The Jolson Story (1946)

The Jolson Story (1946)

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 singer today is limited by both his odd and unabashedly sentimental vocal style and his infamous and unfortunately signature performances in blackface. Rather than shed light on his status in American recording, theatrical, and cinematic history, The Jolson Story instead sanitizes the singer’s personal and professional life, creating a kind of entertainment hagiography that is unbelievable and would be tasteless even without the blackface. I love the Jolson films I’ve mentioned, in spite of or because of their weirdness, but The Jolson Story actually made me like the man who stars in them less, and for a biopic that is a considerable failing.

The Jolson Story charts the rise of the titular singer and actor from vaudeville child star to grown-up Hollywood royalty. Al (then known as Asa) is discovered by performer Steve Allen as a boy and later establishes himself through his minstrel show work as a theatrical singer. After working with Lew Dockstader, he breaks out on his own on Broadway, where he sings “Mammy,” “Swanee,” and “April Showers” to packed houses, and meets Ziegfeld star Julie Benson. Julie and he have a whirlwind courtship concurrent with the beginning of his Hollywood career and the filming of The Jazz Singer. The two marry and move to California, and after they have both worked in film for several years, Julie asks that Jolson retire and settle down. They live together in the country, but one night when they visit a nightclub in town and he is asked to sing, it becomes clear to her that he will never be happy without performing. She amicably leaves the nightclub (and him), but he sings on, oblivious to what is happening.

The Jolson Story traces Jolson’s rise through vaudeville theater and as a result shows us a good deal of the minstrel-show performances that have come to characterize his career. Minstrel-show blackface is an old dramatic stage convention that originated at a time when mocking the look and behavior of black people publicly was considered fashionable and entertaining, and the appearance of white performers made up to be black as part of this tradition was inherently clownish and demeaning. Although blackface had been a part of film history from the early days of the silents, it was limited in use on camera by the 1940s and was reserved for filmed stage performances, often as part of musicals and comedies.

Therefore, The Jolson Story’s emphasis on the singer’s blackface performances seems especially odd for a 1946 film.  Indeed, The Jolson Story goes beyond acknowledging Jolson’s past (we might imagine a film about him that alludes to the trademark “Mammy” performance and leaves it at that) and instead takes pains to provide a veritable museum of blackface, with a variety of songs and musical acts in the tradition. The Jolson Story charts Jolson’s progression from one minstrel-show act to another: we see the origin of his routines (he adopts black makeup to go on stage and save the career of a drunken friend who normally performs in that style), his role in a minstrel chorus, then his role in a minstrel quartet, and finally his solo work, including “Mammy” and “Swanee.”

The Jolson Story supplies blackface in odd quantity, but the grotesque quality of the blackface it recreates is also notable. The film shows closeup after closeup of Jolson’s rolling eyes and leering face smeared with black shoe polish, which goes beyond recreating an antique vestige of another era. Instead, it is as if the film itself were claiming through these performances to originate from an earlier cinematic period and were encouraging us to experience and enjoy minstrel shows in the context of an older time. The full-on reproduction of the singer’s histrionic, gesticulating style that accompanies the makeup on stage indicates that the film is committed to making the recreated numbers dramatic and thrilling, and the fact that Jolson had newly rerecorded his greatest hits for actor Larry Parks (as Jolson) to mime on stage speaks to the movie’s investment in the blackface musical numbers as entertainment for 1946, as opposed to 1906. The Jolson Story is not merely going through the motions of recreating the performances for the sake of historical fidelity; they are instead enhanced in numerous ways by the film.

This is especially true with regard to the “Mammy” performance that we see. In this case, and only in this number, it is actually Jolson at age 60, not the actor Larry Parks, physically recreating the full vaudeville blackface performance of that song on camera. Because Jolson in 1946 performed the song in blackface rather than the actor who was playing him, Jolson implies that this song’s performance context, not merely the singing, defined him, and also asserts his comfort with the minstrel-show milieu even at the time the film was made.

If the physical circumstances of the songs are not sufficiently off-putting, there is also Jolson’s performance style, which is histrionic and schmaltzy (no one tugs at the heart strings as shamelessly as Jolson). And then there is the songs’ content, which tends to summon up glurgy mystical concepts of the good old South. A different film might explore the relationship between the Southern songs that made Jolson famous and his own cultural background; he was a Lithuanian immigrant and the son of a Jewish cantor. But The Jolson Story is not really interested in elucidating this dimension of Jolson’s history as a performer.

Jolson’s musical roots are an important part of his fans’ defense of his legacy. He has often been held up as a champion of black entertainers and black music in spite of his deep association with blackface. Some of this appears to be genuine: for example, musician Noble Sissle referred to Jolson as “the champion of the negro songwriter and performer,” and the bandleader Cab Calloway praised Jolson’s treatment of black entertainers when they worked together on The Singing Kid (1936). But the maintaining of this aspect of Jolson’s career has become a bit of a cliché that seems to be used today in part to engender good feelings in those who would like to support Jolson’s legacy despite his pervasive use of blackface and songs that encourage an unappetizing, mythological view of the American South. The singer’s relationship with black musicians is made complicated by his contribution to blackface performance, but that relationship does not successfully excuse or diminish it.

Notably, the whole topic of Jolson’s relationship to the music he sings and music created and performed by black entertainers is only vaguely touched upon in The Jolson Story. The film suggests, in a minor fashion, his fascination with and love for specifically New Orleans instrumental jazz, but it does not show him with a single real relationship to a black person over the course of its entire 130-minute running time. If Jolson fans wish to make the case that the singer was an advocate for black culture, The Jolson Story is not the film to help them make that claim.

Not showing us the details of Jolson’s life insofar as they concern his relationships with non-white entertainers is characteristic of a wider tendency of The Jolson Story. This is a movie whose regard for actual history is minimal, making it difficult to claim that factual representation—including the factual and authentic recreation of blackface performances—is a driver for anything we see. The Jolson Story neatly and cleanly expunges much of the singer’s real life from the screen. Nothing is said of his origins in Lithuania, his emigration to the U.S., his siblings, or his mother’s death when he was a boy. Indeed, in the film, she is fit as a fiddle well into Jolson’s retirement, celebrating her wedding anniversary with Cantor Yoelson in California at her son’s house in the country, her hair grey but styled as it was in his youth. Back home in Washington, D.C., she ardently follows Jolson’s career path, collecting his postcards with her husband in a kind of shrine, and overwhelms her son with home-cooked food from the old country when he visits. Given the reality of her early death and Jolson’s heavy involvement in the film, the fictional depiction of her as a long-lived doting mother seems especially bizarre. For the film to choose to go the way of fantasy and avoid what must have been a painful part of the artist’s childhood seems shortsighted and overly tidy.

As far as Jolson’s public life is concerned, there is a similar pattern of neat simplification: Steve Martin, Jolson’s partner and later manager, is a manufactured character. Accordingly, the idea that Jolson got his start singing in the audience at a vaudeville theater and was discovered by Martin, then added into Martin’s existing act, is also fictional. But perhaps the film’s most outrageous and blatant act of fictionalizing involves Julie Benson, the Ziegfeld Follies star who has a whirlwind relationship with the singer just as he is about to head out to Hollywood and film The Jazz Singer. Julie Benson is really Ruby Keeler, Jolson’s third wife (depicted in the film as his first and only wife) and star of early 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals such as 42nd Street (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933, and Dames (1934). Keeler had divorced Jolson in 1940 after 12 years of marriage and refused to allow the makers of The Jolson Story to use her name in the film, even though the Julie Benson character is clearly intended to be her and is depicted in the film as the star of the aforementioned musicals.

The fact that The Jolson Story has to take such a strange and drastic step to depict this Hollywood power couple’s romance should tell us something about the reality of their relationship. The movie would like us to believe that the couple’s primary conflict is (I am not making this up) that Jolson likes to sing too much. He is a workaholic, and Julie cannot even bear to tell him this until many years have passed in their relationship. She arranges an intervention for her husband, but she has so much trouble getting the words out—even with the help of Steve Martin, whom she has arranged to have by her side for support—that she ultimately retreats from the room crying, and Jolson has to track her down and see what is the matter.

I do not think there is anyone in a real relationship, then or now, who would have so much trouble talking to their spouse about their actual needs and wants that they would need to stage a scene like this. Moreover, to suggest that the main problem with Jolson is that he wants to perform too much is something that I imagine the real Ruby Keeler would probably take issue with—and I suspect that his numerous other wives would probably object to this as a claim with any veracity as well. But it is a fiction that likely pleased Jolson, and he, as I have mentioned, was heavily involved in the making of this film.

Julie does persuade Jolson to retire to the country, and they live there in peace for a few years until one night his business associate Tom Baron drops in for a visit and convinces Jolson to go to a nightclub and, eventually, to sing a little. It is hard for me to imagine that anyone sitting in this swinging 1940s California club is really itching to hear some Jolson music that night, but he pulls out all of the old Southern songs and takes over the stage. There are a lot of meaningful looks between Julie and Cantor Yoelson, and eventually she gets up to leave—for good. She makes this clear to Baron, who follows her out to try to get her to stay. Meanwhile, her husband is back in the club on stage, singing his heart out about April showers bringing violets and daffodils. The film ends with him hamming it up, oblivious to the fact that at that very moment he is being divorced.

It is a ludicrous ending, one that makes Jolson look like a buffoon, but a buffoon who is innocent of wrongdoing. The ending is thus flattering to him, but think of how it flatters us, too; for if he is left by his great love because he wants to sing too much, well then, it is us that he desires to sing for. We see, not for the first time in the film, his singing face projected over panning shots across an audience, revealing the faces of nightclub guests rapt with attention. Julie is actively walking out of the building, but it is as if Jolson by standing there singing to us is doing his own leaving—he is leaving her for us, even though he does not know it yet. Not only does that not seem close to the truth, it is also unnervingly cringy.

In The Jolson Story’s determination to avoid scratching beneath the surface of its central character and the circumstances of his life to reveal the slightest hint of truth—even at the crucial moment when his marriage dissolves—I am reminded of a similar show business musical with a lengthy running time, The Great Ziegfeld (1936). In that movie, legendary entertainer Florenz Ziegfeld gets regal biopic treatment over the course of more than two hours packed with singing and dancing; but we never really get to know Ziegfeld at all well, and the “great” part of the movie’s title reflects the bloated, pompous nature of what we see.

The Jolson Story is similarly inflated, but somehow it seems even worse. Whereas The Great Ziegfeld promises us inflation in the style of Ziegfeldian productions in its very title, The Jolson Story promises us instead the definitive story—the history of this performer and how he came to be well-known. But it does not actually deliver on this promise. Instead, it delivers A Jolson Story: one that is not definitive and is more made-up than we might have expected. I do not particularly care to see either movie again, but at least The Great Ziegfeld is honest about what it is up to. The Jolson Story just wants to tell tales, and the same lies would service any other entertainer about whom a filmmaker wants to say very little of substance.