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Following the Warner Brothers feature Big Boy (1930), Al Jolson vanished from movie screens for nearly three years. When he finally did reappear, it was in perhaps the most offbeat and innovative film of his career: Hallelujah, I'm a Bum (1933). An enormous amount of time, money and effort went into the final product, including three directors, a massive reshoot, two scores and a major cast change. The result, costing an astronomical $1.25 million, wound up a box-office flop but is considered by many to be Jolson's best picture - even though Jolson himself called it his worst.
Jolson and United Artists studio head Joseph Schenck had struck an agreement for Jolson to star in three pictures for UA with a $500,000-per-film salary. (That's almost $8 million in 2009 dollars.) The first was to be an adaptation of a Ben Hecht story called The New Yorker, about a Central Park hobo named Bumper who is the "mayor" of all the hobos. He is friends with John Hastings, the actual mayor of New York City. When Bumper rescues Angel, a woman with amnesia, he falls in love with her and gets a real job, only to then find that she is Hastings' girlfriend. (The film's original composer, Irving Caesar, claimed that Hecht's tale was based on a French story called Life Is Beautiful.)
Production on Hallelujah, I'm a Bum began in June 1932 with Jolson as Bumper, Madge Evans as Angel, Roland Young as Hastings, and Harry D'Arrast in the director's chair. D'Arrast lasted two hours. He left after creative differences with Jolson on the morning of the first shooting day, and the production shut down. After a two-week pause, director Chester Erskin took over. Schenck had actually wanted Lewis Milestone to come aboard, but Milestone was busy with another movie. Once it started up again, filming continued through August, and in October the film was previewed under the title Happy Go Lucky. The screening was a disaster. Schenck ordered a page-one rewrite of the entire script and started from scratch. He was now able to bring in Lewis Milestone, and he also threw out the Irving Caesar songs and hired Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to craft new ones. When Roland Young balked at repeating his performance, Schenck replaced him with Frank Morgan, whose outstanding portrayal of Hastings would draw universal critical praise.
The Rodgers and Hart score provided the most dramatic change to the movie. The songwriters not only penned several new songs including the lovely ballad "You Are Too Beautiful," but they wrote sections of rhythmic, rhyming dialogue - much as they had for their recent pictures Love Me Tonight (1932) and The Phantom President (1932). This is where much of the film's innovative effect lies.
The new version was shot in November 1932. The title was changed a few more times (including to Heart of New York) before settling on Hallelujah, I'm a Bum. Even after the film was entirely reshot, Schenck was not satisfied and wanted Jolson to do some further re-shoots. But Jolson refused, and on Feb. 8, 1933, the picture finally opened in New York City. Most of the reviews were poor. Jolson's triumphant return after a prolonged absence from the screen was not to be. As biographer Herbert Goldman has written: "Had Bum succeeded, it would have been a Jolson comeback. Instead, it proved to be the biggest nail in his professional coffin. Hollywood producers no longer considered him a star of the first magnitude."
Indeed, Joseph Schenck decided not to make the two other films called for in his Jolson contract, even though he was still obligated to pay Jolson a huge salary for each one. Schenck figured he'd lose more and maybe even go bankrupt if he produced the films.
The New York Times was one publication that went against the grain and gave Hallelujah a glowing review. "It is Mr. Jolson's best film," wrote critic Mordaunt Hall, "a combination of fun, melody and romance, with a dash of satire, all of which make for an ingratiating entertainment." Hall went on to praise Jolson for not stealing the thunder in every scene (as per usual) but instead allowing his fellow actors to shine, especially Frank Morgan.
Distinguished film historian William K. Everson later echoed this assessment, describing Hallelujah, I'm a Bum as "one of the loveliest and most original of all the musicals of the 1930s... In the dramatic scenes, there's a poignancy which Jolson never achieved in other films where he never forgot he was a showman first and an actor second... [His] ego pops through on occasion, but never has he done any better acting than he does in the touching drunk scene with Morgan where he realizes that he has lost his 'Angel.'"
When the movie was reissued in the 1940s to take advantage of a resurgence of interest in Jolson (thanks to the two biopics of him, The Jolson Story  and Jolson Sings Again ), it was cut by a reel and re-titled Heart of New York, one of its previous working titles. When it was released in England, the title was changed to Hallelujah, I'm a Tramp, since "bum" in England is slang for "rear end."
Rodgers and Hart have cameos in the movie as a photographer and a bank teller.
Producer: Joseph M. Schenck
Director: Lewis Milestone
Screenplay: S.N. Behrman; Ben Hecht (story)
Cinematography: Lucien Andriot
Art Direction: Richard Day
Music: Alfred Newman (uncredited)
Film Editing: W. Duncan Mansfield
Cast: Al Jolson (Bumper), Madge Evans (June Marcher), Frank Morgan (Mayor John Hastings), Harry Langdon (Egghead), Chester Conklin (Sunday), Edgar Connor (Acorn), Tyler Brooke (Mayor's Secretary), Louise Carver (Ma Sunday), Dorothea Wolbert (Apple Mary), Tammany Young (Frank the Jockey)
by Jeremy Arnold
Herbert G. Goldman, Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life
Michael Freedland, Jolson