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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
"Settle back folks. You ain't heard nothin' yet."
DVD ReviewAlthough he's remembered today only as the star of a mostly-forgotten talkie called The Jazz Singer, at one time Al Jolson was one of the biggest stars in the world and enormously popular. This classic biopic offers a selection of several dozen Jolson classic songs, tacked together by a mostly fictional "biography."
Young Asa Yoelson (Scotty Beckett) is the singing son of the synagogue cantor (Ludwig Donath). When burlesque musical comic Steve Martin (William Demarest) hears Asa, he convinces Asa's parents to let him go on tour with Steve, under the name Al Jolson. Before long, the adult Al (Larry Parks) moves on to the minstrel shows of Lew Dockstader, where he sings southern songs in blackface. Through brashness and stage appeal, Jolson is soon the toast of Broadway. Upon starring in the first popular talking picture, Jolson rides a gigantic wave of success, but feels an emptiness that can be filled only by budding hoofer Julie Benson (Evelyn Keyes).
As is the case with any Hollywood biopic, any resemblance to the facts surrounding Jolson's actual story are strictly coincidental. What makes it thoroughly enjoyable in any event is the way Parks captures Jolson's appealing stage presence and charisma. His Best Actor Oscar® was richly deserved, even if he is lip-synching to the actual Jolson during the songs. He gives the character a vivid portrayal that's both credible and much larger than life. One truly believes that this character could become a beloved performer on stage and screen. Demarest (best known as gruff Uncle Charley from My Three Sons) is a good deal of fun to watch, especially as he struggles to get Al to devote as much time to his private life as his public performing. Evelyn Keyes, on the other hand, is quite bland and does little beyond smile and look pretty. Ludwig Donath and Tamara Shayne as Al's parents take the Jewish parent stereotype way over the top, though it's all done good-heartedly.
More offensive to modern audiences will be the frequent blackface performances. Though these are representative of Jolson's act for many years, they're a tough sell today and may require some careful explaining for younger viewers. It's a credit to Parks' talents, however, that these sequences aren't as patently offensive as they could have been, primarily through the sheer verve that he puts into the performances.
One of the principal themes here is that Jolson lived to sing, and there's plenty of singing to be had. In fact, every chapter stop represents another song, and almost all of them are terrific. The picture gives Jolson way too much credit (did you know, for instance, that he invented jazz? Neither did I). But all the misrepresentation can't defeat the quality of the songs (and the odd warbling voice of Jolson), or Parks' joyful performance. The ending is kind of surprising for a sentimental piece such as this one, so despite the ton of showbiz clichés there are still some surprises to be had here.
The songs are as follows:
Let Me Sing and I'm Happy
On the Banks of the Wabash
When You Were Sweet Sixteen
After the Ball
By the Light of the Silvery Moon
Ma Blushin' Rosie
I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad
I'm Sitting on Top of the World
You Made Me Love You
Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye
The Spaniard Who Blighted My Life
California Here I Come
There's a Rainbow Round My Shoulder
About a Quarter to Nine
The Anniversary Song
Waiting for the Robert E Lee
Rock-a-Bye Your Baby
April Showers (reprise)
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: The Technicolor original full-frame picture looks pretty good overall. There are a moderate number of colored splotches, indicating dirt on one of the Technicolor strips, but I didn't find it too distracting for the most part. The color is excellent, though not as eye-popping as Technicolor of this period can be. Black levels are very good and video noise is minimal. Details are sharp and crisp without excessively obtrusive edge enhancement.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: Although the keepcase cover states that the audio track is in mono, it is in fact the stereo mix created for the 1954 re-release. Directionality is very pronounced, in the manner of early Cinemascope sound (even though it was full frame). Hiss varies from shot to shot, apparently as the various recordings were pieced together to form the audio track. Sometimes it's hardly perceptible and at others it's glaring. The music for the most part has very good range and Jolson's singing sounds terrific, with good presence.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Japanese with remote access
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Lost Horizon, Pal Joey
Extras Review: Columbia skimps on the extras, with trailers for Lost Horizon (with no footage from the film), and the conversational Frank Sinatra trailer for Pal Joey. But that's it.
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsLarry Parks gives a heck of a performance in this loosey-goosey biopic, liberally larded with classic Jolson performances. The story's a bit ridiculous but the total package is hugely entertaining, with an infectious goodwill that will amuse even the crankiest soul. Alas, not much for extras.
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