Though dramatically hokey at times, The Jolson Story (1946) still has much to offer viewers receptive to that entertainer's broad style and the conventions of the musical-biography, which this film virtually invented. There had been musical-biographies in the past, such as The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), but The Jolson Story, with $7.6 million in rentals, was the Titanic of its day. Its success gave birth to dozens upon dozens of movie biographies, from entertainers in such films as The Eddie Cantor Story and The Glenn Miller Story (both 1953) to 20th century pioneers like Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) and Jackie Robinson (The Jackie Robinson Story, 1950). By the end of the '50s the genre had petered out, partly because it began running out of subjects, at least that's the impression one gets watching films like The Eddie Duchin Story (1956).
The Jolson Story remains one of the best such films. The movie is basically a whitewashed – very whitewashed – biography of celebrated entertainer, who became the biggest star of the 1920s and is still regarded as one of the greatest live acts, ever. Jolson (1886-1950) kept audiences mesmerized with tireless hours of encores and impromptu performances featuring such signature hits as "My Mammy," "Toot, Toot, Tootsie," "Avalon," and "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody." The picture traces his rise from early minstrel acts through his years on Broadway and his unprecedented success with The Jazz Singer (1927), which launched the era of talking pictures. He marries actress-dancer Ruby Keeler (her called Julie Benson, and played by Evelyn Keyes), but the Jolson's relentless need to entertain threatens their marriage.
The Jolson Story, like the majority of movie bios that followed, plays fast and loose with the facts. Jolson himself was apparently not exactly the breezy, affable fellow played in the film by Larry Parks. The film dances around the marital problems between Jolson and Keeler, while various subplots and characters are simply made up. The pair's film careers were confined mainly at Warner Bros., but Columbia, which produced The Jolson Story never mentions the studio or a single Warner brother. Jolson's pre-Jazz Singer short, his adopted children, and his first two wives have likewise vanished from this life story.
Much of the picture centers around Jolson's relationship with Burlesque comedian Steve Martin (William Demarest, who appeared with the real Jolson in The Jazz Singer).** Their relationship, as his career shoots up like a rocket as his falls on hard times is sheer hokum – but it works. An early scene where Steve tricks Al into taking advantage of an offer to appear in a minstrel review is surprisingly touching. Likewise, Ludwig Donath and Tamara Shayne are painfully cute as Jolson's Jewish parents, but Al's serenade of "The Anniversary Song" to them as they dance is likewise effective.
And, to the screenwriter's credit, The Jolson Story has an admirably unusual climax. Attempting to save their marriage, Jolson, forever the workaholic, agrees to retire to the San Fernando Valley, but deep down yearns to entertain once again. After several uncomfortable years away from the public eye, Jolson and his family visit a nightclub, and he is coaxed onstage to sing. He's overjoyed, but everyone at his table knows that this also signals the end of his marriage, and Julie slips out as all eyes are fixed on Jolson. This unusual, simultaneous mix of triumph and personal tragedy is the kind of stuff that keeps the picture from collapsing into unbearable sentimentality.
Parks looks nothing like the real Jolson, but rather like a cross between (a young) Robert Blake and John Forsythe. Regardless, Parks does an uncanny job imitating Jolson's performance mannerisms; it reminds one of Robert Downey, Jr.'s work in Chaplin (1992). Jolson himself coached Parks on the choreography and dubbed his singing voice, but Parks deserves the lion's share of the credit. Scotty Beckett is excellent as a young Jolson; conversely he does look like both Jolson and Parks, and a clever montage makes the transition from Beckett to Parks impressively seamless. Keyes doesn't look anything like the real Ruby Keeler, either, but manages to imitate Keeler's club-foot hoofer style quite well. The character is introduced sitting next to Florenz Ziegfeld (Eddie Kane) as Jolson sings "California, Here I Come"; but isn't that Ziegfeld's real-life widow, actress Billie Burke, sitting behind them?
Video & Audio
The Jolson Story was shot in three-strip Technicolor (full-frame format, natch) and has been remastered in High Definition. I don't know whether Columbia went to the expense of going back to the original color separations but, whatever was done, the image looks fantastic, with rich hues and a sharp image. In only a few shots are there registration issues involving a misalignment of the three images. Columbia released the title twice to laserdisc; both of those releases offered stereo remixes, but it's mono only on DVD. Nevertheless, the sound is quite good for its age. Audiences of the time, used to much older recordings of Jolson dating from the teens and 1920s, had never heard the entertainer sound so good, and these recordings are still pretty impressive today. English and Japanese subtitles are offered. One side note about the disc itself: it's one of those picture discs, the kind Disney used to tout as a "special feature." This one has Jolson on a runway crooning away, but the hole of the disc is positioned right as his stomach, giving the impression that Jollie's just been hit with a cannonball.
The DVD includes two trailers – but not for The Jolson Story or its sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949). It would seem a trailer for the latter film would be an especially good idea, but presumably no decent elements were located.
The Jolson Story is not for everyone. Jolson's style of broad gesturing, further emphasized by director Alfred E. Green's frequent use of eye-rolling close-ups of Parks, will bemuse younger generations unfamiliar with the entertainer's legacy. Conversely, for Jolson fans the film is a real treat, featuring q whopping 25 songs, many performed in their entirety. In igniting the movie biography genre, The Jolson Story is of historical interest, too. And for all its old fashioned corniness, it still holds up as good entertainment.
** No relation to comedian/playwright Steve Martin, or for that matter, Steve Martin, Raymond Burr's character in Godzilla, King of the Monsters!