April Showers, Swanee, Mammy, California Here I Come and a most moving performance of The Anniversary Song, sung as only Al Jolson can sing, are the 5 Top Reasons to see The Jolson Story. Critics sometimes take the 1946 biopic of the life of Al Jolson to task since it is rather idealized and great liberties were taken with the truth in some places, but even the critics agree that The Jolson Story, starring Larry Parks as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” is phenomenal entertainment.
The Jolson Story was just about the most popular in its genre in 1946 and garnered 2 Academy Awards, one for best music in scoring of a musical picture; and one for best sound in the recording category. Although Larry Parks did not win the Best Actor award he was nominated for that year, he is simply terrific in the role of Al Jolson as an adult. Park’s performance is easily the 6th Top Reason.
Scotty Beckett plays Jolson as a teenager and he is equally impressive. His vocals are dubbed by Rudy Wissler, whose beautiful tenor soars in such numbers as On the Banks of the Wabash, Sabbath Prayer, Ave Maria, When You Were Sweet Sixteen, After the Ball, By the Light of the Silvery Moon and Good Bye My Blue Bell. Rudy Wissler still attends annual affairs of The International Al Jolson Society. Scotty Beckett’s performance and Rudy Wissler’s voice are the 7th and 8th Top Reasons to watch The Jolson Story.
Al Jolson himself provides the vocals for Larry Parks. The synchronization of the lip synching is excellent. Al Jolson also appears in the film, performing Swanee River himself in a long shot.
The movie starts out with young Asa Yoelson (Jolson’s real name) being discovered at a live show by cello player Steve Martin, played by William Demarest (also an Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actor), who asks the audience to sing while he plays. No one sings except young Asa, whose beautiful and pure vocals are so impressive that Martin seeks out Asa’s parents to gain their permission to add the talented youngster to his act.
Asa’s parents, played by Tamara Shayne and Ludwig Donath, say no and ask Asa to promise never to go to ‘that place’ again. Unable to promise and compelled to be in show biz, Asa runs away to Baltimore to find Steve. Having Jolson’s mother in the movie is one of the diversions from reality since Jolson’s mother actually died when he was 8 years old, but you should not watch this movie for historical accuracy.
Not to duck the blackface issue, let me say that the minstrel show years are depicted in this movie, and Parks does appear in blackface. If that is offensive to you, then you are not going to like that part. I am aware that this issue tainted Jolson’s image in later years after his death although I don’t totally understand why Al Jolson was singled out. It didn’t cast a shadow over the careers of other performers such as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Al Jolson didn’t invent minstrel shows. They were around even before he was born.
Al Jolson was a true show business pioneer, and much of this information is incorporated into the movie. He was the first entertainer to have a runway put in so that he could get up close and personal with more of his audience. He was in one of the first talking pictures, 1927’s Jazz Singer. Although this was not the very first talkie, it was the first talkie to enjoy phenomenal commercial success, thanks to Jolson’s enormous popularity.
Al Jolson’s charisma and powerful rapport with the audience was legendary and he had a tremendous influence on singers such as Bing Crosby, Chaplin, Maurice Chevalier, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. It is said that Frank Sinatra was at a party where Jolson was asked to sing and enthralled the party-goers with his favorite songs, like Rockabye My Baby and April Showers. Frank Sinatra was then asked to sing. He said, “I can’t follow that,” and left. Elvis Presley used the exact same arrangement and speaking format when recording Are You Lonesome Tonight as Jolson.
On Broadway, Jolson was the first to earn $10,000 a week. This was in the early 1900s and by 1932, he was earning as much as $17,500 a week. Jolson’s career benefited by a resurgence in popularity as a result of the tremendous success of The Jolson Story.
Actress, Evelyn Keyes, plays Jolson’s show business wife, loosely based on Jolson’s (then ex) wife, Ruby Keeler, who would not allow her name to be used in the film. Evelyn Keyes is really most famous for her earlier portrayal of one of Scarlett O’Hara’s sisters in Gone With The Wind. I would have liked to add Keyes’ performance as a Reason, but I just wasn’t able to make good sense of her behavior in the film. Likewise William Demarest who, particularly in the last part of the film as Jolson’s manager, always seems to have this unexplained look of foreboding look about him.
I suppose this is meant to rein Al Jolson in a little, but for me, it somehow contrasted badly with Jolson’s irrepressible exuberance. You can see a preview of a scene were Demarest and Keyes are exchanging these portentous glances in a clip directly from the movie on YouTube where Jolson sings The Anniversary Song. It seemed like something of a lifelong tug of war between Jolson’s audiences demands and those close to Jolson, which the audiences generally won.
Watch The Jolson Story for the entertainment. You will be grandly entertained. Later, you can look up the real life story of Al Jolson, as well as the sad story of how Larry Parks’ career was later derailed in the McCarthy era, and the even sadder story of the downfall of child star, Scotty Beckett.
But wait …. ‘You ain’t heard nothin’ yet’ …..
The Jolson Story was followed up in 1949 with a successful sequel: Jolson Sings Again with Larry Parks again playing Jolson and William Demarest reprising his manager role. In another cinema first, Jolson, being portrayed by actor Larry Parks, meets the actor who is going to portray him in The Jolson Story – Larry Parks playing himself. Song highlights include the mawkishly sentimental Sonny Boy, After You’ve Gone, You Made Me Love You, Let Me Sing and I’m Happy and About a Quarter to Nine.