Jolson’s last starring role

6 01 2012
Busby Berkeley directing  a scene with Sybil Jason

Busby Berkeley directing a scene with Sybil Jason

Excerpt from : Harold Arlen: Rhythm, Rainbows, and Blues by Edward Jablonski (1998)

Around the same time Arlen took his camera to a location shoot of “The Singing Kid” in nearby Franklin Canyon on a misty, coolish morning. Anya, not in this film, wore a heavy coat with a stylish fluffy white fur collar. Her companion was equally modish in an overcoat and scarf, no hat. He carried a pipe and sported a neat mustache. The proletarian Harburg came simply in slacks, sweater, and sport jacket. They waited for the filming, under the director William Keighley, to begin, comfortably seated on a pier near a small lake; there was a small upright piano on the pier.

In the scene to be filmed that morning, Al Jolson was to sing to six-year-old Sybil Jason, Warner’s challenge to Fox’s Shirley Temple. Like Temple, young Jason was a good little fixer and had solved Jolson’s personal and professional problems in the course of the plot. He serenaded her with “You’re the Cure for What Ails Me,” one of Arlen’s favorites among Harburg’s lyrics. It is one of the earliest of what Arlen classified as Yip’s “ish” songs. In the release he had written, “You’re my pink of condish’ / You’re my Arrowhead Springs, and my Battle Creek, Mich.” It’s a good, bouncy tune, set to the lyric, though hardly one of Arlen’s most inventive. He called it a lyric number, one in which the words take precedence over the music.

Another typical Harburg lyric number is the satiric “I Love to Sing-a,” a variation on the theme of “What Can You Say in a Love Song?” It is also a subtle parody of Al Jolson’s by 1935 familiar, eminently imitable style. Jolson, probably unconscious of his exaggerated diction, would often tack an additional syllable – usually “ah” – to the end of many of the words in a song.

In their small private joke Arlen created a simple tune fitting Harburg’s lyric (the first sound in the verse is “Ah!” sustained for two measures). The tacked-on “a” is associated with cliches:

“I love to sing-a

About the moon-a and the June-a

And the spring-a,

I love to sing-a

‘Bout a sky of blue-a”

This Jolson self-parody is staged as the film’s most elaborate production number, choreographed without credit or subtlety by Busby Berkeley. Jolson’s declaration spills into the street, as he gets carried away with references to his earlier hits, Gershwin’s “Swanee” (“with the South-a in my mouth-a”) and “Mammy.”

He is joined in the street by Cab Calloway and Yacht Club Boys, a vocal quartet, who repeatedly attempt to stop him from breaking into “Mammy.” . . . . Probably one of the most ludicrous musical sequences ever filmed, it added nothing to Al Jolson’s diminishing stature.

Arlen and Harburg wrote the obligatory Jolson blackface number in the spiritual “Save Me Sister.” The composer filmed the scene, in which Jolson is joined by Cab Calloway and a most unconvincing blackfaced Winifred Shaw, who had done better as the ill-fated singer, or “Broadway baby,” of “The Lullaby of Broadway,” sung by Dick Powell in “Gold Diggers of 1935.”

Arlen remembered Jolson as being uncharacteristically self-effacing and moodily quiet during the filming of “The Singing Kid.” His infamous ego rarely came to the surface, and as seen on the Arlen film, he joked with the cast, particularly the comedian Allen Jenkins. He postured and mugged for Arlen’s camera and affectionately cuddled Sybil Jason. At the time Arlen was unaware of Jolson’s slippage in Hollywood. After completing “The Singing Kid,” he was ignored by the film industry, and when called back a few years later, he appeared in secondary roles. “The Singing Kid” was his last starring part.

The Singing Kid



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