Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Singing Kid (Warner Bros., 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Singing Kid, a 1936 Warner Bros./First National (it says Warner Bros. on the opening logo and the original trailer but First National on the closing credit) production that was Al Jolson’s last starring vehicle for the studio at which he had not only created a sensational hit but established the talking film as the wave of the future with The Jazz Singer nine years before. Jolson was coming off Go Into Your Dance, which had been a major hit but largely because of the audience attraction of getting to see him with his real-life wife (at the time), Ruby Keeler, and the fact that the two of them could sell more theatre tickets than just Jolson alone had the predictable deflating effect on his ego. The “suits” at Warners clearly thought Jolson’s act had started to wane, for they began it with an elaborate montage showing his Broadway stage hits of the 1910’s and 1920’s and his big number from Go Into Your Dance, “About a Quarter to Nine,” before establishing Al Jackson (guess who — they even cast Jolson as a character with a name similar to his own) as a current Broadway and radio star with a frantic schedule, a no-good fiancée named Dana Lawrence (Claire Dodd, who made a specialty of these “other woman” roles and not surprisingly got tired of them) and an equally no-good manager, Bob Carey (Lyle Talbot, more restrained and therefore actually better than usual in his appearances of the time), who leaves Al owing $500,000 to the Internal Revenue Service, embezzles just about all the rest of Al’s money and runs off with Dana to boot.

The stresses cause Al to lose his voice in the middle of a performance, and his faithful retainers, Davenport Rogers (Edward Everett Horton) and Joe Eddy (Allen Jenkins), decide to help him get away to the country, where hopefully the placidity of the lifestyle will enable him to relax enough so his voice will return. They get more than they bargained for as Al falls in love with the woman who owns the cottage he’s renting, Ruth Haines (Beverly Roberts, a woman Warners appeared to have high hopes for — the original trailer proclaimed her “a lovely young newcomer you’ll rave about!” — but her career went virtually nowhere: she made it into the trivia books by taking over the female-lumberjack part in God’s Country and the Woman, the film Bette Davis walked out on her Warners contract rather than be forced to make, and though she’s O.K. in that one her performance really does seem like it should have been accompanied by a little slip of paper in the program reading, “Miss Bette Davis is indisposed tonight, so her part is being played by Miss Beverly Roberts”), and he falls even harder, though in a strictly licit, Production Code-approved way, for Sybil Haines (Sybil Jason), Ruth’s niece (whom she’s been raising as a single parent since Sybil’s mom and dad died in an accident).

Sybil Jason was obviously Warners’ attempt to create their own Shirley Temple, and she comes off as so Temple-esque (the curly hair, the insufferably sugary manner, the ditzy little-girl’s voice) one gets the impression someone at Warners stole one of Temple’s fingernail clippings and cloned her. I saw The Singing Kid once before, in the early 1970’s — when I was just getting serious about Old Hollywood — and it struck me as a pretty silly movie, with Jolson spending much of it singing a ridiculous song called “I Love to Sing-a” (“with the moon-a and the June-a and the dear old sunny South-a” and just about every noun lyricist E. Y. Harburg could think of sticking “-a” at the end of) — Harburg wrote the lyrics for the new songs and Harold Arlen wrote the music, but aside from “You’re the Cure for What Ails Me” (a charming, memorable ditty which the filmmakers made the mistake of using as a duet between Jolson and Jason) and “My, How This Country’s Changed” (a feature for the Yacht Club Boys that at least touches on the political issues dear to Harburg’s heart — he was an active Leftist and spent the 1950’s on the blacklist, which was why Ira Gershwin and not he got to do the lyrics for Arlen’s songs for the Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born — it’s not as good as “Down with Everything,” the spoof of college Leftists the Yacht Club Boys performed in Pigskin Parade, but it’s fun, and the line about how the Supreme Court throws out laws as fast as the President and Congress can pass them rings all too true today!), there’s nothing here that’s going to make anybody forget the great songs Arlen and Harburg wrote for The Wizard of Oz. 

Part of the problem with The Singing Kid is that the Warners producers (Jack Warner, Hal Wallis and Robert Lord, the last of whom also came up with the original story that writers Warren Duff, Pat C. Flick — a gag writer in Jolson’s employ — and Sidney Marks, uncredited), writers and director William Keighley were convinced that Jolson’s style was out of date and he needed help. Though Jolson’s top-billed and a tag line on the trailer calls him the “World’s Greatest Entertainer!,” his name appears below the title, and the cast is bolstered with such other attractions as Frank Mitchell and Jack Durant (playing Al’s radio writers), a knockabout comedy team who are basically what the Three Stooges would have been if they’d looked more normal and there’d been only two of them (they were regulars in Alice Faye’s early movies at Fox and were borrowed by Warners for this one); the Yacht Club Boys (who really enliven the movie); and Cab Calloway (ditto, and whose syncopated swing style really shows up the stiffness of Jolson’s Mack-truck phrasing — though in the scenes in which Jolson is backed by Calloway’s band instead of Leo F. Forbstein’s Vitaphone Orchestra, the combination works as the folks at Warners clearly intended and gives Jolson’s vocals added pep).

This is about the only time I can think of in which Jolson made a movie with an authentically African-American performer of his stature — and, indeed, Jolson was past his peak when he made this (he was also 51 years old, which no doubt cut down on his performance’s athleticism) while Calloway was in his prime: he’s in total control of his body and his snake-like motions in time to his own singing and his band’s playing are spectacular to watch. I did joke that Jolson was a white man who put a lot of crap on his face to make himself look Black, while the much-“processed” Calloway was a Black man who put a lot of crap on his hair to make himself look white. Indeed, the best parts of The Singing Kid are those which confront the datedness of Jolson’s act and make fun both of him and of the people around him who wanted to try to update it — notably a long traveling number that starts as a rehearsal for Al’s radio program but spills over into the New York streets (or at least the simulacra of them on the Warners backlot) as the Yacht Club Boys interrupt every time he tries to sing Walter Donaldson’s “My Mammy,” one of the old Jolson’s mega-hits (and a better song than any of the new ones Arlen and Harburg came up with for this film!) and try to steer him into a more contemporary direction. Ironically, Jolson’s style would come back into vogue in the mid-1940’s with the release of the biopic The Jolson Story (in which Larry Parks played the on-screen Jolson but Jolson was his voice double) and would appeal to youngsters getting bored by the “crooner” style of Crosby, Sinatra, Como et al.; his uninhibited “belting” style and his appropriation of African-American music really helped pave the way for rock ’n’ roll.

The other problem with The Singing Kid is it changes tone so frequently: it begins and ends in the realm of Jolson’s biggest hit, The Singing Fool (another movie in which he’s devastated by an unworthy woman betraying him and redeemed by the love of a child) but in the meantime it drifts off into a wanna-be gospel number (“Save Me, Sister,” a duet between Jolson and a blackfaced Wini Shaw obviously inspired by the “Waiting at the End of the Road” number in King Vidor’s all-Black musical Hallelujah! and Mae West’s similar trip through sin and redemption in “Troubled Waters” from Belle of the Nineties, but it’s not as good either as those or the similar “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” number from A Day at the Races a year later), some swing features for Calloway, and the pastoral idyll it becomes in the final half (as Sybil Jason makes her first appearance 43 minutes into this 85-minute movie), followed by one of those near-miss gags as Al Jackson walks out on his big opening night to try to find Ruth Haines — only she’s there in front of the theatre in a cab Al gets into, and she looks at him and says, “Aren’t you supposed to be inside a theatre opening your show?” I liked The Singing Kid a lot better this time around than I had in the early 1970’s, and despite the discontinuity and the attempt not only to concede the datedness of Jolson’s act but even to work it into the plot, it’s actually a pretty good vehicle for him — but it’s only pretty good, and Jolson had a lot more moxie as a performer for either himself or his fans to be content with “pretty good.”