Jolson Story, The (1946): Oscar-Winning Blockbuster Biopic Starring Larry Parks in Oscar Nominated Role

The legendary Al Jolson was regarded as a phenom of the past until his comeback in “Rhapsody in Blue,” the 1945 biopic of George Gershwin, in which he sang “Swanee.”

Warner, the studio that made the revolutionary 1927 semi-talkie “The Jazz Singer,” starring Jolson, wanted to film his life, but it was Columbia’s Harry Cohn who finally produced the eagerly awaited biopic.

Made in color, “Jolson Story” is a fictionalized, cliché ridden version of the star’s life, distorting some events while glossing over other ones.

Even so, the movie is vastly entertaining as a musical, and at the time was extremely popular with viewers and Oscar voters (see below).  According to Variety, The Jolson Story was the fourth most commercial film of the year, grossing over $7 million at the box office (which is equivalent to over $100 million today)

The tale begins at the turn-of-the-century in 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 the hired as a 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 going by the name of Al Jolson (and played as a mature man by Larry Parks) shows fascination with African-American jazz music. He breaks away from vaudeville by joining Lew Dockstader’s (John Alexander) blackface minstrel troupe, and then goes on to greater success as a solo artist.

Moving on to Broadway, Jolson builds a reputation as a charismatic singer-performer. In time, he meets and falls for singer Julie Benson (Evelyn Keyes), a character based on Jolson’s third wife Ruby Keeler.

As Jolson attains superstardom, and an ego to match, he alienates friends and colleagues, including his wife Julie. Jolson promises to change his ways and considers retirement. But he can’t stop performing and thus loses his wife.

Playing the best role of his career, Larry Parks was catapulted to stardom as Jolson, though at the time, many doubted his skills to capture the real Jolson (who had entertained the idea of playing himself).

Jolson helped coaching Parks, and offered his own voice in the musical sequences. Jolson also appears in long-shot during the “Swanee” number.

Among the songs in the movie are: “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.”

Overall, this is an idealized, sentimental portrait of Jolson, who was known to be abusive, temperamental, and selfish egomaniac.

The commercial success of the picture led to a sequel in 1949, Jolson Sings Again, which also was a box-office success.

Oscar Nominations: 6

Actor: Larry Parks

Supporting Actor: William Demarest

Cinematography (color): Joseph Walker

Editing: William Lyon

Sound Recording: John Livadary

Scoring of a Musical: Morris Stoloff

Oscar Awards: 2

Sound Recording: John Livadary

Scoring of a Musical: Morris Stoloff

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Actor Oscar was Fredric March for “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which swept most of the awards that year, including Picture, Director, and Supporting Actor for Harold Russell.

Running time: 129 Minutes

Release date: October 11, 1946.