18 November 2000 | clive-38
The most enthralling musical biography of all time - "you ain't heard nothin' yet!"
"The Jolson Story" must be one of the most outstanding musical biographies to ever come out of Hollywood with a multitude of unforgettable popular songs, luxuriant colour photography, and a noteworthy performance by Larry Parks in his most accomplished role as Al Jolson. The stunning Evelyn Keyes sparkled as Julie Benson and the eminent William Demarest was entertainer Steve Martin (later Jolson's manager). "Give that boy a spotlight!!". Ludwig Donath and Tamara Shayne were an inspired choice as Jolson's parents: "Papa, Asa isn't Asa any more!". Bill Goodwin was Jolson's close friend and singer Tom Baron (later theatrical impresario) and talented Scotty Beckett gave an appealing performance playing Jolson as a boy. William Demarest had also appeared with Al Jolson years earlier in "The Jazz Singer" (1927) so it is intriguing to speculate whether they reminisced about that during the production of "The Jolson Story". William Demarest received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his part in "The Jolson Story" but was beaten by Harold Russell for "The Best Years of Our Lives". Larry Parks was also nominated (as Best Actor) but lost to Fredric March (again for "The Best Years of Our Lives"). As some small consolation the film did win Oscars for the Best Musical Score and the Best Sound Recording. (For some obscure reason it wasn't even nominated for the best picture award much to my surprise).
The film has an absorbing storyline even though it is not entirely accurate and it does take some liberties with the facts. Jolson's mother died when he was eight years old yet in the film she lives on to see him become a big success on Broadway. Many people who played active parts in Jolson's real life story did not even get a mention in the film version. His long time manager Louis Epstein, his dresser/valet Frank Holmes and his brother Harry were all eliminated from the plot! The character Steve Martin played by William Demarest did not actually exist and it has been suggested that this role was probably a composite of the three men referred to above plus several other people. Jolson's first two wives were not even mentioned and Ruby Keeler (Jolson's third wife) would not allow her name to be used in the picture so ravishing Evelyn Keyes had to play the fictitious Julie Benson instead. Ziegfeld: "This is Julie Benson - the star of my next production "Show Girl"." Jolson: "Mr Ziegfeld you will please not advertise on my time!".
Harry Cohn (the notorious head of Columbia Pictures) is to be congratulated for going ahead with this film when all the other major studios had turned it down. Even Warner Bros. (for whom Jolson had starred in several films) were not interested. Filming was started on a small budget and in black and white. However, when Harry Cohn saw the early rushes he decided to film in colour and make "The Jolson Story" a major prestigious production. This certainly paid off for him in a big way as the film became one of Columbia Pictures top money earners. Jolson desperately wanted to play the leading role himself and was opposed to another actor portraying his life. Unfortunately at that stage in his career he was obviously too old (he was 60) but the studio could not have found anyone better than the young Larry Parks (31) who perfectly captured the Jolson style and threw himself into the part with relish. However, Jolson did manage to play himself in one scene singing "Swanee" on the Winter Garden runway (all filmed in longshot with no close-ups). When I saw "The Jolson Story" for the first time it had a major impact on my life and for weeks afterwards I was quoting lines from the film that had stuck in my mind such as these from Jolson to Julie Benson: "Broadway, ha, what a street, you know something baby - it belongs to me. You know something else, if you want it, I'll give it to you!"
The musical numbers were absolutely magnificent and with popular songs like "California Here I Come", "You Made Me Love You", "Toot Toot Tootsie", "April Showers", "Robert E. Lee", "Liza", "Mammy", "Liza", "About a Quarter to Nine", "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" and "Rockabye Your Baby" how could it miss! If there is one film I could take to a desert island it would have to be "The Jolson Story" as I never tire of seeing repeated showings of this timeless classic. As Jolson himself would have said: "Settle back folks, you ain't heard nothin' yet!" (and he would be right about that). 10/10. Clive Roberts.