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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

BIG BOY (1930)

Note the ad (just to the right) promising the Al Jolson of THE JAZZ SINGER/’27 and THE SINGING FOOL/’28. Two subsequent flops had left Warners with ‘a Jolson problem’ on their hands; and this was only his fifth pic. Reuniting Jolie with Alan Crosland, who megged his Jazz Singing debut, seemed a safe bet. And, as extra insurance, they adapted a stage-tested hit, one where Jolie didn’t just ‘black up’ for a few ‘Numbos,’ but played Black all the way thru. No theatrical minstrelsy, but a more-or-less actual Black characterization, a Negro horse jockey who saves the day for the nice white folk he works for. (Until the encore, when Jolson appears sans make-up, threatening to sing ‘Sonny Boy.’) Alas, director Crosland had lost touch with the fast-moving advances in Talkie technique, what passed muster in ‘27 now looked antique. And the show, an old-fashioned wheeze in ‘25, was now positively arthritic. From today’s perspective, it seems a desperate move. Don’t kid yourself, it was pretty desperate in 1930, too. Jolson was off the screen for three years before returning at another studio.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Oddly, the best thing here is a flashback where Jolie plays his own G’pa back in plantation days. Instead of the weak original songs he gets in the modern story, he sings a couple of spirituals backed by a chorus of black singers, real African-American people. Darn if he isn’t good. Especially when he plumbs his unexpected lower extension while lightly swinging the rhythm. Even in our post-ironic cultural milieu, where sophisticates collect pickaninny artifacts, what are we to make of this scene?

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