Saturday, December 16, 2017

Minstrel Show

Film: The Jolson Story; Jolson Sings Again
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.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Dialectics

Film: Half Nelson
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I didn’t know what to expect with Half Nelson, but I was extremely nervous about where we were going a few minutes in. Half Nelson looks like it’s going to be another one of those “white savior” movies where the white teacher is working in an inner city school inspiring all of the minority kids to escape the ghetto. Thankfully, it’s quickly evident that it’s not that at all. This is not going to be one of those inspirational films, but it is going to wind up being depressing as all hell.

That is where we’re going to start, though. Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a history teacher at a middle school where he also coaches the girls’ basketball team. The kids seem to like him; he’s young and relatively hip, treats the kids as if they have intelligence, and tends to avoid the curriculum in favor of something a lot closer to communist philosophy a la Engels. It’s a front, though. At night, Dan Dunne does a lot of drugs, specifically cocaine, often freebasing. Much of this comes from a failed relationship with Rachel (Tina Holmes).

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Wednesday Horror: The Girl with All the Gifts

Film: The Girl with All the Gifts
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on various players.

One of the main issues with a film like The Girl with All the Gifts, is that it’s going to create the same arguments that happened when 28 Days Later was released. The biggest controversy with that film was whether or not the infected were actually zombies. Well, the same argument is going to happen with the hungries in The Girl with All the Gifts. They are clearly zombie-like in almost every relevant way (including eating their victims), but they aren’t really resurrected corpses. Whether they are zombies or not is an argument others can have; they are clearly zombie-inspired.

It’s not clear right away that this is a zombie-like film. Instead, it’s not at all clear what is happening. A group of 20 young children are daily strapped into wheelchairs and put in a room where they are taught by a collection of teachers, including Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton). Helen seems particularly taken with the girl sitting in position four, Melanie (Sennia Nanua). The base is clearly military, though, and everyone seems insanely paranoid around the children. We soon find out why when Helen touches Melanie’s head.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Off Script: House of Frankenstein

Film: House of Frankenstein
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I realize that there are probably people who don’t love the classic Universal monsters, something I find nearly impossible to believe. I do love them, though, even the silly ones that gave up all pretense of being actual stories that dealt with the original source material and became nothing but camp goofiness. That’s certainly the best description of House of Frankenstein, well down into the list of Universal monster films both in terms of when it was made and in terms of its overall quality. There are some solid connections to the movies of the past in terms of cast, but not much else.

House of Frankenstein’s selling point is that there’s not just a single monster here. No, the joy here is to bring in as many monsters as possible. So, in addition to Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange), we’ve also got Dracula (John Carradine!), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr. reprising his most famous role), a mad scientist named Niemann (Boris Karloff), and his hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish). Unfortunately, just as when super hero movies up the ante by adding more villains and end up giving everyone short shrift, the same happens with this many monsters in this case. That’s especially true when the film runs a spare 71 minutes.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Man-Cub

Film: The Jungle Book (2016)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

Normally, I’m done with the new entries for the 1001 Movies list long before 10 days into December, but I’ve still got a couple to go (well, one more after today). There’s a reason for this. I, Daniel Blake isn’t available anywhere that I’ve found and I really wasn’t that interested in watching a new reworking of The Jungle Book. However, I do want them done by the end of the year, and The Jungle Book is currently streaming, so it made sense to knock it out. It was better than I thought it would be, although at this point that doesn’t say much; remember, I wasn’t looking forward to watching it.

Chances are you know the basic story. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) lives in an Indian jungle, literally raised by wolves. His wolf mother is named Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) and the pack is led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). Mowgli does his best to become the best wolf he can be, but, since he’s human, he’s not always that great at it. Still, he’s accepted in the wolf pack and mentored by Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), a panther.