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Thursday, December 10, 2020

When Jolson Sang Again


Columbia Makes Old Show Biz New 

Would Larry Parks have become a major star but for HUAC heave-ho? He was an admitted Communist and named names, but damage was done and he left screens for a decade other than television, stage/club work, and a Brit obscurity called Cross-Up, which might have been a title given Larry's own biopic, had they done for him what he did for Jolson. Parks worked like a hound perfecting lip sync to Al's voice in not one, but two, Jolson stories, the first such a hit as to insist upon encore of Jolson Sings Again. It was soon after when April showers turned stormy for Parks, his testimony widely reported and few on either side applauding him for it. Variety's headline of his confessional hearing read "Jolson Sings Again," a cruel dig on the disapproving trade's part. Outcome was Larry Parks remembered, if at all, for impersonating Al Jolson, and though he did that superbly, it was no engine to sustain stardom, insiders wondering if Parks as Parks could pack the gear even before political axes fell.

To say Parks did Jolson “well” is really to say he cooled his inspiration’s bombast, a necessary process for Al to be made palatable on 1946 terms. Where Parks succeeded was taking the Jolson out of Jolson, but keeping the voice, which was about all of Al anyone wanted a part of. “Hot” performers, one-man bands as it were, had left, or been eased, out of buildings. Where a new one showed up, like soon-to-emerge Jerry Lewis, bigger noise of his two-fer with Dean Martin, a shocked-by-such-brass public could respond warmly, but more so in clubs where M&L live-played, their movies by all account a letdown from what had convulsed crowds in person. Same with Al Jolson, so forceful as to be unearthly where it was flesh-and-blood him, but drained somewhat by talkie embrace. That’s comparative speaking of course, for Jolson put plenty across on screens, just not supernatural energy as when he stopped shows to ask audiences it they had enough of stage narrative, other players, so why not just listen to me, me, me. No wonder Jerry Lewis was a huge admirer of Al, remade The Jazz Singer (for TV) in fact. Elvis too revered Jolson. Birds of a feather. I’d say Jerry and Elvis very much felt Jolson's spirit within them.

Now to the Parks dubbing. It’s remarkable. You don’t catch a syllable wrong. People had waited, I think, for the Jolson voice to come out of a more attractive box. They got a best of both worlds when appealing Larry, who could credibly get the girl too, made with Al’s music. So who needed Al at all? It was like he had already passed, someone more congenial to play him post-mortem. Jolson sensed that, didn’t like it, was testy toward Parks even as circumstances forced him into bed with the younger nova. Al knew the while that it was him, him, him that made Larry Parks tick, and drat that public, they wouldn’t have it any other way (Harry Cohn got apoplectic when Al suggested himself to play himself). Jolson’s had not been a pretty face, and besides that he was pushy, always the exploding cigar in a crowd, this when newly talking movies needed personalities to get real, like those in paying seats. For bigger-than-lifeness, Al oft-paid penalty of losing the love interest (they weren’t interested, or betrayed him, or took away his Sonny boys), freedom itself (AJ on the run from law, or taken in hand by it). Word got round that Jolson movies were downers, and so perhaps, was Jolson himself. Larry Parks was meant to fix that, and to wildly successful extent, he did. $7.6 million in domestic rentals was history being made. No Columbia picture had come near it before.

Reviews of The Jolson Story were expectedly mixed, some insiders darkly hinting that Al’s life was not so orderly as the movie suggested. It was as though some were realizing for a first time that it was necessary to make lemonade of often lemon subjects, and never mind toes  stumped on edgy Al. Whitewashed Jolson was overexuberant at worse, singing for every supper he sat down to. Medicine went down easier thanks to Larry Parks, so who cared about Al Jolson’s private life or how accurately it was portrayed? Whatever he did to who was long enough ago for us to ignore (Jolson sixty by 1946). Primary asset to exploit was the music. Columbia had proved the year before, with Chopin and A Song To Remember, that oldies, even extreme ones, could be goodies again. Complication was Jolson long ago tangling with his record label (Brunswick), so little being out there by way of platters. It was for Columbia, with Decca Records, to rebuild the Jolson sound with new arrangements, orchestrations, the works. No artist who went so far back would be revived so spectacularly, Jolson “new” even as he was kidded (on radio primarily) for being old. As to airwaves, Al was back in spades, a starring berth, plus continuing parlays with Bing Crosby on the latter's weekly stand. Overwork, always a Jolson pitfall, took him out at a peak that would have kept on peaking (d. 10/23/50). Imagine Al conquering TV, a cinch given his profile among youth and seniors.

The Jolson Story
was a movie for people who didn't remember vaudeville first-hand, let alone burlesque, where Al is shown to have gotten his start as a balcony singer. Rough-and-tumble 19th century burly of catcalls and thrown vegetables is here a gentle confine of polite applause, while Jolson's fictional mentor, "Steve Martin," played by real-life vaude vet William Demarest, is referred to by a priest as "a man who can be trusted" with welfare of adolescent AJ. Were there such paragons among performers in burlesque? Cleansing is almost as thorough as one given Jolson himself. All of Story told here is flapdoodle, but necessary rinse of linen Al had left over a lifetime, those who knew him admitting Jolson genius, but wary always of the monster-id beneath. That, of course, was show biz, and you could have pasted a same label on nearly anybody that got to top rungs.

A Jolson Story 70's Reunion, Bill Demarest and Evelyn Keyes Joining The Party

Whatever their up-to-then b
iggest hit in The Jolson Story, Columbia was obliged to split gate with AJ (50% of profit) and outside producer Sidney Skolsky, who developed the package, the torch lady as result getting less than in-house work might have yielded. Younger folk had forgot Jolson, if they knew him at all, it being years since he had a starring hit. For a meantime, there had been radio, USO touring, and guesting in films (most recently Rhapsody In Blue). Decca spin on Jolson standards pepped up tunes for a swing generation, and from that, Al’s career soared to heights unknown since he knocked them dead at the Winter Garden. These recordings still have fizz (there’s a CD with sixteen numbers), and I don't wonder that juke mavens flipped for them when issued in tandem with The Jolson Story. Columbia/Decca's success was of a magic moment, follow-up Jolson Sings Again past that summit, but still liked. Reissues of The Jolson Story were tried in 1954, again for the 70's and ill-advised 70mm, but memory of the singer had retreated by then to irretrievable stone-age. You can’t give him away now without product warnings, so why flirt with trouble by broadcasting Jolson at all?

More Al Jolson at Greenbriar Archive: The Jazz Singer and Mammy.


Blogger MikeD said...

If you happen to be driving on the 405 Freeway in Culver City, after scouting Laurel and Hardy filming locations, you can stop off at Hillside Memorial Park and check out Al Jolson's gravesite, complete with life size bronze statue and waterfall. Heck, you don't even need to stop, you can see the marble canopy and waterfall from the freeway. It's been a while since I've been there, but I think one of the 3 Stooges (Moe) is buried nearby. Before posting this, I had to research the name of the cemetery (I knew it was Hillside something or other) and one internet entry claims he died playing cards in the same San Francisco hotel room that got Roscoe Arbuckle in trouble. I don't know how much truth there is to that.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

One of the Jolson bios noted that Harry Cohn was convinced that a newly-recorded album of songs from THE JOLSON STORY would be a great sales tool for the film. Record companies RCA Victor and Columbia refused to even consider it, though, and the only way Cohn was able to get Decca to agree was to offer to underwrite the cost of the recording sessions. Turned out Cohn was right.

Jolson continued to sell records well into the LP era. Decca released their Jolson catalog on six 12-inch LPs, and demand for him remained high enough that Decca arranged with Jolson's estate to issue material from his 1947-49 KRAFT MUSIC HALL radio series. As late as 1963, a Decca 2-record set titled THE BEST OF JOLSON broke into Billboard's Top 200 Best-Selling Records chart.

2:25 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff has some most interesting thoughts about Al Jolson and THE JOLSON STORY:

Dear John:

I wonder what Columbia executive came up with the idea of a 70mm reissue of THE JOLSON STORY... and how (and why) the studio decided to proceed. It couldn't necessarily have been a cheap proposition -- complicated lab work -- although Columbia had already done at least a rudimentary conversion of the original mono tracks to (fake) stereophonic sound for the film's 1954 re-release.

It was probably at one time a feasible idea. In the late '60s or early '70s the studio might have at least tried out a small roadshow run of the refurbished musical and could well have successfully reintroduced the picture (long a TV staple) to paying customers. There was a certain enthusiasm for old movies of a certain vintage back then; a fondness for nostalgia in general seemed part of the culture.

Whatever anyone says about the movie, it is entertaining... if only because much of it is practically an ideal Jolson concert in Technicolor, all of the surrounding "life story" melodrama notwithstanding. The indefinable and unique electricity of that voice remains evident today. I can only imagine what the impact of this thing must have been like for movie fans in 1946. If Columbia had managed to get modern audiences in to sample this on the big screen, it might have built some word-of-mouth and caught on.

[I'll say this: given a choice between Columbia's last few roadshows -- MAROONED, NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA and YOUNG WINSTON -- and this vintage Jolson biopic, I would have been whistling "Toot, Toot Tootsie" all the way to the box office to see the reissue.]

But the nostalgia boom of the early '70s had largely abated by the the summer of 1975, when the studio rolled out its re-release; the roadshow era had also passed. Columbia opened it at NY's Ziegfeld and a similar prestige LA venue; it probably played a few other cities. But there weren't many takers.

You successfully note the key to Parks' smart and well observed performance: "To say Parks did Jolson 'well' is really to say he cooled his inspiration’s bombast, a necessary process for Al to be made palatable on 1946 terms. Where Parks succeeded was taking the Jolson out of Jolson, but keeping the voice, which was about all of Al anyone wanted a part of."

4:52 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Griff:

It can be a little hard to watch some of Jolson's big Warner successes of the late '20s and early '30s; when he isn't singing, he's just too much to take. He's not just bigger than life -- he's bigger than anything. [In his 1936 "comeback" Warner vehicle THE SINGING KID, he's practically parodying himself... I think.] Parks here (and in JOLSON SINGS AGAIN) plays a frequently insufferable guy who's often full of himself, but he makes the character surprisingly easy to take. The picture wouldn't work without him.

[You're right, also, about his superb skill in miming Jolson's songs. Hollywood musicals are riddled with scenes in which some actors cannot consistently convincingly lip-synch to pre-recordings, sometimes even failing to effectively match lip and mouth movements to their own pre-recordings. Not here. A great job by Parks and the Columbia sound department.]

I was a little surprised you didn't mention Parks' solid supporting turn in Huston's 1962 FREUD (mysteriously hard to find these days), his final film performance. Parks passed away in the spring of 1975, some months before Columbia's reissue of THE JOLSON STORY. He was 60.

Something for further study: the great Joseph H. Lewis is credited with directing the musical numbers for THE JOLSON STORY. The numbers are staged and photographed with style and visual economy; I'd like to know more about his involvement with the picture.

A particular highlight of the movie is certainly the excellent, dimensional performance of William Demarest in a good if fairly stock role as Jolson's mentor. He received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. I remember an appearance by the actor on The Tonight Show back in the '70s; the host was praising him and began to recount details of his long career, when Demarest quickly (and loudly) interrupted to remind everyone that he'd gotten an Academy nomination for THE JOLSON STORY!

I don't begrudge Demarest in the slightest his obvious pride in this accomplishment. After all, the Academy seldom honored comic actors for supporting performances; the actor's brilliant work in THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK, HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and other films had gone formally unrecognized by AMPAS. Demarest's appearance on Tonight must have been gratifying; it was clear from the loud applause that everyone in the audience remembered him and loved his work.

But I was watching THE JAZZ SINGER a few years back, and suddenly snapped to attention when I noticed for the first time that an actor lunching with Jolson in a scene was clearly William Demarest! I had no inkling that he was in the movie!

-- Griff

REPLY FROM JOHN: I talked about Larry Parks in a previous Greenbriar post about FREUD.

4:53 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

I'd always gotten the impression that Parks' peak movie career ended with Jolson's death(granted, there wouldn't have been a "Jolson Sings Again Again"). Columbia wasn't exactly putting him in spectaculars other than "Sings Again" by 1950, and neither did MGM, borrowing him for the lightweight B/W "Love is Better than Ever"(release delayed until 1952). I read some of Parks' HUAC testimony, and it was probably not wise for him to say that the Communist Party was a legitimate political party in a year like 1951. Parks did get sporadic roles on THE FORD TELEVISION THEATER between 1954 and '57, but by the time the red scare really blew over he was probably more interested in his building/real estate business.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

There was more than talk of a third "Jolson Sings Again Again" -- Jolson tested for it in 1950, singing a few songs, and the test was reprinted on film in the 1970s.

Joseph H. Lewis was entrusted with the JOLSON STORY musical numbers because he impressed Harry Cohn with his imaginative staging of PRC's MINSTREL MAN starring Benny Fields.

John, you speculated about Jolson on TV. Might not have happened immediately, because it had to be on Al's terms. Hal Kanter -- then a writer, later a producer -- recalled having a meeting with Jolson in 1949. He quoted Jolson:

"I am saving myself. When I go on TV, it's going to be an event. I'm not going on someone else's show, no sir. It's going to be my show -- it's going to be Jolson -- and there won't be any commercials. It'll be something like General Motors or Mobil, which comes on the air -- and they say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, General Motors is proud to present -- Mr. Al Jolson!' Then I'll come out on the stage, I'll tell a few stories, I'll sing a few songs, I'll sit on the footlights and I'll chat the way I used to do at the Winter Garden Theater, I'll talk to the people. I'll sing a few more songs, and then the hour will be over, and a voice will come on and say, 'General Motors has presented, with pride, Mr. Al Jolson!' And that's the show I'm going to do."

6:55 PM  
Blogger Jim Cobb said...

From all accounts in person Jolson was unbelievable---a unique experience which film could not capture. He rarely played anything subtly. He is good though in Lewis Milestone's HALLELUJAH I'M A BUM which features a lovely Rodgers and Hart score.
Hard to imagine many revivals of his films given his perchance for blackface. But unquestionably a show biz legend.

6:59 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

Not a fan of Jolson or "The Jolson Story". But I am an ardent admirer of the Greenbriar Picture Shows". All posts - even the ones dealing with films I'm not keen on - tend to be loaded with fascinating info and observations. One new takeaway from this particular piece was Joseph H. Lewis's involvement with "The Jolson Story". Had no idea he was part of the project. I'll have to watch it again just to check out the musical numbers he supervised.
Lewis has long been among my favorite director. He brought real flavour to some Charles Starrett/Iris Meredith westerns and also helmed Monogram's Lugosi film "Invisible Ghost",a series of absurd situations so tenderly observed they manage to convey a kind of genuinely melancholy resonance. Of course he's most famous for his terrific noirs like "The Undercover Man", "The Big Combo" and my favorite film ever, 1950's "Gun Crazy"
But Lewis also directed what I'd say is Larry Parks' best film, the marvelous Scottish swashbuckler "The Swordsman"(1948). It's fast-moving and excitingly filmed in the vividest of Technicolor hues; the tartans absolutely pop from the screen. And the script captures that mix of good-natured humour, romance and derring-do
that made the best Flynn and Power swashbucklers so much fun. "The Swordsman"'s also got a fine cast of journeyman actors,with Parks, Ellen Drew, Ray Collins, George Macready, Edgar Buchanan and Marc Platt (usually a dancer, but here a nimbly athletic clansman) all wholeheartedly entering into the spirit of the thing.
Columbia must have been pleased with the results because they immediately put Parks into another swashbuckler, "The Gallant Blade". This one I've never been able to track down. But if it's even half as good as "The Swordsman" it'll be well worth seeing.

10:03 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I remembered this Jolson Christmas card; thought I saw it here first but didn't spot it in the archive:

1:55 AM  
Blogger RichardSchilling said...

Based on the above account of Jolson's unfulfilled TV wishes, I suspect Jolson's TV career would have been about as successful as bombastic performer Betty Hutton's legendary tv musical flop. (Or in 2020 terms, Jim Carey's uneasy SNL Biden impression.)

I don't see Larry Parks becoming a 1950's superstar, he demonstrated little charisma opposite Elizabeth Taylor. In just a few short years, Jack Lemmon was hired at Columbia and his early films are a still an absolute joy to watch. There's no way Larry would have been able to compete with him - Billy Wilder and Richard Quine both hired Jack over and over again. I don't see A list directors, such as John Ford, who brought Lemmon Oscar Glory for Mister Roberts, hiring Parks for anything.

6:09 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

From what I've seen, Parks' best performance outside of Jolson was in "Freud". But it's a shame how Columbia gave him the heave-ho after his testimony -- even after promising him he was safe.

I read a Jolson bio that detailed the filming of the movie. Al insisted on hanging around the set every day until one afternoon, for reasons I can't remember, he exploded at everyone. They were all so shaken that Harry Cohn shut down production for two days to let them recover, then banned Al from the set for the rest of the shoot.

Another story details the premiere. Jolson was so nervous he watched from the projection booth, then hid behind a large plant in the lobby to eavesdrop on audience comments. Two women exited, one saying to the other, "What a wonderful movie. It's a shame he isn't alive to see it."

Al might have died at the right time. A few years later, rock & roll would have made him irrelevant, which would have literally killed him.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Jolson, like Elvis and Bing, despite all personal flaws and stylistic infelicities, yet has a saving grace: he's a very good musician, a truly gifted vocalist. It's true that his between-songs patter (along with the rest of his shtick, more or less) has dated, but whose doesn't? It's his recorded music which anchors his fame.

6:31 AM  
Blogger FrankM said...

One of my favorite nights at the movies was seeing the 70mm 'Jolson Story' reissue on a cup final weekend in London. The cinema was packed and the crowd, probably in town for the game, joined in along with every song!

For me, the main difference was that 35mm prints I'd seen in Ireland always opened with the Appeal Board certificate, the picture having been banned originally.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Larry Parks appeared in Columbia's THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU. One afternoon in my teens I saw THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre followed by YOU'LL FIND OUT with Kay Kyser starring plus Karloff, Lorre and Bela Lugosi duplicating the saying intentionally or unintentionally (I suspect the former), "The boogie man will get you you'll find out."

It was a brilliant double bill. I laughed myself silly.

I have read commentators on Karloff and Lugosi who have written neither movie is particularly funny.

Those opinions, of course, are entirely subjective.

We have a lot of books today. I read them for historical information. I prefer writers who don't poison readers with subjective opinions.

Karloff and Lugosi were often billed below stars like Kay Kyser here. Today the folks whose names were above theirs are mostly forgotten. Karloff, Lugosi, Lorre, Chaney Sr. & Jr. Price, Cushing and Lee are names that still live.

Jolson is one of the immortals. Had he been alive when Elvis came on the scene he would have been astute enough to invite him to perform with him. Presley was astute enough to do just that.

7:16 PM  
Blogger tmwctd said...

Great, great post about one of my favorite movies. Have been re-watching both Jolsons frequently and had the pleasure of seeing the original in a Toronto as well as in a theatre in Vienna.

There was also a stage show in the West End 1995. It featured a rather popular comedian (Brian Conley) who did a marvellous job and certainly was more abrasive than Larry Parks in the movie. It got excellent reviews and played in front of full houses for about a year before running out of people who still remembered Jolson. Really a great evening for Jolson fans which ended with Conley singing "Sonny Boy".
The same cast then came to Toronto. The show toured the US later on with a different cast (Mike Burstyn in the lead) but never made it to Broadway. While Conley was still donning blackface, Burstyn did not.
Because of the blackface controversy, Jolson could not play today. Also, I don´t think there are many people left who remember Al Jolson and would pay for a ticket.
I have never seen this movie on either German or Austrian TV so I guess it was never dubbed.
Leslie Halliwell has written a beautiful essay on TJS in his "Halliwell´s Hundred"

5:20 AM  

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