Saturday, January 3, 2015

"Jolson Sings Again" with Larry Parks and Barbara Hale (1946)

As a kid growing up in New York I used to watch a lot of the old movies on WOR-TC channel 9. They were what was referred to as an “independent” station and along with WNEW Channel 5 were the only alternatives to the “big three” networks. This arrangement was a sort of blessing in disquise for an inquisitive kid like me. I really enjoyed the older black and white movies these stations ran, rather than the newer ones on the networks. And occasionally they even outdid themselves; like the time one of them showed the first talkie “The Jazz Singer” withal Jolson.

My regard for Jolson came mostly from my Uncle Irving. He used to do the shimmy and a bit of the Charleston now and again when he heard me playing a record like “Winchester Cathedral” or “Hello, Hello” by the Sopwith Camels.  Even “Words of Love” by the Mamas and Papas could set him off. At these times he would regale me with stories of Al Jolson, “the greatest entertainer in the world!” So, when The Jazz Singer was scheduled to air, I was all set. I even had my little reel to reel battery operated tape recorder set up with the microphone up against the TV speaker to record the musical numbers.

This film brings to life the music and career of Al Jolson, beginning with his attempt at making a comeback in the years just before the outbreak of World War Two. So much had changed in the years since Jolson had been top of the heap. Bing Crosby had come along, changing the way people interpreted songs. The difference was in the phrasing. Crooning was out. This was the environment in which he was attempting to make his return to the stage and radio audiences he had left more than a decade earlier.

In the film previous to this one, “The Jolson Story”, Larry Parks portrays Al Jolson and chronicles his rise to fame and his decision to retire. In this follow up film he reprises his role as the greatest entertainer of all time, picking up the story in the late 1930’s. As Hitler is marching across Europe, Jolson is enjoying life as a former star, traveling all over and visiting all of the race tracks. He was living the life of a playboy. But, with a little push from history, his father, and his manager, that was all about to change.

As the war in Europe became a war against the Jews, Jolson’s father; a Cantor; was upset that his son didn’t seem to care about what was happening in the world around him. He was living a life of wine, women and song; fiddling like Nero while the world around him burned. The elder Jolson (Yoelson), along with his son’s manager Steve Martin; played by the irascible William Demarest; conspire to push him back towards doing something constructive with his life.

Jolson joins the efforts to entertain the troops at training camps across the country, where he is surprisingly well received. His travels abroad lead to his coming down with malaria; forcing him to go home after collapsing on stage. When he comes to and sees the most beautiful woman he has ever laid eyes upon, he begins to sing “Baby Face” to her before passing out again.

In real life he met Erle Galbraith; an X-ray technologist at a military hospital Hot Springs, Arkansas.  Though instantly smitten with her it takes him over a year to track her down again. When he does locate her he offers her a job and the two are later married, adopting two children before his death in 1950. He had one previous child by adoption with his third wife, Ruby Keeler in the 1930’s.

Even if you are not a fan of Al Jolson, or the music of the era, this film has a lot to offer. Larry Parks is excellent as Jolson, and Jolson does make a brief cameo in the film; just as he did in the first Larry Parks vehicle “The Jolson Story.”

Two things worth noting about Jolson are; the Elvis classic “Are You Lonesome Tonight” was recorded by many people. The song was written in 1926 and recorded the following year. Jolson picked it up in 1950, a decade before Elvis. And also, although Bing Crosby gets the credit most of the time for the change in phrasing vocals rather than crooning, it was really Jolson, with his minstrel style, who influenced Crosby.

As a matter of fact, as you watch this film and study Larry Parks’ movements, you will see a lot of Dean Martin in those performances. The singing is all done by Jolson; Larry Parks is just lip-synching, although his movements are exactly the same as Jolson’s. Watch him strut, leaning backwards and using his arms to animate each song.

The cast is composed of the following;

Larry Parks plays Al Jolson as well as himself. Barbara Hale plays the fictional Ellen Clark, who is really Erle Galbraith; and William Demarest plays manager Steve Martin; while Ludwig Donath   plays Jolson’s father, Cantor Yoelson with a gleam in his eye and love for his son in his heart.  
Here’s a clip of Jolson performing from the 1927 classic “The Jazz Singer”;

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