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Big Boy

Al Jolson went to the races for the 1930 musical Big Boy, the last of his early sound films. A rarity among his many films, this one keeps him in blackface for most of its running time. Instead of playing an entertainer who only puts on the makeup for occasional numbers, he stars as an African-American stable boy and, briefly, his own father. Through an hour of comedy and music, Jolson fights for his chance to ride his master's horse, Big Boy, in the Kentucky Derby, which provides the big dramatic finish. The star only turns up out of the traditional makeup for a final concert scene in which, as himself, he talks to the audience and sings "Tomorrow Is Another Day".

Jolson had helped launch talking pictures with his Vitaphone short, "A Plantation Act" (1927), and the part-talkie The Jazz Singer (1927). His second part-talkie, The Singing Fool (1928), had set box office records with its tale of an entertainer sacrificing all for his beloved "Sonny Boy." But then the returns started to fade. His first all-talking film, Say It with Songs (1929), had a similar plot to The Singing Fool's, which may have accounted for its smaller profits. The studio still had enough faith in Jolson to give the star a new contract for an unheard of $500,000 per film, more than most picture budgets at the time. With Mammy (1930), Warner Bros. tried a different plot, about a minstrel entertainer arrested on false charges. But this time the film actually lost money while scoring some scathing reviews.

Jolson was so humiliated by Mammy's poor performance, he offered to return the $50,000 advance he had gotten for his next film. Convinced they could turn his box office fortunes around, however, studio executives refused his offer. As soon as he returned from the premiere festivities in New York, he went straight to work on the film version of his recent stage hit, Big Boy. This was the first time he adapted one of his stage musicals to the screen (he would only star in one other such adaptation, 1934's Wonder Bar) and may have represented the studio's hopes to lure audiences who had not made it to the play's original 1925 run.

Like the stage original, Big Boy was built around Jolson's blackface character, Gus, whom he had introduced at the Winter Garden Theater in 1912's The Whirl of Society. The character was a singing and clowning black man who used his wits as a weapon against all who stood in his way. In Big Boy, Gus is stable hand to a fading Southern family and uses his wiles to save them from bankruptcy. Warner's jettisoned the original score, substituting new numbers from various songwriters and, for the flashback about Gus' father, traditional spirituals like "Let My People Go." With Jolson in blackface through most of Big Boy, the studio decided to showcase him as himself in a final musical sequence, possibly to remind audiences that this was, indeed, the legendary stage star. Some critics even suggested it was done to prevent censorship in the South, where the actor in blackface might been mistaken for the real thing, thus making his jokes at the expense of the white villains less palatable.

To direct, the studio assigned, Alan Crosland, director of Jolson's first hit, The Jazz Singer. The former stage actor had moved into the movies in 1912, switching to directing four years later. His ability to handle temperamental stars like Erich von Stroheim brought him to Warner Bros. during the studio's early days, when their top stars were Rin Tin Tin and John Barrymore. After helping the tempestuous Barrymore through two other films, he directed him in Don Juan (1926), the first feature with synchronized score and sound effects. That made him a natural choice for The Jazz Singer, and, for a while, he was considered the premier director of sound films at Warner Bros.

Big Boy met with mixed reviews. The Variety critic thought it would go over well with the star's fans and praised ""the giddy-ap climax [that] furnishes the fillip to the whole picture, putting a spirited finale to an hour of easy laughter and agreeable light music." While giving props to the star, the New York Times' Mordaunt Hall noted that "there's nothing particularly novel in this storyƉ.There are a few amusing episodes, but it is hardly up to the standard of Mr. Jolson's other productions."

Warner Bros. gave the film a big New York opening, engaging the Winter Garden Theater, where Jolson had originally starred in the stage version, but it ended up being the lowest grossing of his early sound films and the second in a row to lose money. This discouraged both the star and studio, which could not figure out why the stage's biggest star could not draw audiences to movie theatres. He would return to the stage, where he felt more welcome, and not make another movie for three years. It also helped sink Crosland's career. Part of the problem was that the initial excitement over sound films had faded. Audiences were tired of poorly constructed musicals and the static camera work of early talkies, preferring more visual fare like Universal's All Quiet on the Western Front and MGM's The Big House (both 1930). By the time Crosland passed in 1936, following complications from an automobile accident, he was far from Warner's top director.

Producer: Daryl F. Zanuck
Director: Alan Crosland
Screenplay: Perry N. Vekroff, William K. Wells
Based on the play by Harold Atteridge, Buddy G. DeSylva, James P. Henley and Joseph Meyer
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Score: Rex Dunn, Alois Reiser
Cast: Al Jolson (Gus), Claudia Dell (Annabel Bedford), Louise Closser Hale (Aunt Bessie Bedford), Lloyd Hughes (Jack Bedford), Eddie Phillips (Coley Reed), Lew Harvey (Doc Wilbur), Noah Beery (Bully John Bagby).

by Frank Miller



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