Friday, July 9, 2010

The Singing Kid

I watched “The Singing Kid” (1936) the other day and really enjoyed it. It’s a star vehicle for Al Jolson, and while I’m not really a Jolson fan, there’s something about the man that fascinates me. He’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer and is so, so eager to please that he can be off putting. People who saw him on stage said it was the best venue for Jolson’s talents. In person he was said to be electrifying and with every performance he earned the title “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.”

Of all the personalities from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Al Jolson is arguably the most polarizing. Almost every film contains at least one number with Jolson in blackface. That kept a lot his titles off TV. When television stations use to run old movies on TV on a regular basis, it was rare to find a Jolson title. I can remember WGN-TV in Chicago running “The Jazz Singer” (1927) in the 1970s with a disclaimer that the movie was not suitable for all viewers and viewer discretion was advised.

Jolson’s last film in a leading role was “The Singing Kid” for Warner Bros. It opens with Jolson singing a medley of his famous hits: “Mammy”, “April Showers,” “California Here I Come” etc. In the background are posters of some of his past movies, such as “The Singing Fool” (1928) and “Go Into Your Dance” (1935), with the Jolson name prominently featured. It’s an odd way for the movie to start, as we figure Jolson will be playing himself. But no, it’s just Jolson doing his favorite songs, for in the next scene we’re shown a newspaper headline about Al Jackson, famous radio and recording star, buying a sky-high penthouse.

And what a penthouse it is, a glorious Art Deco edifice that looks like a reject from “Metropolis” (1926). A nattily attired Jolson is singing the film’s big hit tune “I Love to Sing-A” while across the street on a matching penthouse terrace the Cab Calloway Orchestra accompanies him. It’s a delirious number in the best sense. In one medium shot the sets are so huge that Jolson resembles the Incredible Shrinking Man. I can’t remember Jolson looking so small before. I bet he didn’t like that one bit.

The song, by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Yarburg, composers of the songs in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), is maddeningly infectious, one that sticks in your head and doesn’t go anywhere fast. Al knew a good song when he heard it as it’s repeated several times throughout the movie. Once heard, it’s never forgotten.

(The other night I was working late and was happy with the long day’s work. I thought I was the only one left on the floor of my building. Leaving the office, I started singing “I Love to Sing-A” to myself – not loud, audible but under my breath. And I was doing it in a quasi-Jolson style. I heard a noise behind me and to my embarrassment saw a heavily tattooed and pierced Goth girl standing behind me. She looked at me like I was deranged and when we got on the elevator together she immediately went to the other side and gave me a look like I was going to pull a knife on her at any time. Probably the only time I’ll ever scare a Goth girl. If you find yourself in a similar situation, belt out some Jolson. People will stay far away).

Al Jackson is likely how Jolson saw himself, a beloved figure by all. He helps a group of chorus girls who are threatened with being fired if they don’t attend private parties given by the stage manager. They gaze at him with worshipful adoration. He also generously gives money to strangers on the street. Everyone is just so happy to see Al Jackson.

He’s so busy helping others that he doesn’t know his lawyer friend (Lyle Talbot) and fiancée (the always welcome Claire Dodd) are embezzling from him and have run off together. Not only that, but the IRS comes calling, with the news that, thanks to Lyle’s machinations, Al has not paid his income tax for the last several years.

Al suffers a nervous breakdown and retreats to the Maine woods with pals Allen Jenkins and Edward Everett Horton. There he is nursed back to mental and physical health by Beverly Roberts and her young niece Sybil Jason (Warner’s answer to Shirley Temple).

Before Maine though, there’s a big blackface number. Jolson is joined in black face by Wini Shaw so there’s double the cringe factor. It’s a lively number, though, with Cab Calloway singing “Keep That Heigh-Di-Ho In Your Soul” before giving way to Jolson singing about himself as “The Singinest Swinginest Man in Town” before it becomes a revival number with Jolson entreating Wini Shaw to “Save Me Sister.” It’s nicely staged by dance director Bobby Connelly, who handled a lot of these Warner Bros. numbers when Busby Berkeley was unavailable.

There’s also a couple of numbers by the always annoying Yacht Club Boys. After the Three Stooges, is there a collective group of more homelier men than the Yacht Club Boys? (One of which was James V. Kern, who later become a director.)

Still, they do a very funny, gloriously politically incorrect number with Jolson where they try to convince him to stop doing Mammy songs. Jolson always interrupts them by singing “Mammy.”

The number starts in a radio station, through the station’s corridors, down an elevator and on a busy city street, where soon the city populace joins in. My favorite part is when a group of women strip to matching bras and shorts and join in. The song goes back and forth until Jolson triumphs over the Yacht Club Boys (naturally) and they agree he should continue singing Mammy songs. I won’t tell how the number ends, but it’s another reason why “The Singing Kid” was never shown on TV. Yet I admit I laughed and shook my head at the sheer audacity of it all

Jason is cute and does a nice number with Jolson called “You’re the Cure for What Ails Me.” Say what you will about Jolson, but his films always had good music in them.

By the time of “The Singing Kid” though, Jolson’s box office days were behind him. He had a good role in “Rose of Washington Square” (1939), but he was in support of Alice Faye and Tryone Power. He also did a memorable “Swanee” in the George Gershwin bio pic “Rhapsody in Blue” (1945).

He became a tireless entertainer of the troops during World War II (and was one of the first entertainers to visit the troops in Korea in 1950).

In 1946, the following year Columbia took an expensive Technicolor gamble with “The Jolson Story” with Larry Parks taking on the Jolson role, with Jolson singing the songs to Parks’ lip synchs. It was one of the biggest hits of the year. Jolson was back on top and stayed there until his death in 1950 at the age of 64.

Jolson introduced some of the biggest song hits of the first half of the 20th century, including many still remembered today, such as “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody”, “Swanee,” “April Showers”, “Toot Toot Tootsie”, “California Here I Come”, “Sonny Boy”, “Avalon” and “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” among many others. A wonderful catalog of songs.

I’ve never watched an episode of “American Idol” but would if they had a Jolson night (minus the blackface, of course). I’ve heard that the singers belt out their songs on that show, and with Al Jolson being the original song belter, it seems an ideal match.

Or “Glee” could have a Jolson night. Any show can do a Madonna episode. Yawn. Show some ingenuity and have the cast members perform Jolson numbers, with the finale being the entire cast singing “I Love to Sing-A.” We’re talking ratings gold. Even Goth girls would learn to love it.


Dees Stribling said...

So that explains the cartoon featuring "Owl Jolson." I knew it was parody, but I didn't know that was a real song of his.

Kevin Deany said...

Yep. The Warner Bros. cartoons often used songs from their musicals. That's one of my favorite Looney Tunes and is included in the "The Jazz Singer" set

Anonymous said...

Kevin, How did you get to see the film the Singing Kid? I can't locate it anywhere.

Best Regards.


Kevin Deany said...

Ian, I purchased it through the Warner Archive.