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THE JOLSON STORY – Morris Stoloff

September 12, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

GREATEST SCORES OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Original Review by Craig Lysy

Following the huge success of MGM’s musical Meet Me In St. Louis in 1944, Columbia Pictures decided to cash in on the genre. They chose to film a fictionalized biopic of the renowned singer, comedian, actor and vaudevillian Al Jolson, who in the 1920s self-billed himself as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer”. A team consisting of Stephen Longstreet, Sidney Buchman, Harry Chandlee and Andrew Solt were hired to create the screenplay, Sidney Skolsky was tasked with production with a budget of $2 million, and Alfred E. Green given the reins to direct. A fine cast was assembled, including Larry Parks as Al Jolson, Evelyn Keys as Julie Benson, William Demarest as Steve Martin, and Bill Goodwin as Tom Baron.

The film is set in the dawning days of the 20th century and follows the life of a young boy named Asa Yoelson, a son of a cantor, whose voice impresses burlesque performer Steve Martin. Martin tries to recruit the boy for his act, but is rebuffed by his conservative religious father. Yet Asa wants to perform and so runs away to Baltimore where he is found by both Martin and his parents. His parents relent after Asa threatens to keep running away, and he joins Martin, blossoms, and eventually becomes the greatest solo entertainers of all time. The film was a huge commercial success earning a $5.6 million profit, with its songs resonating with the public. It also was lauded by critics and earned six Academy Award nominations, including; Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Actor, winning two for Best Sound Recording and Best Score for a Musical Picture.

Morris Stoloff served a Director of Music for Columbia Pictures from 1936 – 1962 and so took personal charge for the important project. Given that this was a musical, he understood that he would provide the instrumental under score, which would weave the many songs together into a tapestry with a cogent and unifying musical narrative. The score would utilize all the iconic songs made famous by Al Jolson, from a truly amazing array of legendary and very talented song composers and lyricists, including Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Buddy DeSylva and Louis Silvers, Al Dubin and Harry Warren, and Irving Cohn and Frank Silvers. Stoloff created bridges between the various songs and musical narratives for scenes lacking stage performances, often utilizing one of the film’s song melodies or his own original composition. Having watched the film as part of my review, I must say the musical narrative flow is superb. Scenes coded (*) contain music not found on the digital album, most of which is Stoloff’s score.

The film opens with a crescendo by fanfare felice, which supports the Paramount Pictures logo. A string bridge ushers in the opening happy song “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” sung by Al Jolson, which supports the roll of the opening credits, which flow over a scrolling parchment filled with stars and musical script. The song perfectly sets the tone of the film, graced by Jolson’s singular vocals. In “Kernan’s Burlesque” (*) a waltz rendering of the song melody takes us into the film proper where we see a bustling New York City Street, which brings us to “Kernan’s Burlesque”. Inside a women’s troupe perform a can-can dance routine on stage supported by vibrant dance rhythms. Vaudevillian Steve Martin comes on stage a plays diegetically on his violin a few bars of Hungarian Dance #5 by Johannes Brahms. In “On The Banks of The Wabash” (*) Steve then agrees to play on his cello, with orchestral accompaniment “On the Banks of the Wabash” as long as the audience joins in. He plays the sentimental song, full of nostalgia and only one person sings, a young boy whose baritone voice is tender and pure.

Martin stops after the first stanza, stunned by the boy’s voice. He asks for a reprise and the young boy again graces us, but he then runs out realizing that he is late for practice at his synagogue. Asa arrives and enters and then joins the choir singing the traditional Jewish hymn “Ahavas Olom”. Later Steve stops by Asa’s house to recruit him for his show, Asa wants to join, but is forbidden by his father. Asa is sent to his room and an orchestral rendering of “On the Banks of the Wabash” supports his decision to run away from home. As he runs to stowaway on a train, the melody transforms into a flight motif, eventually slowing as he jumps off and is caught by a policeman.

“Ave Maria” reveals Asa interned into a Catholic home for boys and recruited to sing. He joins the choir singing the classic liturgical hymn “Ave Maria by Franz Shubert as Father McGee meets with Mr. Martin and Asa’s parents. Asa convinces them to allow him to join the show and we flow into “When You Were Sweet Sixteen” where we see Asa sing on stage the second stanza of the yearning romantic ballad “When You Were Sweet Sixteen” by James Thornton. string borne rendering of the song supports a letter by Asa to his family, which reveals the cities he and the show are performing. We flow into a montage of Asa performing supported by several songs, beginning with “Mammy”, a sentimental song sung by a boy to his mother. In “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” (*) a churning string ostinato supports Steve giving Asa lessons on the train. We the return to the stage where Asa sings the classic love ballad “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”. Afterwards Steve admonishes Asa for adding lyrics to the song. But he says he is bored and wants to change thing up. Stoloff supports with a dance-like musical narrative by strings felice. “Goodbye My Blue Bell” (*) reveals Asa singing the sad love song and midway his voice breaking. Unable to continue singing he completes the song with bird song-like whistling with orchestral accompaniment. The montage ends with Asa, now a young man using his new stage name Al Jolson, whistling through America. A letter informing his parents is supported by warm familial strings. In a hotel room an ecstatic Al wakes Steve and sings a stanza of “When You Were Sweet Sixteen” to show him his voice has at last matured and returned.

In “Ma Blushin’ Rosie” Tom is drunk, and so Al decides, without notifying Steve, to replace him and sing his part in a black face routine as festive Can-Can music plays in the background. On stage two women dance with hoops to a playful musical narrative. Taking the stage, Al sings the classic effusive love ballad. Afterwards, Steve is determined to get Tom back on stage to complete the act and he and Al try to sober him up. Stoloff interpolates the valzer felice Wiener Blut Opus 354 by Johan Strauss. Lew Dockstater and Oscar Hammerstein II watched the performance and Lew hires Al for his new musical. Al is conflicted and he reluctantly agrees to accept, with Steve’s blessing. His first performance is “I Want a Girl”, the classic aspirational love song; later, he shares some ideas for the show with Lew, but is turned down as the orchestra plays “Swanee River” by Stephen Foster and “I Want a Girl” by Harry von Tilzer and William Dllon in the background. He continues to perform singing “I Want a Girl” on stage, and the melody carries him on a walk-through New Orleans French Quarter. He comes upon a bar catering to blacks and is captivated by the festive jazz played by its band.

Back at the theater he fails to convince his boss Mr. Dockstader to update his number, and they part ways amicably. Later, while visiting his family, Tom calls and offers him a job performing at his new Broadway theater Winter Garden, which he accepts on condition that he can introduce his new songs. Its opening night for the musical “Vera Violetta” with the women’s dance troupe animated by classic Can-Can music. The show has run long, so the director cuts his act, but Al will not be stopped, forces his way on stage and gives a classic Al Jolson over the top rendering of “Mammy” in black face, which garners a standing ovation. The next day racing strings and horns support headline declaring the show a hit, and Al Jolson a smash! The kinetic musical narrative supports a montage of headlines lauding Jolson’s success. He calls in Steve and hires him to be his manager as he needs help running his expanding business.

The next two songs offer musical highlights with iconic songs. “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” reveals opening night of a new musical, “Honeymoon Express” with Al singing the classic happy go lucky song. In “You Made Me Love You”, it is a new performance, which runs long. So, Al bypasses the final scenes and decides to treat the audience to a new song, the timeless romantic ballad “You Made Me Love You”. eadlines declare 40 weeks of success for “Honeymoon Express” supported by vibrant soaring strings. In “Swanee” Al decides to place a runway from the stage through the center of the theater to bring him closer to the people, and we see him using it as he performs the classic Gershwin song. “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’ Bye!)” reveals Al deciding that the whole country needs to see his show, and so he takes it on the road. A montage follows of headlines in cities across the country, empowered by the propulsive song “Toot, Toot Tootsie”.

In “The Spaniard That Blighted My Life” opens his show in Washington D.C. and invites his family and friends. He opens with this comic revenge ballad, replete with the requisite Spanish auras and dance rhythms. “Jolson’s Run of Success” (*) opens with racing strings and celebratory horns, which support a montage of billboard displays beginning with the musical “Sinbad” in its 28th week, followed by 94th week. A new musical opening night for “Bombo” follows, with a billboard displaying 97th week. Then the opening of “Big Boy” followed by 75th week, 102nd week, and then 3rd year. Al then decides to accept an offer to star in a new “talkie” film, which will allow millions to see him perform. Celebratory horns and harp glissandi support headline of the picture. As Papa Yoelson tries to explain talkie movies to his wife, sentimental strings support. Fanfare dramatico supports a poster “Sunday Concert with Al Jolson”. Inside he announces he will star in the talkie movie “The Jazz Singer” and informs the crowd that he will sing countless songs for them tonight as he will be away for a while. He sees a beautiful woman in the crowd, Julie Benson, whom he asks to select the first song. She selects “April Showers”, a musical highlight, which speaks of the joy of blossoming spring. Al then performs another musical highlight, the classic aspirational Americana song “California, Here I Come”.

Later, during a reception party at his house, Julie sings a reprise of the song in Jolson’s exaggerated style. He pulls her out to the terrace where we see that each are smitten, with Stoloff supporting with a tender song-like romance for strings. He proposes and she declines, but he persists and we see her resolve weakening. We close unresolved with Al asking to drive her home The next day in (*) “Hollywood” Al tells Julie they will marry when he returns from California and we segue into a spirited horn propelled rendering of “California Here I Come” as we see a train churning along its tracks. The music sustains a montage of Al arriving in Hollywood, the script for “The Jazz Singer”, getting makeup, and having a scene setup for shooting. That night he calls Julie and wishes her well on her opening night tomorrow supported again by a romance for strings. Afterwards he impulsively tells Steve to book him a flight and reserve a seat so he can see Julie’s opening, exiting with silly woodwinds comici. “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)” opens with a drum roll as the billboard displays the Musical. On a beautiful stage with a golden staircase, which Julie commands, a men’s chorus sings the iconic song. Midway, Al stands up and begins singing the song to her, much to her delight. After the show she runs into his kissing embrace. Later Al wakes Steve up with a phone call to advise he has married Julie, and takes her home to meet his family.

“There’s a Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder” reveals the world premiere of Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” at the Winter Garden theater. He opens singing the song filled with unbridled happiness and love. “Julie Heads West” reveals that the “Jazz Singer” was a smash it, and that the studio has hired Al for a second film to capitalize. Julie cannot leave as her show is still running, but Al promises he will make up for this small delay. Big band fanfare supports a billboard displaying “Showgirl Last Week”. With the show closed Al tells Julie to come west and join him for a surprise, which she does carried by a few bars of “California Her I come”. When she arrives, Al springs the good news, a studio contract for her to star in movies to be shown in 97 languages across the world. She is delighted and signs. A montage follows of Julie rehearsing for the film supported by a spirited orchestral rendering of “Lullaby of Broadway” and “Forty-Second Street”. In “She’s a Latin from Manhattan” Julie’s film “42nd Street opens up with the festive song and dance number.

“Julie on Fire” (*) reveals the film is a smash hit and both the studio and Al encourage Julie, who wants a break, to make a second film. A montage of her rehearsing is supported by Harry Warren’s “The Gold Diggers’ Song (We’re in the Money)”. Billboards display “Shipmates Forever” and then “Dames” as successful films. Big band fanfare launches a new montage with a billboard displaying Julie’s next films, “Gold Diggers” and “Flirtation Walk”. Al then convinces Julie to do one last film, which ends their studio contract, “Go Into Your Dance”, a film in which they would at last star together. She agrees and we launch into “About a Quarter to Nine”, a classic yearning love song of a guy singing to his gal.

In “Al Gives in to Julie” (*) Al and Julie agree to take some time off and build a house in the countryside outside Hollywood. But when he then starts talking about starting his own company and making films, Julie breaks down, starts to cry, and leaves the room carried by a sad musical narrative. He goes to her bedroom and she tells him she can’t go on this way and we see in his eyes that he is fearful of losing her. So, he commits to the life she wants to live away from the grind of show business. Stoloff supports with a romance for strings, which blossoms as we see them arriving at their beautiful country home with him carrying her over the threshold. “The Jolson’s in Retirement” displays in script and offers a montage of newspaper clippings that reveal the two love birds enjoying their time together after two years. Stoloff creates an idyllic ambiance with a flowing danza gentile. Later, Julie surprises Al by bringing his parents to the house to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Tom also arrives and is invited to stay for the anniversary dinner. The next day as they walk to the dinner table, they all sing the melody of the Wedding March” by Felix Mendelssohn. “Anniversary Song” offers a sentimental score highlight. After a toast, Papa hums the melody of the song and coaxes Al to sing as he takes Mama to reprise their wedding day waltz. The valzer romantico flows effortlessly, empowered by Al’s heartfelt baritone vocals.

Afterwards in “Al Reborn” (*) Julie sees longing in Al’s eyes, having sung again after two years. Tom coaxes everyone to join him at the local night club, and although Al resists, Papa and Mama turn the tide, saying they want to go. As they are seated a women’s troupe dances to festive Latin rhythms, much to Papa’s delight. The next two songs offer musical highlights. In “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” Tom plots with the band leader and when they announce Al Jolson is among them, the crowd demands he sing a song for old times sake. Al, resists, but ultimately surrenders to the inevitable. He takes to the floor and selects the exuberant song. The crowd is ecstatic, demands more and we see the old spark return to Al’s eye as he sings the love ballad “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody”. After seeing joy return to Al, Julie admits to Papa that she made a mistake taking him away from what he loves most – singing and entertaining a crowd. Al then segues into “April Showers” as Julie tells Steve she is leaving Al, and to take care of him. She tells him that Al tried very hard, but we both know he has to perform to be truly happy. He tells her this will kill him, and she says her too, but look, have you ever seen him happier? The film closes with the camera on a happy Al singing joyously. For “The End”, the film ends exuberantly with a flourish.

While LP albums were issued in the past, the songs can only be heard on a digital album offered on streaming services, and there is no recording of Stoloff’s underscore. The songs have been digitally remastered and offer good sound quality, although some contain dialogue and audience applause. I cannot overstate that in my judgment the film’s musical success and Academy Award win was without a doubt due to its iconic songs, which have become legend, woven into America’s collective consciousness. Among these immortal classics are; “I’m Sitting on Top of the World”, “You Made Me Love You”, “Swanee”, “California, Here I Come”, “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee”, “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”, “Mammy”, and “I Want a Girl”. Larry Parks song vocals were dubbed by Al Jolson, who singular voice and exaggerated diction made him a truly unique performer. I believe Stoloff’s score masterfully wove together the film’s musical narrative of songs, creating the required bridges, and underpinning numerous scenes of character dialogue. Folks, I believe this musical score is a testament to Jolson’s talent and singular voice, and in my judgement, it is one of the classic Hollywood musicals of the Golden Age. I encourage you to take in the film and bear witness to one of the finest entertainers, and unique voices in cinematic history.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the iconic song “You Made Me Love You”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zM4de-vpr-k

Buy the Jolson Story soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Ma Blushin’ Rosie (written by Edgar Smith and John Stronberg) (2:33)
  • I Want a Girl (written by William Dillon and Harry Von Tilzer) (1:15)
  • Mammy (written by Walter Donaldson, Sam M. Lewis, and Joe Young) (2:58)
  • I’m Sitting on Top of the World (written by Ray Henderson, Sam M. Lewis, and Joe Young) (1:14)
  • You Made Me Love You (written by Joseph McCarthy and James V. Monaco) (1:36)
  • Swanee (written by Irving Caesar and George Gershwin) (0:53)
  • The Spaniard That Blighted My Life (written by Billy Merson) (2:43)
  • April Showers (written by Buddy DeSylva and Louis Silvers) (2:30)
  • California, Here I Come (written by Buddy De Sylva, Al Jolson, and Joseph Mayer) (2:10)
  • Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away) (written by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, and Gus Kahn) (2:10)
  • There’s a Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder (written by Dave Dreyer, Al Jolson, and Billy Rose) (0:53)
  • She’s a Latin from Manhattan (written by Al Dubin and Harry Warren) (1:18)
  • About a Quarter to Nine (written by Al Dubin and Harry Warren) (0:59)
  • Anniversary Song (written by Saul Chaplin and Al Jolson) (2:20)
  • Waiting for the Robert E. Lee (written by Louis Wolfe Gilbert and Lewis F. Muir) (1:21)
  • Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody (written by Sam M. Lewis, Jean Schwartz, and Joe Young) (3:05)
  • April Showers (written by Buddy De Sylva and Louis Silvers) (2:21)

Running Time: 33 minutes 40 seconds

Original Soundtracks (1946)

Music composed and conducted by Morris Stoloff. Orchestrations by Saul Chaplin and Martin Fried. Additional music by George Duning, Hugo Friedhofer, Arthur Morton and Marlin Skiles. Recorded and mixed by Edwin Wetzel. Score produced by Morris Stoloff.

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