Jolson Story, The (1946)

Jolson Story, The (1946)

“If you don’t mind, I’ll sing ’til you ask me to stop. You ain’t heard nothing yet!”

As a child, Asa Yoelson (Scotty Beckett) loves to sing in his synagogue and is given his big break by a vaudeville performer (William Demarest) who hires him as part of his act. Once he’s grown up (Larry Parks), “Al Jolson” visits his loving Jewish parents (Ludwig Donath and Tamara Shayne) in between his thriving career as a popular entertainer and breakthrough movie star, and soon brings his prospective wife (Evelyn Keyes) home to meet them. But will Keyes’ desire for a peaceful life conflict with Jolson’s need to sing?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Biopics
  • Evelyn Keyes Films
  • Singers
  • Vaudeville and Burlesque

This whitewashed biopic of legendary performer Al Jolson was a box office hit, and helped spark a renewal of interest in Jolson’s talents. Jolson is portrayed as a highly gifted and innovative artist who knows that his novel ideas are worth sharing with the world, and works tirelessly to get his big break.

Perhaps due to the fact that Jolson was still very-much alive (and involved) during the making of this film, all characters are portrayed in a favorable light (though some — like Demarest — are actually amalgams of various people Jolson knew and worked with).

Keyes plays an aspiring dancer named “Julie Benson” since Ruby Keeler didn’t want her actual name involved (though the titles and key melodies from Keeler’s movies are all used):

As a heads up to viewers, much of Jolson’s earliest performing was done in blackface — though in conducting a little research, I was intrigued to learn that Jolson was actually a strong anti-racist advocate, insisting on equal pay for and treatment of Black performers, and responsible for bringing Black musical styles to white audiences. It’s too bad this aspect of his life isn’t given much screentime here (other than showing him briefly visiting a jazz club).

Meanwhile, much of Jolson’s personal life — i.e., his first two wives — is missing from the movie as well, and his temporary early retirement and eventual divorce from Keeler/Keyes is treated as merely a difference in desired lifestyles, with Keyes fully sympathetic of his wish to go back to performing. However, this type of “smoothing over” is par for the course in biopics. Given that Jolson dubbed all the songs, this movie remains a useful entry point for those interested in learning more about this mega-star of vaudeville and early Hollywood.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Joseph Walker’s cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re a Jolson fan. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


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