by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved
I ran the movie I'd picked out for us last night: Say It With Songs, a 1929 Warner Brothers (back when they were still spelling out the word "Brothers" in the company logo instead of abbreviating it "Bros.") production that was Al Jolson's third film and his first all-talkie -- his two previous features, The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool, had been part-silent, part-sound. It's a movie that's been given short shrift by film historians and Jolson biographers -- Michael Freedland dismissed it in two sentences -- but it turned out to be unexpectedly good.
Scripted by Harvey Gates (from his work here one would never guess his name would be on the credits of some of those awful Bela Lugosi vehicles from Monogram in the early 1940's) from an "adaptation" of a story Gates wrote with the young Darryl Francis Zanuck (back when he was still using his full middle name instead of just a middle initial), Say It With Songs was clearly an attempt to duplicate the success of The Singing Fool, with the same director (Lloyd Bacon) and co-star (Davey Lee -- and yes, his on-screen credit includes the "e" in his first name even though most of the film histories don't) in a similarly sentimental tale of a rising young singer who fathers a child, loses both his son and his boy's mother to another man, and ultimately has to soldier on when a catastrophe befalls the boy. But to my mind they did it better this time around, partly because they shot the film entirely with sound and partly because Zanuck and Gates concocted a story that effectively mixed many of the genres -- musicals, soap operas and prison films -- Warners would make a specialty of mashing up in the 1930's.
Say It With Songs opens in a radio studio (the call letters begin with "Q," which even that early would have located it outside the U.S.) and in a few brief minutes gives us a montage of the vast range of talent (if it could be called that) available on early radio, from a horse-faced old hag giving a lecture on beauty secrets (the gag is more than a bit cruel, but it's still funny) to a Hawai'ian band doing a relatively authentic version of "On the Beach at Waikiki" to a boring philosophical lecturer to a Rhythm Boys-style vocal quartet (they were pretty good and I'd have liked to see and hear more of them). Jolson appears as Joe Lane, up-and-coming radio singer who has a devoted wife, Katherine (Marian Nixon), and a son, Junior Lane (Davey Lee) whom he dotes on and calls "Little Pal" -- Buddy de Sylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson came up with a song of that title, obviously attempting to duplicate the success of "Sonny Boy" from The Singing Fool -- but he also does a lot of drinking, gambling and carousing with his male friends, annoying his wife by breaking dinner dates with her and finally showing up at home after midnight with booze on his breath. These parts of his lifestyle are also eating up his money, to the point where he constantly has to borrow from his manager, Arthur Phillips (Kenneth Thomson).
Arthur has promised to get Joe a major new radio show, but only on one condition: he's got a crush on Joe's wife Katherine and the whole reason he's helping his career is to get close to her, and he'll only score Joe the show if Katherine will be "nice" to him -- and anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with the movies of classic Hollywood knows what that means. Katherine, who has no intention of having the affair Arthur wants as his price for continuing to help Joe's career, tells Joe -- who responds by going into a murderous rage and saying he's going to confront Arthur and kill him. While they're driving to the radio station where Joe's going to get his great new job if his wife will sleep with his manager, Joe demands that Arthur pull over, the two have a fight (shown in fast-motion that makes it looks a bit risible) and Joe knocks Arthur down. Arthur's head crashes into a streetlight, causing an injury that proves fatal, and Joe is indicted for murder after his son, of all people, testifies that Joe had left the house that night threatening to kill Arthur.
Joe is eventually convicted of manslaughter and he's incarcerated with a cellmate named Fred (Fred Kohler), whose own tale of marital woe -- his wife once visited him regularly, then started dating someone else and ultimately divorced him so she could marry the other guy -- convinces the already pathologically jealous Joe that his wife will do the same. He has some reason for his suspicion, since in order to support herself and her son, Katherine has returned to her previous career, nursing (she and Joe met in the first place when he, an aspiring boxer until he became an aspiring singer instead, showed up badly injured from a bout at the hospital where she worked, and she took care of him), and got a job with Dr. Robert Merrill (Holmes Herbert), whom she used to date before she met and married Joe. (Merrill reminisces that he and Katherine were seeing each other when he was still a young intern -- which is frankly unbelievable given that Holmes Herbert looks old enough to be Marian Nixon's father.) Joe is so utterly convinced that Katherine will dump him and marry the wealthy doctor that the next time she comes to visit him, he tells her he wants a divorce and she shouldn't see him again -- which, of course, she ignores, though there's a scene at the doctor's home on Christmas eve with a lavish array of presents he's bought and laid out for Junior.
When he's not home for the holidays, Junior is going to a boarding school called McKinley -- and when Joe is finally paroled, the first thing he does is go to the school to see his son, who's so overcome by seeing his daddy again that he follows Joe home. In a surprisingly artful touch for a 1929 talkie, as the camera tracks Junior following Joe we hear the sound of passing cars, mixed louder than they would be in real life, as a premonition of what's going to happen: Junior gets run over by a car and, though he's going to live, he ends up unable either to walk or talk and, wouldn't you know it, the only available doctor who can operate on him to restore his mobility is Joe's wife's boyfriend, Dr. Merrill, who says if Joe will get out of the way of his plans with Katherine he'll do the super-operation for free; otherwise he'll charge $5,000. Joe takes Junior out of the hospital despite Dr. Merrill's warning that the operation needs to be done within two or three weeks or the boy's misaligned spine will fuse and no surgery will do him any good. Then Joe thinks better of it, returns the boy to Dr. Merrill, and the operation is performed and is a success -- except Joe still won't talk until his mom plays him his dad's old record of "Little Pal." (The long shot of the record when Katherine fetches it out of her album shows a genuine Victor label, but the insert closeup of the disc shows a fictitious "Metropolitan" label.) Of course it all ends happily, with the formerly down-and-out Joe (we knew he was down-and-out because director Bacon showed him in front of a pretty artificial-looking backdrop painting of the Brooklyn Bridge and we couldn't help but wonder whether we were supposed to think he was contemplating suicide) reunited with his wife and now-healthy child.
Say It With Songs is a surprisingly good movie, especially for a 1929 talkie. Director Bacon does a few moving-camera shots and even in the dialogue scenes allows his actors to speak normally, without the attention-numbing pauses between lines and snail-paced delivery that make most early talkies virtually unwatchable today. He also enlivens the film's visual aspect with some montages, often quite Expressionistic (like the one showing Joe's time in prison), and during the scene towards the end when hearing his dad's voice on record inspires Junior to speak at last, he has a ghostly image of Joe singing appear in Junior's bedroom. Bacon also underscores much of the action with music, much of it based on "Little Pal" and the other songs in the film (most of them written by the team of Buddy De Sylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson), and even has music going on under dialogue -- a quite unusual effect for 1929. (Musical underscoring of dialogue scenes isn't usually thought to have started until Max Steiner's score for RKO's Cimarron -- made in 1931, two years after Say It With Songs.)
From his later films I'd always written Lloyd Bacon off as a barely competent hack, but this one, even more than The Singing Fool, shows him to be one of the pioneers of sound film, on a level with the equally underrated Harry Beaumont (The Broadway Melody) and John Murray Anderson (The King of Jazz) and the established names -- Milestone, Mamoulian, Lubitsch, Wyler, Vidor, Capra -- in restoring vitality to films when sound came in and transcending the usual limits of the early talkies -- the immobile cameras, the ineptly concealed and equally unmoving microphones and the dictates of the sound engineers that the actors talk s-l-o-w-l-y and d-i-s-t-i-n-c-t-l-y and carefully ... pause between their ... cue line and their ... own dialogue. Indeed, it's ironic that Bacon made such a mobile and watchable movie using the cumbersome Vitaphone sound-on-disc process while the same year Irving Cummings made something as static and dull as Behind That Curtain at Fox, which was using the more flexible Movietone sound-on-film technique. Say It With Songs has a quite sophisticated sound mix -- belying the legend that you couldn't mix with Vitaphone without losing sound quality over the generations of re-recording.
The script of Say It With Songs, sentimental and predictable as it is, also has some audacious scenes -- notably the one in which the police close in on Joe Lane's broadcast (his son is listening to him and they're able to get the station's location from its call letters) and arrest him just as he's finishing the song "I'm in Seventh Heaven" -- not only is there the obvious irony that he's taken into custody just as he's sung a song about how wonderful his life is and all's right with his world, but the whole gimmick of a public person being arrested at the most highly "public" and most embarrassing time conceivable has been done again and again since (it's been a recurring theme on the Law and Order TV shows). There's also a quite good cinematographer, Lee Garmes, shooting the film with a surprising degree of atmospherics, while the overall recording quality (George Groves was the sound engineer) is also quite capable -- Marian Nixon is faint in a few scenes (apparently she was stationed too far off mike) but otherwise the voices are evenly recorded.
All in all, Say It With Songs looks (and sounds) much more like a film from the mid-1930's than one from the dawn of the talkie era, and while Jolson has been criticized for overacting (let's face it: overacting came as naturally to Al Jolson as eating or singing), it's at least honest overacting: his full-blooded performance often reminded me of James Cagney and made me wonder why Warners didn't remake Say It With Songs with Cagney in the late 1930's, when he was pleading for musical roles and the studio was sticking him with one crime film after another. (It also makes it more believable that Cagney was Jolson's second choice -- after Jolson himself -- to play him in the biopic The Jolson Story; Cagney was available at the time but turned the part down because he didn't want to make another showbiz biopic just four years after his superb performance as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.)
Say It With Songs was a box-office disappointment -- though it's technically a far better film than The Jazz Singer or The Singing Fool, maybe audiences were just getting tired of the formula -- and though "Little Pal" became a minor hit, neither it nor any of the other songs in the score made it at the level of "Sonny Boy." (Paul Whiteman recorded "I'm in Seventh Heaven" and "Little Pal," both with Bing Crosby singing -- solo on "Little Pal," where his customary restraint is a dramatic contrast to Jolson's wrenching, overwrought emotionalism -- and with the other Rhythm Boys, Harry Barris and Al Rinker, on "I'm in Seventh Heaven," a superb jazz arrangement by Bill Challis with a fabulous 24-bar split chorus by Bix Beiderbecke.) It's also one of only two films (Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! was the other) Jolson made in which he never appears in blackface, which led one imdb.com commentator to suggest that "if Say It With Songs had been a hit Jolson might have abandoned the burnt cork and his historic reputation wouldn't have suffered so."
Actually, Jolson often sang more soulfully in blackface than he did in whiteface -- in the 1934 film Wonder Bar he has two big numbers, a whiteface song in which he's strident and shrill and a blackface number, "Going to Heaven on a Mule," in which he drops his register, slows down his vibrato, sings from deeper in his chest and achieves much of the eloquence of his African-American role models. But Jolson's singing in Say It With Songs is surprisingly good -- granted, he sometimes seems more intent on overpowering the song than simply singing it, and Bing Crosby's emergence as a superstar just a few years later would have rendered Jolson's high-tension, heart-on-sleeve style dated even if it hadn't been accompanied by blackface makeup -- but within the limits of his style he's honest and genuinely convincing as both singer and actor.