The Jolson Story
Just who was going to play Al Jolson on screen became the number one topic around town. Jolson wanted to do it himself, of course, but he was nearly 60 and Cohn talked him out of it. Cohn did give Jolson a say in the casting process, however, as the studio began testing dozens of hopefuls. Jolson wanted James Cagney, but Cagney wasn't interested in doing another musical biopic after Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). None of those who were given screen tests seemed right, but then no one really could seem right for such a distinctive, larger-than-life character. Frustrated, Cohn and Jolson decided to take another look at some of the tests, only to realize that the very first actor they had auditioned was excellent. The man was Larry Parks, 30, a "B" movie actor who had appeared in almost three dozen Columbia films since 1941.
Also cast were William Demarest, borrowed from Paramount to play "Steve Martin," a fictional composite character of several of Jolson's friends, and Evelyn Keyes as Jolson's third wife, singer/dancer Ruby Keeler. The real Ruby Keeler, however, objected to the use of her name in the film, as she wanted nothing whatsoever to do with her ex-husband. She demanded and received a payment from Columbia in order to have her likeness portrayed, but her name on screen was changed to "Julie Benson." Keyes lobbied relentlessly to win this part, later recalling, "I worked harder at getting that role than anything else in my life. I sent Cohn telegrams every day. I phoned him twice a day, three times, sometime half a dozen times."
For Parks, The Jolson Story was the high point of his career. It was decided early on that Al Jolson's real voice would be heard singing all the songs in the movie, meaning Parks had to train himself to mouth the songs perfectly. He did - not by merely lip-synching, but by singing at full volume when the cameras rolled. That way it would be obvious that he was actually singing, even though the voice heard in the final film was indeed Jolson's. Parks later said, "The big problem was that Jolson sang every song as if he was going to drop dead at the end of it - at full volume all the way - and my problem was to act out different emotions with Jolson singing at full pitch. It's very difficult to collapse in mid-song while the voice is at full-throat."
Parks was not familiar with Jolson's early Warner Brothers movies and had never even seen the star perform live. When Jolson learned this, he put on an impromptu show for the young actor; Jolson never could resist performing and being the center of attention. As for the old movies, Jack L. Warner refused to loan prints to Columbia for Parks to study. Warner had turned down the chance to produce this film and was now incensed that Columbia had given it a "go." He even tried desperately to bring it back to his studio, but was too late. According to Parks' widow Betty Garrett, Parks managed in the end to look at just one Jolson movie, in which Jolson was part of an all-star cast and sang "California, Here I Come."
Garrett also claims that Jolson worked with Parks only a little bit, teaching him some signature body movements, but he always resented that the "kid" was playing him and ultimately became such a nuisance that his access to the set was restricted. Parks, Garrett wrote, did not imitate Jolson so much as channel the "essence" of Jolson.
For the "Swanee" number, in which the character dances down the runway at the Winter Garden theater while singing, Jolson found Parks' re-enactment unsatisfactory. He insisted to Cohn that for this sequence he be permitted to play himself, and Cohn acquiesced. It was filmed in long shot so that it wouldn't be too obvious that it wasn't Parks on display, but eagle-eyed viewers will be able to see the difference.
"Swanee" is but one of dozens of songs crammed into The Jolson Story. Among the others: "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," "You Made Me Love You," "April Showers" and "About a Quarter to Nine." The song "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" is heard over the opening credits, which was quite a rarity for that era.
One song was written expressly for the film and became a hit: "The Anniversary Song." According to author Michael Freedland, it was written on about six hours notice for a scene in which Jolson's parents celebrate their wedding anniversary: "Nothing came to mind until Al started to hum an old Viennese melody, long in the public domain. Saul Chaplin got to work on a lyric and new arrangements, and by the time he was finished, both he and Jolson had earned themselves a fortune. Both men have their name on the song's credits."
After five months of production time and six months of post, The Jolson Story was successfully previewed in Santa Barbara. Jolson surreptitiously listened as the audience exited. One elderly woman, in a now-famous remark, said: "What a pity that Jolson never lived to see this."
The final cost of The Jolson Story was an astronomical $2.5 million, but the gross would total almost $8 million. For his part, Jolson received half the profits as well as an additional $25,000 for recording the film's songs. He and Cohn also signed a deal with Decca for an album of eight songs from the movie, a very innovative idea at the time. Within a month of the album going on sale, Jolson had earned royalties of $400,000. In a true comeback, Jolson also got a radio show, made more new records, and won over an entire new generation of fans. He was suddenly "hip" again, and luckily his voice was as fine as ever.
Critics were mixed on The Jolson Story (NY Times: "To the visually discriminating customer it is the soundtrack that will recommend the film"), but the financial success spoke for itself, and even Oscar® took notice. The Jolson Story took home Academy Awards for Best Score and Sound, and was nominated for Best Actor (Larry Parks), Best Supporting Actor (William Demarest), Best Editing and Best Cinematography.
Three years later, Cohn released a sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949). Parks again starred as Jolson and even played himself in the portion of the film that deals with the production of The Jolson Story, but his participation was preceded by a court battle with Columbia. Before filming had started on The Jolson Story, Harry Cohn tried to get Parks to sign a new seven-year contract even though he still had a few years to go on his existing one. Parks didn't want to tie himself down with this potential hit in the works, but Cohn said, "If you don't sign this contract, we not only won't give you the Jolson picture, we'll ruin your career. You'll go back to doing bit parts." Parks gave in and signed. When Jolson Sings Again came around and Columbia refused to raise Parks' salary from $750/week, the actor sued, claiming he had signed the contract under duress. A judge ruled that Parks had to honor the contract but was free to work elsewhere as well. In the end, this forced Columbia to give him a hefty raise.
Producer: Gordon Griffith, Sidney Skolsky
Director: Alfred E. Green
Screenplay: Sidney Buchman, Harry Chandlee, Stephen Longstreet, Andrew Solt
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Film Editing: William Lyon
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson, Walter Holscher
Music: Saul Chaplin, George Duning, Hugo Friedhofer, Arthur Morton, Marlin Skiles, Morris Stoloff
Cast: Larry Parks (Al Jolson), Evelyn Keyes (Julie Benson), William Demarest (Steve Martin), Bill Goodwin (Tom Baron), Ludwig Donath (Cantor Yoelson), Scotty Beckett (Asa Yoelson).
by Jeremy Arnold
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Michael Freedland, Jolson
Herbert G. Goldman, Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life
Robert Oberfirst, Al Jolson: You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet