Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. USA, 1946. Columbia Pictures Corporation. Screenplay by Stephen Longstreet, adaptation by Harry Chandlee, Andrew Solt. Cinematography by Joseph Walker. Produced by Sidney Skolsky. Music by George Duning, Hugo Friedhofer, Arthur Morton, Marlin Skiles. Production Design by Stephen Goosson, Walter Holscher. Costume Design by Jean Louis. Film Editing by William A. Lyon. Academy Awards 1946. Cannes Film Festival 1947.
The great entertainer, once the most famous singer in the world, is the subject of this vibrant biopic starring a wonderful Larry Parks in the lead role. Discovered at a young age thanks to his beautiful singing voice, Asa Yoelson is taken under the wing of vaudeville performer Steve Martin (William Demarest) and eventually finds the success that we all know him for as Al Jolson, singing in blackface, which is disturbing under any circumstances, and starring in Broadway shows. His Jewish cantor father is at first hesitant to let his son take part in anything so worldly but one tantrum and he realizes he has no choice but to relent, while Evelyn Keyes stars as the beautiful Ziegfeld girl who becomes Jolson’s wife. He actually had more wives, but Ruby Keeler refused to allow her name to be associated with this film and this hampered attempts at accuracy, though the whole thing feels about as dishonest as all the musical biographies of the time do even beyond that detail (Night And Day, Till The Clouds Roll By, Words And Music, etc). Jolson’s big crisis is that he at some point decides he wants to turn his back on the limelight and concentrate on his personal life, which doesn’t work out too well when country living makes him more than irritable and drives a wedge between him and Keyes; that’s probably the most honest part of the picture but it’s not much to hang a drama off of. It’s not an unsalvageable mess, though, as the performers are all top notch and the colour cinematography is gorgeous, plus the studio put its back into producing the musical numbers and all of them are exceptionally well achieved.