Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Singing Fool (Warner Bros., 1928)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

I ran Charles and I The Singing Fool, Al Jolson's second movie (from 1928) and the most popular movie ever made to that time, breaking the box-office record set by The Birth of a Nation and setting one that wasn't broken until Gone With the Wind 11 years later. Ironically, Jolson's first film, The Jazz Singer, has become part of the cultural legacy and is constantly being revived while The Singing Fool, though an even bigger hit in its own time (perhaps because in the intervening year more theatres wired for sound and therefore there were more venues that could show it), is virtually forgotten -- and the relative standing of these two films now is shown by their DVD releases: The Jazz Singer is available in a three-disc set containing various documentaries on the birth of sound film, some of the contemporaneous Vitaphone shorts and the previous Jolson film, a Vitaphone one-reeler called Al Jolson in a Plantation Act (1926), while The Singing Fool is available only in a Warner Archive release on a single disc, with no bonus material at all (aside from a 1950's British reissue trailer) and not even any chapter points; instead it just has a cueing point every 10 minutes, like a home-recorded DVD.

Let's make one thing clear right off: The Singing Fool isn't as good a movie as The Jazz Singer, less because of any deficiency in the writing or direction (though Singing Fool director Lloyd Bacon was hardly in the same league as the genuinely creative director of The Jazz Singer, Alan Crosland) than simply because its story premise is so much less compelling. The Jazz Singer was a backstage musical but it was also a parable about the immigrant experience -- Alexander Walker called it "about the making of an American as well as an entertainer" -- while The Singing Fool has a plot that seems to have launched virtually all the cliches of subsequent musicals, especially Warner Bros. musicals. Al Stone (Al Jolson) is an underemployed singing waiter at a low-class joint called Blackie Joe's (we know it's low-class because it's located next to a storage building in a seedy neighborhood). He's got a crush on one of the club's dancers, Molly Winton (Josephine Dunn), but she wants nothing to do with him and, when he submits a song he's written her called "It All Depends on You" (one of the many lovely songs from the late 1920's and 1930's that became standards only when Frank Sinatra revived them in the 1940's and 1950's), she shows her contempt by trodding on the sheet music.

Undaunted, Al gets the pianist at Blackie Joe's to play it (for once in a Hollywood musical the introduction of a new song is depicted accurately; the pianist is reading it off the sheet music and the orchestra remains silent and does not pick up the melody through apparent aural osmosis the way it almost routinely happened in subsequent musicals) and impresses Broadway producer Lee Marcus (Edward Martindel), who offers him a spot in his new revue. When next we see Al Stone he's a huge hit at the Club Cliquot -- whose high, vaulted ceiling and whole back wall is almost certainly a glass painting, probably by Esdras Hartley, who's credited here merely as one of four "technicians" but almost certainly designed the film's sets -- his songs are flying off the shelves at sheet-music counters and Molly the gold-digger has changed her mind about him and married him, though she still can't stand him. She must have held still long enough to have had sex with him at least once, though, because they have a child, Sonny (played by a child actor named Davy Lee -- at least that's how Jolson biographer Michael Freedland and film critic Alexander Walker spelled his first name; on he's listed as "Davey Lee"), who likes to get on daddy's knee while daddy croons the movie's big hit song, "Sonny Boy."

Jolson actually gets to sing this song three times during the film -- once to his son while he and the child's mother are still a couple, once during a tearful farewell in a park as Molly and the other man in her life, John Perry (Reed Howes), are leaving for Paris (where Molly plans to divorce Al and marry John) and taking the boy with them; and finally in a big Broadway theatre where he's forced to go on because the show must ... even though he's predictably grief-stricken from having returned from the hospital where his son was dying. (According to Michael Freedland, the songwriting team of DeSylva, Brown and Henderson were so embarrassed by the request they got from Jolson to write "Sonny Boy" for him that they wouldn't even mail him the completed song themselves -- they hired a messenger boy to do it -- and it sold three million copies and became the biggest hit they ever had.) The breakup with Molly precipitates a long fall from grace because Al is so torn up by the blow he can't perform anymore, and he sinks to the gutter -- though a rather decorous gutter; there's really no sense of dissipation as there is in the similarly plotted MGM musical Lord Byron of Broadway, made a year later and also about a singer-songwriter whose career is destroyed when the bad girl he's fallen for abandons him -- only he hangs out at Blackie Joe's, he's recognized by Grace (Betty Bronson, the screen's first Peter Pan), who'd had an unrequited crush on Al in the old days when Al was just interested in Molly. Al and Grace get together at last and Al regains his career and is back on top until his son dies, whereupon in a lachrymose final scene he's forced to sing "Sonny Boy" before a huge audience at a time when he'd rather be doing just about anything else -- only he comes through, the Show Goes On and the Warner brothers cry all the way to the bank.

When new, The Singing Fool was the sort of movie that ordinary audiences flocked to see even though the critics of the time damned it -- sometimes with faint praise (usually enjoying Jolson's songs -- which include some of the best material he ever got -- while hating the tear-jerking plot) and sometimes without even the faint praise: the Anglo-American critic Welford Beaton lambasted Jolson for "his overbearing conceit in almost every note he sings, every word he utters and every movement he makes in his acting." That's not being entirely fair to Jolson, who goes through much of the film his usual cocky, superficial self but is capable of surprising bits of restraint and emotion. It's true that in the opening scene, when Molly not only rejects him but literally stomps on the song he wrote her, Jolson's acting has too much of his real-life self-confidence to make him believable as a man whose heart is so easily broken by a woman unworthy of him -- one aches with the thought of how Chaplin would have played this scene -- but throughout the film there are some astonishing moments in Jolson's performance where he turns down the intensity level and shows that at least sometimes he did know the meaning of the word "restraint." Some of these are silent -- notably the scene in which he comes home to find not only his wife but also, more wrenchingly traumatic for him, his son gone, in which Jolson proves himself a more effective pantomimist than he was in The Jazz Singer and moves us precisely by not chewing the scenery -- and some of them are sound. The first two times Jolson sings "Sonny Boy" he avoids "milking" the song, phrasing straightforwardly and eloquently and portraying a man genuinely in love with his son and afraid of losing him -- which makes the big climactic performance at the end, in which he alternately sobs and screams and pushes the quiet little song way farther than it should be pushed, that much more disappointing.

The Singing Fool is still a "part-talkie," though there's a good deal more singing and dialogue than there was in The Jazz Singer, and we get some more of those fascinating sequences in which Jolson alternately barks at his audience, "Wait a minute -- wait a minute," and calls out instructions to conductor Louis Silvers as to how he wants to be accompanied in the song he's about to sing. (He did this spontaneously on the set of The Jazz Singer and it turned out so well Jack Warner and his staff decided to write more dialogue into the script.) Charles noted that the dialogue delivery in The Singing Fool was much more naturalistic than the norm for 1928 -- though Lloyd Bacon wasn't exactly the most strong-willed director in Hollywood at the time, either he or (more likely) Jolson himself must have read the riot act to the sound engineers and told them they weren't going to use the slow, stilted style of speech that had become the early-talkie norm, in which actors painstakingly avoided stepping on each other's lines and carefully paused between hearing their cues and speaking their own lines to make sure every word got recorded.

For a movie that was so popular in its time (which usually means a lot of prints were struck), it's a real curiosity that only one print survived, and it was from the British release -- meaning that it's missing the song "The Spaniard That Blighted My Life," written by British music-hall entertainer Billy Merson, who had licensed it to Jolson on condition that Jolson not perform it in the U.K. because that would compete with Merson's own version. Accordingly, "Spaniard" was not included in the British prints, and therefore doesn't appear in the version that survives, even though it was shown in the original U.S. release. (A more carefully prepared DVD release might have included a bonus track reconstructing "Spaniard" from the Vitaphone soundtrack disc, which does survive, and the production stills.) Also, the marvelous comic-vocal group the Yacht Club Boys are listed on's cast list as being in the movie, but there's no sign of them; indeed, The Singing Fool is what I've taken to calling a "monomusical" because only one cast member actually sings.

Still, the songs we do get are some of Jolson's strongest material ever ‑- not only "Sonny Boy" and "It All Depends on You" but "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder," "Keep Smiling at Trouble" (heard in a quite remarkable scene in which Jolson sings it while noodling at the piano, and Betty Bronson in character as Grace urges him to get out of his funk and follow the advice in the song's lyric), "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" and an odd, almost rap version of "Golden Gate" -- and they're presented well enough even though hardly with the flair they would have gotten a few years later once Busby Berkeley ascended over Warners and shot so many numbers from the rafters of Warners' soundstages. (The one scene that visually resembles a Busby Berkeley number is, oddly, a sequence in which cleaning ladies are shown scrubbing the floor of the Club Cliquot as Jolson leaves it following his final performance there; they move in almost perfect unison and one gets the impression they're about to break into song and/or dance at any moment.)

The presentation of The Singing Fool is a bit slapdash -- some of the original intertitles don't survive and are replaced by new titles in a jarringly "modern" font (one of which misspells the word "writing" as "writting") that doesn't even attempt to reproduce the lettering of the originals -- but it's nice to have it on DVD in whatever form and it's welcome to see Al Jolson in full cry, and even more welcome to see that sometimes he could turn off the ego machine and "play well with others."