolson knocks around for a bit until Tom Baron, now a theater manager, hires him, and Jolson is an immediate hit.
Success follows success, but Jolson seems unhappy. Eventually he finds Julie Benson (Evelyn Keyes) and the movies find him for the first talkie. Jolson ends up married to Julie and the biggest entertainment star in the country. But the success can’t last. Julie is tired of working in movies and Al won’t stop until she puts her foot down and sends him into a sort of retirement. I’ll stop here, although there’s more in Jolson’s life after he and Julie move out to the country.
The first thing that needs to be known is that The Jolson Story takes some serious liberties with the man’s life. First of all, Julie Benson is a fiction, but is based on Ruby Keeler, who refused to let her name be used in the film. And, Ruby Keeler was Jolson’s third wife, so the idea that he was some sort of rolling stone before this is clearly fictitious as well.
Second, the elephant in the room really does need to be discussed here. A lot of Jolson’s performances happen in blackface. To modern sensibilities, it’s almost impossible to view this as anything other than overtly racist. An argument can be made that it wasn’t intended that way, but regardless of intent, there are some significant issues with a white performer wearing blackface and making a career out of the songs and mannerisms of a group of people who were clearly in a subservient and oppressed role in society. The film doesn’t shy away from placing Larry Parks in the makeup because it’s necessary, but it’s very uncomfortable.
One thing that is interesting is that while Larry Parks is performing the role, it’s Jolson really doing the singing, and the recordings are new ones. Parks looks like he’s singing because apparently he was; Jolson was simply dubbed over him. Truthfully, Parks is better in the role when he’s not on stage. Based on this film, Jolson’s stage persona involved a lot of fourth wall breaks. His singing mannerisms appeared to be standing in three-quarter profile to the audience and simple switching sides back and forth and sometimes rolling his eyes. William Demarest (who was nominated in a supporting role) and Ludwig Donath are the real stars here for my money.
As a piece of history, this is interesting, and for what it’s worth, Jolson’s career was an important one. He’s pretty much forgotten these days, more or less a victim of the minstrel shows that made him famous. It’s hard to admit to listening to a guy who got famous that way, even if some of the songs are pretty good and Jolson is still in good voice.
Unexpectedly, The Jolson Story was a surprise hit in 1946 and completely revitalized the career of Al Jolson. That being the case, it’s not terribly surprising that in 1949, a sequel of sorts was realized as Jolson Sings Again. Impressively, the main cast of the first film all agreed to come back for the sequel, although one member of the cast was essentially written out based on the end of the first film.