The Jolson Story (1946). 130 minutes. Directed by Alfred E. Green. Starring Larry Parks (as Al Jolson), Evelyn Keyes (as Julie Benson), William Demarest (as Steve Martin), Bill Goodwin (as Tom Baron), Ludwig Donath (as Cantor Yoelson), Tamara Shayne (as Mrs. Yoelson), Scotty Beckett (as young Asa Yoelson), Jo-Carroll Dennison (as Ann Murray), and John Alexander (as Lew Dockstader). With vocal performances by Al Jolson.
Al Jolson is billed as “America’s greatest entertainer” in the tagline for The Jolson Story. However, I would be surprised to hear anyone alive today describe him in a similar way. Jolson will forever be associated with groundbreaking cinema because of his performance in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first feature-length film to use synchronized sound; and Hallelujah! I’m a Bum (1932), another of his starring vehicles, is one of the finest films of the 1930s. But in spite of the tremendous success he enjoyed during his lifetime, his legacy as a … Read the rest
Madam Satan (1930). 116 minutes. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Starring Kay Johnson (as Angela Brooks), Reginald Denny (as Bob Brooks), Lillian Roth (as Trixie), Roland Young (as Jimmy Wade), and Elsa Peterson (as Martha). Featuring Abe Lyman and His Orchestra.
Madam Satan has been called the weirdest movie that director Cecil B. DeMille ever made. It is true that the interpersonal bedroom comedy that makes up its first two thirds may seem strange to anyone who is used to the biblical and ancient-world spectacles DeMille is known for (although to be fair, he directed films in many other genres). Those scenes, which follow a wife’s developing awareness of her husband’s infidelity, are noticeably stripped down and deprived of the director’s penchant for excess. But Madam Satan’s final act, involving a wild party in a tethered zeppelin that goes disastrously awry, is more reminiscent of DeMille’s fondness for salacious sleaze and biblical-style punishment, albeit divorced from the thorough religious context … Read the rest
Hallelujah! I’m a Bum (1933). 82 minutes. Directed by Lewis Milestone. Starring Al Jolson (as Bumper), Frank Morgan (as Mayor John Hastings), Madge Evans (as June Marcher), Harry Langdon (as Egghead), Edgar Connor (as Acorn), Chester Conklin (as Sunday), and Louise Carver (as Mrs. Sunday). Music by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers. Written by S. N. Behrman. Based on a story by Ben Hecht.
Hallelujah! I’m a Bum is a pre-Code, Depression-era musical starring Al Jolson and Henry Morgan that seeks both to amuse the audience with comical characters and a healthy dose of light opera, and to unsettle us with a portrait of a down-and-out society on the verge of revolution. It focuses on the adventures of a New York City hobo named Bumper who chooses to be a vagrant because it is, to his mind, the freest way to live. As we follow him, we see the disparities affecting American society during the Great Depression, articulated through the … Read the rest
Hollywood Canteen (1944). 124 minutes. Directed by Delmer Daves. Starring Robert Hutton (as Slim Green) and Dane Clark (as Sergeant Nolan). Also starring as themselves: The Andrews Sisters, Jack Benny, Joe E. Brown, Eddie Cantor, Kitty Carlisle, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Jimmy Dorsey, John Garfield, Sydney Greenstreet, Paul Henreid, Joan Leslie, Peter Lorre, Ida Lupino, Joan McCracken, Roy Rogers and Trigger, S. Z. Sakall, Barbara Stanwyck, and Jane Wyman.
Hollywood Canteen is a World War Two-era propaganda film that takes place in the real Hollywood Canteen, a wartime nightclub for G.I.s that operated from 1942 to 1945 and was staffed by Hollywood superstars. Inside the canteen, the most glamorous names in the film industry performed menial labor by preparing food, waiting tables, and cleaning up after guests, and provided entertainment on a main stage. The movie Hollywood Canteen offers us a glimpse of what a canteen guest’s experience might have been like while also promoting the war effort and the … Read the rest
The Wizard of Oz (1939). 101 minutes. Directed by Victor Fleming, King Vidor, and George Cukor. Starring Judy Garland (as Dorothy Gale), Frank Morgan (as Professor Marvel/the Wizard), Ray Bolger (as Hunk/Scarecrow), Jack Haley (as Hickory/Tin Man), Bert Lahr (as Zeke/Cowardly Lion), Billie Burke (as Glinda the Good Witch of the North), Margaret Hamilton (as Miss Almira Gulch/the Wicked Witch of the West), Clara Blandick (as Aunt Em), and Charley Grapewin (as Uncle Henry). Songs by Edgar “Yip” Harburg and Harold Arlen. Based on the novel by L. Frank Baum.
The Wizard of Oz has to be one of the most phenomenal movies ever made: one of the most quotable, one of the most thematically resonant, and one of the most visually memorable (virtually any scene from any part of the movie can be excerpted in still form and people will instantly recognize it). It was not a major success upon its initial release and only achieved its present status … Read the rest
The Broadway Melody (1929). 100 minutes. Directed by Harry Beaumont. Starring Anita Page (as Queenie Mahoney), Bessie Love (as Harriet “Hank” Mahoney), Charles King (as Eddie Kearns), Jed Prouty (as Uncle Jed), Kenneth Thomson (as Jacques Warriner), Edward Dillon (as stage manager), Marry Doran (as Flo), and Eddie Kane (as Zanfield). Music by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.
The Broadway Melody is one of the first films in the sound era to use an almost completely synchronized soundtrack. The top-grossing picture in its year of release, it was widely praised by critics and was the first sound movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. However, the reviews of some in the industry, such as Charlie Chaplin, were not so favorable (he calls it “a cheap dull affair” in his memoir). Chaplin admittedly had much to fear with the arrival of The Broadway Melody, whose success helped to spell the end of the silent era … Read the rest
The Pirate (1948). 102 minutes. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Starring Judy Garland (as Manuela Alva), Gene Kelly (as Serafin), Walter Slezak (as Don Pedro Vargas), Gladys Cooper (as Aunt Inez), George Zucco (as the Viceroy), and Lester Allen (as Uncle Capucho). Special dance sequence with the Nicholas Brothers. Music by Cole Porter.
The Pirate is famous today for its troubled production history. This is largely due to star Judy Garland’s emotional instability at the time of filming, which was related to her mood disorder and prescription pill addiction. She famously missed 99 of the 135 shooting days and had a contentious relationship on the set with director and then-husband Vincente Minnelli. The movie was also unfortunately not a financial success upon its release. But simply watching its colorful sets, beautiful costumes, and expert performances, you would probably never guess that anything was amiss. In addition to featuring the accomplished art direction that we would expect from Minnelli, The Pirate is … Read the rest
Fantasia (1940). 126 minutes. Starring Deems Taylor (as Master of Ceremonies). Music conducted by Leopold Stokowski and performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Story direction by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer. Produced by Walt Disney and Ben Sharpsteen.
Fantasia is almost a complete anomaly in the Disney film canon. The third feature-length animated movie to emerge from Disney’s studios, it does not tell one overarching story but rather is a collection of eight short films inspired by and set to classical music. The sequences range from an abstract depiction of sound (Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”) to a grim scientific odyssey (Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”), from light comedies (Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours”) to somber material (Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria”). The movie is one of Disney’s finest achievements, and it elevates animation by pairing cartoons with some of the greatest instrumental music in history. But due to its considerable budget, the … Read the rest
Ziegfeld Girl (1941). 132 minutes. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Starring James Stewart (as Gilbert Young), Judy Garland (as Susan Gallagher), Hedy Lamarr (as Sandra Kolter), Lana Turner (as Sheila Regan), Tony Martin (as Frank Merton), Jackie Cooper (as Jerry Regan), Eve Arden (as Patsy Dixon), Philip Dorn (as Franz Kolter), Charles Winniger (as “Pop” Gallagher), Ian Hunter (as Geoffrey Collis), and Edward Everett Horton (as Noble Sage). Musical sequences directed by Busby Berkeley.
Ziegfeld Girl is intended to be a follow-up to 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld, but whereas The Great Ziegfeld focuses on Florenz Ziegfeld (founder of the Ziegfeld Follies) and his rise to fame, Ziegfeld Girl charts the careers of three fictitious Follies showgirls. The similarities between the two movies are numerous, and towards its end, Ziegfeld Girl even recycles some of the footage from the earlier film, including The Great Ziegfeld’s famous rotating wedding cake set. While Ziegfeld Girl has many failings—including the fact that it … Read the rest
San Francisco (1936). 115 minutes. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. Starring Clark Gable (as Blackie Norton), Jeanette MacDonald (as Mary Blake), Spencer Tracy (as Father Tim Mullin), Jack Holt (as Jack Burley), Jessie Ralph (as Mrs. Burley), Ted Healy (as Mat), Shirley Ross (as Trixie), Edgar Kennedy (as sheriff), Al Shean (as professor), and William Ricciardi (as Signor Baldini). Songs by Walter Jurmann, Bronislaw Kaper, and Edward Ward.
San Francisco has the potential to be a good movie. It has great music, including the song “San Francisco,” which was composed especially for it; features Jeanette MacDonald, Clark Gable, and Spencer Tracy; makes use of contributions from directors D. W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim; and is set in one of the greatest cities in the world in the days before its most impressive catastrophe, the 1906 earthquake. Yet San Francisco’s story is both fairly conventional and a strange compilation of genres, with the plot beginning as a familiar story … Read the rest