from Sonny Boy! The World of Al Jolson
by Barrie Anderton, (1975), former U.K. representative of the International Al Jolson Society
Jolson was big. He was a dynamic bundle of energy, and it often seemed as if his voice was just an outlet – though a rare outlet, to be sure – for his amazing vitality and endurance.
He was a man of strong physical fiber, sparked by his talent, and his boundless yearning to share it with all. And it was this, and his sheer will to live and to be with his fellows, that sustained him through a devastating illness, which resulted from his insistence on entertaining troops in North Africa in World War II.
That it would not sustain him through the aftermath of his trip to Korea is probably something he never considered. Or, if he did face the problem, it was probably with the desire and willingness to take his last curtain-call where it could do the most good for hearts not as tired as his.
Though I made two pictures truly in his shadow, I never really knew Jolson well. I did and I didn’t. He was encouraging, inspiring, and a challenge to every ounce of talent for entertaining and acting that I may possess. He illuminated and magnified everything he did.
Stepping into his shoes was, for me, a matter of endless study, observation, energetic concentration to obtain, perfectly if possible, a simulation of the kind of man he was. It is not surprising, therefore, that while making The Jolson story, I spent 107 days before the cameras and lost eighteen pounds in weight.
We worked hard together, and as he wanted me to be Jolson on film as much as I wanted to be, he was delighted and enthusiastic when he felt I had captured the ‘Jolie ‘ audiences knew. But then from nowhere, due to vagaries that creep into columns from sources unknown, came reports that we were feuding – reports which persisted for some time until they ultimately fell of their own weight. They were untrue. Jolson and I were enthusiastic co-workers with a sound regard for one another. There was never a disagreement between us.
I confess that, at the outset, I had no desire to be Jolson, but that was certainly not through any lack of admiration. I simply felt that I was not the one to do the role justice. It is surprising now that the studio chiefs were even interested in an actor who was not brash enough to say he could at least perform a silent mimicry of the Mammy singer. But they were. In fact, they became so insistent on a test, that I plunged into research.
Friends helped me dig up some of Al’s early films, and I ran them over and over again in a projection room. I haunted music stores around Los Angeles to acquire old Jolson records, which I played by the hour. What I was trying to get was the beat, the tempo, and the swing that Jolie had – that ability to make audiences share his very pulse beat.
By the time the actual test came, I was probably the best informed man on Jolson then in circulation. And I must have caught some of the spark, because it was Jolie who finally okayed me.
Very early in the preparations for The Jolson Story, Al showed me how to mime to his songs. “You move around too much kid, ” he said. “I’ll show you.” We were in my dressing room when he began his demonstration of the ‘easy’ Jolson manner. When he finished just one number, the lamps and furnishings, not to speak of me, his audience, looked as if they had been in a hurricane. It was then that Jolie turned to me with a broad smile. “See, kid?” he said, “you gotta take it easy.”
On another occasion, in the midst of rehearsals, he asked me if I’d noticed the way he always timed a certain gesture to the music of the theatre orchestra. Embarrased, I had to confess I’d never seen him on stage. “Son, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” he kidded, reaching for the phone. He arranged for an orchestra to be sent into a theatre that had been built on an adjoining stage. Half an hour later, I became the only person in the world to sit in solitary grandeur and have a full Al Jolson show put on for my sole benefit.
But it mattered little to him whether he was playing to an audience of millions over the radio or to a tiny gathering of three or four servicemen or civilians. He invariably gave his best, and how he loved to see the pleasure he brought people.
Only a handful of Americans, I believe, have ever done more to promote goodwill and understanding amongst Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. And Al did it with songs and laughs. “All you need is tolerance,” he told his friends, “and understanding.” And the best way to promote that is by something truly universal – music and laughter. That’s a language everybody appreciates.
That was one of his primary motives in allowing The Jolson Story and later Jolson Sings Again, to come to the screen. Motion pictures, he always believed, were ideally suited for spreading kindness around the world.
“You sing to people and get them into the right mood, and presently they become aware of something, almost unconsciously: they realize that they’re all pretty much alike,” he said. I’m afraid it’s going to be along time before any of us will see the likes of this outstanding troubadour again. He represented an age, an era, and a tradition in show business, that there are few to carry on.
It was a personal sort of appeal he had that endeared him to all types of audiences. More than any other entertainer of our generation, Jolson has already become a legend.
I remember a few years ago when a group of us went up to Santa Barbara to see a sneak preview of the first Jolson picture. Al was standing in the lobby listening to the comments as the audience left the theatre. A woman said, “It’s too bad Jolson isn’t alive to see it.”
For even then, Jolson had become such a towering individual, a landmark in show business history, that to many it hardly seemed possible that he could still be alive.
The clip below is an unreleased stage-clip of Jolson showing Larry Parks how to move when singing a song.