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Friday, July 16, 2010

THE JOLSON STORY (1946)

Broad in tone, straight-ahead in style, hokey, gleefully inaccurate - everything about this bio-pic seems just right for Al Jolson, that immodest, immoderate, big-voiced, blacked-up minstrel & Talkie pioneer. Appalling as it is, you can see why it was a surprise hit in ‘46, especially during it’s tune-stuffed first half. The 60 yr-old Jolson did the soundtrack, but on-screen, it’s the little remembered Larry Parks* molding Jolson’s overbearing ways into an acceptable/understandable character for post-WWII audiences. For today’s audience, the big hurdle is the blackface, as well it should be. Yet, this is one of few films that demonstrates its residual power as cultural & social release for performer & audience, alike. Evelyn Keyes can’t make much sense out of the masochistic wife (Ruby Keeler in all but name), but William Demerest shows off some unexpected Vaudeville chops as Jolie’s early partner. And while the sets & direction are nothing to brag about, Joseph Walker, Frank Capra’s regular lenser @ Columbia, does some remarkable TechniColor work, especially in his portraits. At the film’s finale, when Jolson returns to his singing ways, there’s a stunning close-up of Parks in a state of self-regarding ecstasy that reveals in an instant the sort of performing pain/pleasure many better films have failed to capture. You can sit thru a lot of crap for a moment like that.

DOUBLE-BILL: *If Parks is remembered at all, it’s for his vanishing act from the screen during the Communist Witch hunt days. He came back just once, for John Huston’s underrated FREUD/’62.

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