Though legendary entertainer Al Jolson was a highly visible presence on the U.S.O. circuit during World War II, he was generally regarded as a relic of an earlier time until his movie comeback in 1945's Rhapsody in Blue. Showing up 30 minutes into this biopic of George Gershwin, Jolson literally stopped the show with his robust rendition of Swanee.
Suddenly, every Hollywood studio was negotiating with Jolson to film his life story. Warner Bros., the studio that skyrocketed to the top ranks via the 1927 part-talkie Jolson vehicle The Jazz Singer, seemed to have the inside track, but it was Columbia's Harry Cohn who made the deal that Jolson couldn't refuse.
An attractively appointed fabrication, the Technicolor The Jolson Story distorts and glosses over the particulars of Jolson's life, but the results are so darned entertaining that nobody really paid attention to its inaccuracies.
The story begins in turn-of-the-century Washington, D.C., where young Asa Yoelson (Scotty Beckett), son of an immigrant cantor (Ludwig Donath), ignores his religious studies in favor of popular music. Asa is hired as an extra added attraction boy tenor by a vaudevillian; when his voice breaks, the boy wins over the audience with his whistling ability.
Growing into manhood, Asa Yoelson -- now Al Jolson, and now played by Larry Parks -- becomes fascinated with African-American jazz music. He breaks away from his initial vaudeville assignment by joining Lew Dockstader's (John Alexander) blackface minstrel troupe, then goes on to success as a single.
Ascending to Broadway, Jolson establishes a reputation as an inveterate ad-libber, as well as an indefatigable singing performer, frequently holding an audience in thrall until the wee hours of the morning.
Along the way, he falls in love with singer Julie Benson (Evelyn Keyes), a character based on Jolson's third wife Ruby Keeler, who refused permission to have her name used on screen. As Jolson attains superstardom, his ego assumes gargantuan proportions, alienating many of those around him, including his wife Julie.
Anxious not to lose Julie, Jolson promises to change his ways. He even goes into retirement so as to spend more time with his wife. But when coerced into performing before a nightclub audience, Jolson is hookedonce more -- whereupon the understanding Julie walks out of his life, realizing that she can never compete with Jolson's love for his audience.
Like its subject, The Jolson Story delivered exactly what the audience wanted to hear. Faithful Columbia contractee Larry Parks was catapulted to stardom as Jolson, though in retrospect he seems a curious casting choice: his miming of Jolson's style is painstakingly accurate, but he seems too boyish and unwordly for the role.
Jolson, then well into his sixties, had wanted to play himself on screen, but was talked out of it after a rather embarrassing screen test.
He consoled himself by personally coaching Parks in the role (his attitude toward the young performer alternated between avuncular and adversarial through the shooting), and by providing his own voice in the musical sequences.
Jolson also appears in long-shot during the Swanee number, which like all the film's musical highlights was directed by cult favorite Joseph H. Lewis (whose dry run for this assignment was the 1945 PRC production Minstrel Man). A wealth of Jolson standards are heard in The Jolson Story, including You Made Me Love You, I'm Sitting on Top of the World, My Mammy, There's a Rainbow Round My Shoulder, Toot Toot Tootsie, The Anniversary Waltz, Rock-a-bye Your Baby, and Let Me Sing and I'm Happy.
The film was nominated for several Oscars, winning in the best sound and best score categories. A fantastic box-office success, The Jolson Story spawned a 1949 sequel, Jolson Sings Again.
Ironically, despite Larry Parks' contributions to the film, it did little for that actor and instead reignited Jolson's celebrity during the last several years of his life.