THE JOLSON STORY
Since the age of 9, back in 1946, when my daddy took me to see the opening of THE JOLSON STORY, I have realized that Al Jolson was America's greatest singer (with the possible exception of Sinatra, off course).
I remember, even as a child, being moved by the man's energy and style as very ably conveyed by Larry Parks. Seeing the film made me long for the return of Vaudeville althouigh Vaudeville had passed away even before I was born. I remember that I could not get enough of Jolson and listened to him on radio and watched him on television every chance I could. I even got my older siblings to buy his records for me. When I heard that Columbia Pictures was going to make a sequel to THE JOLSON STORY, I was in heaven. JOLSON SINGS AGAIN came out a few years after the original. Although it was good, it somehow lacked the verve and high degree of exitement of T.J.S.
THE JOLSON STORY had stiff competition when it was released. 1946 could not have been a more risky year to bring out a film. But 1946 may well have been the last golden year of Hollywood. Incredibly the year saw the release of a veritible host of great films, including, ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, THE BIG SLEEP, BLUE SKIES, BRIEF ENCOUNTER, CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, DRAGONWYCK, DUEL IN THE SUN, THE HARVEY GIRLS, HUMORESQUE, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, THE KID FROM BROOKLYN, THE KILLERS, LADY IN THE LAKE, MARGIE, MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, NIGHT AND DAY, NOTORIOUS, OF HUMAN BONDAGE, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, THE RAZOR'S EDGE, ROAD TO UTOPIA, SCARLET STREET, SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY, THE SEVENTH VEIL, SISTER KENNY, SONG OF THE SOUTH, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, THE STRANGER, TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY, TO EACH HIS OWN, TOMORROW IS FOREVER, UNDERCURRENT, and THE YEARLING. And this by no means exhausts the list.
And so it was that Columbia Pictures took a great gamble when it decided to produce a film on the life of an entertainer that had been considered washed up and virtually unknown to the younger generations of the time.
But Harry Cohn, the president of Columbia, believed that he had a potential hit on his hands with the biography of a man who had been one of the most popular and highest paid singers of a previous generation. And this in spite of the fact that no really "big name" stars were to appear in the film.
The cast was carefully chosen from a pool of talented supporting and character actors, each of whom brought a dimension of depth to the film. The most difficult role to cast was naturally the main subject of the film, Al Jolson. Jolson's ego was legendary and he actually had the CHUTSPAH to insist on playing himself when the idea for a film biography was first put to him. Aside from the fact that he had not been before a film audience for years, he was much too old to play himself as a younger man which is how he is portrayed for most of the film.
Many "name" actors were considered for the part, some of whose names it is hard to believe the studio even brought up, such as James Cagney (who had done an admirable job portraying George M. Cohan in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY), Cornel Wilde, Cary Grant, Danny Thomas, Sid Caesar, Jose Ferrer (who was such an avid fan of Jolson's that he was always doing impressions of him at parties), Dane Clark, Ross Hunter, Gene Kelly, and Richard Conte.
Of them all, Harry Cohn favored Conte, and Conte himself desparately wanted the role. But Conte had a problem. His problem was Larry Parks.
Larry Parks had appeared in low budget films and was an almost complete unknown to American movie goers. He was also a long time friend of Richard Conte, and when he discovered that the role of Jolson was being cast, he asked Conte if he thought that he, Parks, ought not try out for the part. Conte, of course, could not tell his friend not to try out. After all, it was an open casting which many young aspiring actors were eager to go for. And so he entered the competition until he and Conte wound up as the two competing finalists for the part. Cohn still wanted Conte but as both actors took screen test after screen test for the part AD INFINITUM, Parks proved to be the better actor to play Jolson. Finally Cohn decided to ask Jolson himself to make the final decision between Conte and Parks. Jolson replied that if he could not portray himself, he would select Parks to portray him. There were many reasons that Jolie may have chosen Parks. For one thing, the screen tests may have convinced him that Parks was the more qualified actor for the role. But more to the point, the speculation is that Jolson prefered not to have a star leading man portray him, and in 1946 Conte was a VERY popular actor. Jolson may have beleived, and correctly so, that the film audiences would completely identify Parks with Al Jolson whereas they would always be aware that Richard Conte was Conte.
When my friends and I rented THE JOLSON STORY at the end of 1999, it was for me a return to my childhood. Yet I am no longer a child. Therefore I have the perspective of a middle aged adult and the critical eye of a 21st century person looking at a film which was the product of a more naive, less jaundiced time. The film is the beautification of a man who was, according to all who knew him, hard to live with. Al Jolson is described as an egotistical, self centered, nasty individual who did not mince words with people, and who could not bear to be out of the limelight. His many marriages ended in divorce because he was LITERALLY hard to live with, and his divorces were not what is commonly known as "civilized". It is true that his last marriage to a Southern Belle considerably younger than himself was a happy one, and we can speculate that because of the age difference, he was able to be the doting parent as well as the spouse.
In contrast to who he was, his film biography presents a sweet lovable young man whose only desire is to be in front of his audience so that he can give them what they want - his talent! And he had a way with his admirers, telling them that "You ain't heard nuthin yet" and making them cry out for more. Larry Parks did a remarkable job lip synching Jolson's songs and mimicking his on stage dancing presence and bodily movements. It is due to Parks' artistic efforts, in large measure, that Al Jolson's career was revived and that a whole new generation of fans was created.
Evelyn Keyes does a remarkable job as his wife, Ruby Keeler. Yet because the real Ruby Keeler remained enraged at Jolson long after their nasty divorce, she refused to allow Columbia to use her actual name in the film. Therefore for the film, she is given the unassuming name of Julie Benson. Her portrayal of Keeler is also toned down in the film, and she is seen as a sweet understanding wife who leaves Jolson at the end of the film because she realizes she cannot bear to share him with his adoring public. In actual life, the two of them had very nasty tempers and continually faught over whose ego would be stroked the most. In real life, Keeler did not simply walk out on him. They had a vituperative divorce and sadly their relationship was never healed. Keyes had done some minor roles prior to the film but she was not yet what can be described as a star. The film acted as a boost to her career. Supposedly the casting couch did the rest.
The film takes much license with the historical facts of Jolson's life. His real parents did not have a happy marriage and his mother died when Al was quite young. Thereafter his father threw him out of the home after a particularly nasty fight because Al refused to continue being religious. The father, a Jewish Orthodox cantor, had wanted Jolson to continue in his footsteps and lead a "Kosher" life.
In the film, his parents are presented as having a very nice and sweet "shmaltsy" relationship, and they are more overawed than upset at their son's professional choices and subsequent "treyf" lifestyle.
As one watches the film, one does not get the feeling of the 1920s in which much of it takes place. Rather one has the feeling that he is watching a film about the 1940s. The movie's makers were concerned that the women's hairstyles of the 1920s would not be acceptable to a 1946 audience. They therefore had the females all wearing 1940s hairstyles, and also 1940s dress styles. The film does not even feature the art deco style of architechture of the 1920s. One gets the feeling that the setting is actually timeless, and that may have actually appealed to Jolie who saw himself as timeless.
Long after THE JOLSON STORY was a mere memory in the minds of movie-goers, it was condemned by the NAACP for being "racist" in that Jolson performed his musical act in blackface. The film does not present the blackface issue in racial terms. The reality is that Jolson came out of the minstral tradition and chose blackface to emulate the "colored folks who know how to create music". In other words, it was more a show of admiration than any attempt to ridicule a race. During his life, Al Jolson affected a kind of "southern accent" in his speech patern, and the blackface may have been part of his "trying to be Southern".
If anyone were to have been offended by ethnic stereotypes, it should have been more the Jewish Community than the Afro-American Community. The way Jolson's parents are portrayed, there is not one Eastern European immigrant Jewish caracature left unexpressed. Yet even with this, one has to smile because no one, not even the movie reviewers, picked up on this. The naive American public actually believed that this is how Jews talk and walk, and the movie reviewers describe the delightful Ludwig Donath (as Cantor Yoelson) and the equally delightful Tamara Shayne (Mrs. Yoelson) as warm, amusing, doting parents whose "Jewish wisdom" comes to the fore in times of crisis. This reviewer sees it as "just the way it was in those days". But after all, the reviewer was brought up during the golden radio days of THE GOLDBERGS, LIFE WITH LUIGI, and AMOS AND ANDY.
Larry Parks was recalled to play Jolson again in the sequel, JOLSON SINGS AGAIN, and although he became strongly identified with Jolson, he was able to overcome the identification and the typecasting did not prevent him from becoming a star in his own right and making many other films after THE JOLSON STORY. Sadly, because he had once been affiliated with the Communist Party, he was blacklisted in the late 1940s and was not allowed to work in films thereafter. His blacklisting was not so much for his having been a Communist as for refusing to name other Communists before The House Un-American Activities Committee.
After over a decade, Parks began his comeback in films as did so many others who had been blacklisted during the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1960s, he co-starred with Monty Clift in the film FREUD in the role of Freud's colleague, Dr. Joseph Breuer. This would have been the start of a new career for him. Unfortunately this was not to be. In 1975 Parks suffered a fatal heart attack and died. On the same day of his death, April 13, 1975, Frederick March also passed away. Parks conceivably may have won the Oscar for best actor in 1946 for THE JOLSON STORY, had not March won it for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.
The Jolson Story, (1946)
Directed by Alfred E. Green
Larry Parks .... Al Jolson
Evelyn Keyes .... Julie Benson
William Demarest .... Steve Martin
Bill Goodwin .... Tom Baron
Ludwig Donath .... Cantor Yoelson
Tamara Shayne .... Mrs. Yoelson
Jo-Carroll Dennsion .... Ann Murray
Scotty Beckett .... Jolson as a boy
Edward Kane .... Flo Ziegfeld
Rating: Family Values for the 1940s.
The film's running time is 128 minutes.
Scarsdale, New York
July 14, 2000
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