22 May 2005 | theowinthrop
The last moment was ridiculous
I am giving this film a "6" because of my fondness for Stephen Foster's melodies (and my pity for his fate), and because - whatever one thinks of his racist "blackface" act, Al Jolson was a wonderful singer. If it had been shot as a concert film of Foster's best tunes, it would have been worth an "9" or even a "10". Instead it is tied to one of those idiotic Hollywood composer biographies. It is a sub-set to Hollywood biographies, all of which have fact problems. Here it is trying to concentrate on Foster's alcoholism (a fact), but not on the business problems he confronted in his career.
Foster was the first American composer of lasting merit (although his contemporary Louis Moreau Gottschalk came close). His compositions were totally composed by him (including lyrics). But he never had any business abilities, so that while tunes like "Old Folks At Home", "Beautiful Dreamer", "The Camptown Races", "I Dream of Jeannie" and "Oh Susannah" were massive popular hits, Foster got remarkably little of the profits. Added to his problems were the lack of efficient copy-write protection in the U.S. (or on the globe, for that matter) to prevent pirating of his work. He was also the first composer who tried to live on the successful profits of his compositions. Had he been frugal, and not a drinker, it just might have worked (for a few years he did prosper), but he fumbled it. His last years were spent still composing, but living as a Bowery derelict. His end is not quite the melodrama of the film - he fell in his room cutting himself (not cutting his throat). Due to his alcoholic condition weakening his body, he died a few days later in Bellevue Hospital.
Don Ameche is a terrific actor, and does what he can here - but it reminds us of an extended development of his Edward Salomon (Lillian Russell's doomed composer husband) in the Russsell biography. He is talented - greatly so - but drink and ill health doom her here. No new extension of his acting range as Foster.
By 1939 I wonder if there was increasing criticism by African - American groups regarding stereotyping in Hollywood. Probably not too much yet, or at least enough for the industry to take notice. Films about D.D.Emmett (DIXIE), and other films with minstrel segments in them would still appear within the next decade. It really is not until the end of the 1940s and into the 1950s that an effect of World War II is felt - a dislike for the disparate treatment of African Americans - and begins to have an impact. So the minstrel portions, historically correct (unfortunately), were totally acceptable in this film in 1939.
Oddly enough, given the accidental tragedy that ends this film, the fate of E.E.Christy is overlooked. Christy apparently had a nervous breakdown in the 1860s, and threw himself out of a window. One would not know that watching Jolson's performance, based on this script.
The concluding moment of this film always stuck in my craw. Tragically announcing the death of Foster at what was supposed to be the benefit to resurrect his career, Christy/Jolson announces the first performance of Foster's latest and greatest tune. He starts singing "Old Folks At Home" (renamed "Swanee River" - as in the film title), Jolson starts singing it (remember for the first time). When the music reaches the chorus, "All the world is sad and weary..." the whole audience arose and sang it's chorus lines. Remarkable example of massive psychic transference, or poor screenplay writing: I leave it to the viewer to guess which.