December 13, 2015

Larry Parks, The Jolson Story


By now, I've watched a number of biopics and a number of films about actors, but I believe this is the first Oscar-nominated performance in which the actor in question plays a real-life performer who was in Hollywood movies. And so The Jolson Story has got that going for it I suppose. Watching it is like watching a literal lovechild of Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Great Ziegfeld, and Larry Parks is tasked with the hefty challenge of carrying a monotonous film runs much too long.
Now, it's not that I didn't like Parks's performance. I actually really did in the beginning. One can tell that Parks went all-in here. His passion resonates throughout his performance, most notably through his musical numbers, which show his prowess as a stage performer and are really the driving force into what makes this film worth watching. He's vivacious and easy to watch for the most part. But watching this performance and watching Parks, while you are able to understand that Jolson lives to perform...there's little else. Perhaps it's due to the story being the life rights of Al Jolson himself, and thus the story presented is one that's very clean-cut and conservative, but it turns out that The Jolson Story is actually an incredibly dull one. It's over two hours of Larry Parks rising up the ranks as a performer, with very little else to offer in terms of characterization; thus, all we're ever able to see is how excited Jolson is to be performing, how passionate he is about performing, and while that's all captured by Parks just fine, when the movie in which the performance belong doesn't develop, and especially when the movie could have been at least half an hour shorter, what was initially an interesting quality about Parks comes off as one-note over time. I wouldn't mind revisiting the film again, probably just to see one of the musical numbers again, but I could care less about the film or the performance as a whole.

1 comment:

  1. I think you're right in many ways re: Larry Parks' performance: he has energy and charisma and he does a superb job of lip sinking to Al Jolson's newly recorded vocals. He also does an admirable job of indicating without just imitating Jolson's performing style. After all, Jolson had been one of the most popular entertainers of the first half of the 20th century so he was still very familiar to audiences.

    Unfortunately, the combination of Jolson's involvement in script approval and the inherent nature of films in this era to avoid controversy means that Parks was saddled with a rather banal screenplay and a character with most of the rough edges sanded away. His character doesn't change or grow .... he just goes on to the next big show or boffo performance. The film was a huge hit, which is why it was followed by the sequel "Jolson Sings Again" in 1949, a reasonable hit though not on the level of TJS. Sadly, Parks was another victim of the motion picture Blacklist in the McCarthy era. His career never recovered from this and he was never given another chance to display or develop the potential that was evident in his "Jolson Story" work.