Based on Untrue Stories; or, When Jolson Sings Again

”Hooray for Hollywood!” The big-screenings over at our house have finally resumed. As shared here, the projector gave up the ghost last fall, during the climactic scene of I Want to Live!, when the bulb imploded with a bang. I inaugurated the arrival of its replacement with a screening of The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949), two hugely popular Columbia Pictures that reportedly raked in a combined $15 million—a lot of dough in those days. Now, I’ve never much cared whether or not a movie is “based on a true story”; to me, such a claim is certainly not an endorsement. It reeks of Lifetime entertainment, or some such exercises in exploitation. That is probably why I wasn’t half as irritated as I might otherwise have been watching the suspect Jolson Story, which, dramatically speaking, is really not much of a story at all.

The Jolson Story is so bland and uneventful, it makes Till the Clouds Roll By look like an exposé. For anything compelling, one would have to turn to the real-life stories of Jolson’s stand-ins, Larry Parks and Scott Beckett, whose careers were subsequently nixed by dirty politics and personal turmoil. One of the few “true” incidents in the Jolson Story, allegedly the one that sold the project to Columbia president Harry Cohn, was the has-been treatment Jolson received from the Hillcrest Country Club in Beverly Hills, for whose benefit he was signed on as a closing act, scheduled at an hour so advanced that few members of the audience could have been expected to remain in their seats. It sort of makes for a made for Hollywood comeback story; but it is hardly given the Star Is Born treatment.

Never mind. At least you get to hear the real Jolson (whose image I previously appropriated for a picture of my own) sing much of his best-known material, for the delivery which he used to disguise his face anyway. What really puzzled me was the sequel. I am not sure just how to read it. Not that I mind reading it in several ways at once, which—its foreshadowing of Jolson’s death in 1950 aside—is the reason the sequel intrigues me more than the pale “original,” or however you want to call the 1946 version of a faked and faded copy of Jolson’s life story.

A biopic self-conscious about its dubiety, Jolson Sings Again is coy about its artifice. “Let’s agree on one thing at the start, boys,” the film’s Jolson character tells the Hollywood producers interested in turning his life into a movie.

I don’t think anybody cares about the facts of my life, about dates and places. I’ll give you a mess of ‘em, you juggle them any way you like. What matters is the singing a man did and the difference that made.

Now, is this inspired bit of reflexivity an apology or a proudly displayed poetic licence? How brazen of the sequelmakers to quell our disbelief by making up for the make-believe of the first film with a faked endorsement from a false Jolson. But then, the true Jolson—who starred in the Lux Radio Theater versions of Story (16 February 1948) and Sings Again (22 May 1950)—had agreed to the project and made a tidy $5 million profit. It seemed to me as if I had followed up the “true story” death row drama of I Want to Live! with Jolson’s last cry of “I want to live on like this.”

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