“The Jolson Story” opening review

1 01 2013

Liberty, October 19, 1946

A perfect tribute to Al Jolson, this movie is as schmaltzy, spirited, and unforgettable as the singer himself. It affectionately traces Jolson’s tune-packed, knee-bending fifty years in show business.

With Larry Parks catching the Mammy singer’s eye-rolling exuberance in a bang-up impersonation, the film highlights in Technicolor such Jolson lore as his bouncy blackface routines, his one-man shows at Broadway’s Winter Garden, and his pioneering in talking pictures.

But above all, this is the story of a trouper who’s only happy when he’s prancing and hamming before an audience, and who messes up his love life somewhere between encores.

His first public performance comes when, as Asa Yoelson, the twelve-year-old son of an orthodox Jewish cantor, he plays hooky from the synagogue and does some impromptu singing from the balcony of a Washington, D.C. burlesque theater.
Incurably smitten with footlight fever, Asa runs away to join burlesque comedian Steve Martin (William Demarest), while his pious parents have conniptions. (Later they relent and, in some of the sweetest scenes in many a movie, read his Variety rave notices with Old World confusion and pride.)

After a few years of small-time barnstorming, there are some changes for Asa – his voice, his name and, at last, his luck. (This is where Parks takes over from boy actor Scotty Beckett.) He combines blackface tricks he learned in minstrel shows with ragtime rhythms he heard in New Orleans to make a sensational Broadway debut. Along with success goes marriage to Julie Benson (Evelyn Keyes), a hoofer who wants him to trade in curtain calls for a cottage in the country. She finally walks out on him when he two-times her for his real love – singing.

Evelyn, who learned to dance for this part, is a composite of Jolson’s first three wives, but bears a professional resemblance to Ruby Keeler.

Columbia neither mentions Ruby nor gives Al a voice credit, though he obviously does all the singing, including such Jolson favorites as April Showers, Swanee, and Liza. But the rest is strictly Parks, who does well by both Jolson and himself in this, his first big role.

Jolson was technical adviser on the set and spent five months grooming Parks. The young actor also studied old Jolson records and movies until he could talk with a mellow slur, cock his head and look askance in the best Winter Garden style.
The Jolson Story was dreamed up by Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky, who got the producer’s job as a reward. His brain child is one of the biggest events in show business since Asa Yoelson left home.


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2 responses

27 04 2010
Jo Anne Behrens

“The Jolson Story” and “Jolson Sings Again” represent two very outstanding films. The music (Al’s singing) is absolutely fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable! The acting of Larry Parks is definitely a treasure and work of art! The combination of Al’s and Larry’s performances is a genuine masterpiece! No doubt, the fans of Al and Larry are the beneficiaries of their tremendous talents.

13 03 2011
Sig Seidenman

He was billed as, “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” because he was. In reviews of the day people marveled at the electric effect his singing had on his audiences. It is significant that this movie debuted over two decades after his career supposedly ended, and the record sales shot to the top of the charts.

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