31 July 2002 | lugonian
Rhythm and Weep
SAY IT WITH SONGS (Warner Brothers, 1929), directed by Lloyd Bacon, reunites the legendary Al Jolson with little boy wonder, Davey Lee, of 'SINGING FOOL' (1928) fame, in yet another sentimental musical drama that failed to live up to the success of its predecessor. This, Jolson's third feature film, contains several firsts in his movie career: His first full length talkie (with no silent passages); no black-face song numbers; and the first Jolson movie to flop at the box office. It was also one of the few films in his career in which his on-screen character isn't named AL, and the second and last casting him as a married man.
The story involves Joe Land (Al Jolson), a radio singer with a loving wife, Katherine (Marion Nixon) and five-year-old son he calls Little Pal (Davey Lee), sent to prison for accidentally murdering Arthur Phillips (Kenneth Thompson) his friend and manager for making advances on his wife. Upon his release, Joe meets with his son at a private school grounds during recess. When son is struck by a passing truck, Joe takes him to Doctor Arthur Phillips (Holmes Herbert), a specialist and Katherine's former beau now working for him as his private nurse. Phillips agrees to perform the delicate operation on the condition that Joe goes away, grants Katherine a divorce so he can marry her, or else pay the high fee of $5,000.
As syrupy as the plot sounds, it's even more thicker on screen. Relying heavily on the success of THE SINGING FOOL, lightning didn't strike twice for Jolson, Lee and director Bacon. Jolson and Lee even repeated some of the same sentimental gimmicks, including Davey Lee's raising his arms for Daddy to pick him up and give him a kiss. Some heavy melodramatics might have worked somehow had it not been for Jolson's bad acting, hearing scratchiness in his voice, looking back and forth leaving his mouth open as if he were waiting for further instructions from his director. Overacting is evident as Jolson cries in his jail cell after telling his wife he never wants to see her again. Even worse, after he finds that it's his own son who's been struck by a passing truck, he unconvincingly shouts out, "Oh my God, it's MY baby"; or when Jolson sings "One Sweet Kiss" on a coast to coast radio hookup on Christmas day, he does this in such dramatic manner it almost leaves an impression that he was hoping for an Academy Award nomination. Regardless of the results, the finished product is often embarrassing to watch, especially for a story that's supposed to take place in a considerable time frame of several years, only to have its major characters, especially little Davey, not aging a day. As Robert Osborne mentioned in his 1994 commentary on Turner Classic Movies, audiences flocked to theaters to see the film (hoping to get more of that Jolson magic, as he did with THE SINGING FOOL), but business dropped off in a hurry, and movie quickly disappeared. At least it didn't became one of many lost films from the "dawn of sound" era.
SAY IT WITH SONGS, such as it is, does have scenes of some potential, first where Joe sings "Why Can't You" to his fellow prisoners, followed by a montage and split screen of fellow convicts, concluding with Jolson's singing showing his face behind the prison bars; second where little Davey falling asleep, dreaming of his Dad appearing to him while singing "Little Pal"; and another borrowing from the climactic scene of the silent version of STELLA DALLAS (1925) which has Joe looking in on his son from the outside window.
Marion Nixon, in her Janet Gaynor manner, wasn't much help in her partake as Joe's wife through some bad acting, but it's Jolson's performance that bogs down the plot considerably. Aside from the lead actors, Davey Lee has his tender moments on screen, but at times (as his eyes look towards the camera), it's hard to understand what he's saying. One scene where he follows his father down the street comes off funny considering how he's wobbling about either like a puppet or silent film comic Charlie Chaplin.
SAY IT WITH SONGS does have its considerable amount of songs, none listed on the hit parade. The songs include: "Used to You," "Little Pal," "I'm in Seventh Heaven," "Why Can't You?" "One Sweet Kiss," "Little Pal," "Little Pal" (reprises) and "I'm in Seventh Heaven." Supposedly distributed in theaters at 95 minutes, TV print that airs on TCM, is 85 minutes, ten minutes shorter. One noticeable cut occurs in the early portion of the story in the radio station where Joe Lane asks one of the visiting sponsors if he wants to hear his new song, "I'm Crazy for You." After Joe goes over to the piano to plug it, the scene that follows is dialog between Katherine and Arthur Phillips in his office. Another reported song, "Back in Your Own Back Yard," supposedly written for the film, is also absent. While both these songs do not exist in the existing print, they are, however, included in a 1980s soundtrack recording titled "Legends of the Musical Stage (Rare Soundtrack Recordings 1928-1930), compliments from Sandy Hook Records. SAY IT WITH SONGS never made it to video cassette, but did become part of the Al Jolson film collection when distributed on laser disc in the early 1990s, and a TCM archive collection onto DVD in 2010.
SAY IT WITH SONGS is not the kind of movie one would see for entertainment, but solely as a curiosity to find out how it failed and why it doesn't hold up today. One can be thankful, however, for TCM airing SAY IT WITH SONGS, for that it has satisfied my curiosity. (**)