Take a young Russian boy named Asa Yoelson, bring him to America, give him a taste of the exciting new life that's out there and what's he going to do for a living? Follow in his father's footsteps as a cantor at the local orthodox synagogue?
No way. Asa Yoelson ran away from home, changed his name to Al Jolson, put on blackface and sang minstrel songs. And for almost the first 30 years of the 20th century he was the biggest hit in American showbiz.
On this disc are both The Jolson Story of 1946 and its sequel, Jolson Sings Again from 1949. Both discs are heavily fictionalised accounts of Al Jolson's life - as one example, his four marriages are kaleidescoped into just two.
The first movie-wife is named as Julie Benson, but is a thinly disguised Ruby Keeler, the fairly mediocre hoofer-star of the otherwise sensational early song-and-dance movie 42nd Street - Ruby refused to let her real name be used. And there's not a mention in this bio-pic of the numerous girlfriends who also punctuated his career, or of his career-driven carelessness and neglect of all those around him.
Jolson was a narrowly-focused super-egotist and a man of contradiction. He'd borrow small amounts from friends and forget to pay them back. And over the years he donated more than a million dollars to charity, when a million really was a million.
He built his career impersonating Southern blacks. But at the same time, he was intensely anti-racist - and when he began his showbiz career, no-one suspected blackface would ever be seen as racist or insulting. Even in the late 1950s, the English Black and White Minstrel Show was still an enduring entertainment success.
Despite societal changes, and despite the fim being a string of cliches, The Jolson Story is still just one of the finest bio-pics ever made. Maybe, at the time, its cliches were very good cliches. Maybe rival studio boss Jack Warner was right when he said that nobody nowadays writes cliches like they used to. It's total grand entertainment.
Part of the reason why this became the surprise smash hit of 1949 was the sensational performance by young actor Larry Parks, who worked to new studio recordings made for the movie by Al Jolson. Parks seems astonishingly perfect as he mugs and mimes, in both blackface and without, such famous Jolson songs as Mammy, Rainbow 'round My Shoulder, California Here I Come, Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye and a score more.
Jolson recorded the vocal tracks when aged around 60, and not long after he'd undergone major lung surgery. His voice is quite a deal deeper than in his prime. But the voice (once you get used to his strange and often hammy intonations and period-style) is still amazingly rich and forceful.
Nowadays his voice is an acquired taste, but the movie is still well worth seeing for a rich evocation of what showbiz used to be. And Jolson, after all, although mainly having a stage career, has an indelible part in cinema history. He starred in the feature film which ushered in the sound era, The Jazz Singer.
There are no big stars in the movie. Larry Parks was just a B-grade actor at the time. Evelyn Keyes is very effective as Jolson's wife Ruby Keeler, aka Julie Benson, a great deal better than Ruby herself. And William Demarest (Uncle Charlie in the long-running U.S. television sitcom My Three Sons) is a constant anchor as the vaudevillian who acts as foster-father to the young Asa, and becomes manager to the newly-hatched Al.
The sequel, Jolson Sings Again, traces Jolson's sudden showbiz decline as musical tastes changed and America's kids turned to jazz and swing music. And it shows his resurgence as Jolson is first reluctantly persuaded to take on touring to entertain World War II troops. Not that he was unwilling to tour - just unwilling to believe he'd still be wanted. The movie shows him touring till he drops - and that was true; he contracted malaria. And it shows him marrying his nurse, also true - and this marriage did last. He had learnt at last a little about what might make a relationship work.
It's a satisfying sequel. And it introduces a classic scene - as Larry Parks, acting the role of Al Jolson, watches Larry Parks' screen-test for the role of Al Jolson in The Jolson Story. Forget that, in real-life, Jolson was barred from the set of the sequel after violent disagreements with Parks, in this biopic all is sweetness and light. The scenes of The Jolson Story being made, and of Jolson recording the new vocal tracks, are strangely incestuous, but effective.
Particularly welcome in this sequel is the very beautiful Barbara Hale portraying the nurse (in real-life his x-ray technician) who marries Jolson afer his stint in hospital with malaria. She doesn't do much except look beautiful; she doesn't have to.
The absolute worst bit on this disc comes in this sequel, as Jolson sings, at a showbiz benefit night, the truly repulsive song Sonny Boy. Its songwriters wrote it as a sick joke, with its lyrics of "Climb upon my knee, sonny boy... Though you're only three, sonny boy", going on to tell how the angels took him etc etc (pass the airline bag). Jolson knew it was a joke, but all the same recorded it with trembling, teary voice and made it into the world's first million-seller disc. Fast-forward that bit...
There is, if you watch closely, a glimpse of the real Al Jolson during The Jolson Story. The story goes that the Columbia execs let him do his own performance for that first movie of his most famous song, Swanee. Nobody else, they admitted, could put it over like Jolson. It's filmed in long-shot and the figure looks somewhat stockier than Larry Parks. But it's awfully similar, showing just how well Larry had learnt from the master. It's a nice touch - just a taste of the real thing.
After The Jolson Story, Al Jolson's career took flight again. The forgotten man became an overnight radio star. Even bobby-soxers listened and squealed with delight. This late summer lasted until just after the second movie was made. He was feeling ill. Indigestion, he thought, but he called in some doctors. Lying down, he felt his own pulse, said "I'm going" and died.
And what happened to his cinematic alter-ego Larry Parks? Well, these two movies were the pinnacle of his career. In the Land of the Free, his career was destroyed soon after by the McCarthyist demagogues of the House of UnAmerican Activities committee, as punishment for him having been a member of the Communist Party. Blackface, it seems, was OK. Redface was not.