Wednesday, November 19, 2014

SAY IT WITH SONGS (1929)

Al Jolson's stunning late-in-life comeback helped people forget that it was movies like Say it with Songs that drove him out of the public consciousness to begin with. So bad is Say it with Songs -- a musical about an emotionally-manipulative singer with a gambling problem who's imprisoned for manslaughter (sounds fun!) -- that it seems like a personal vendetta by scenarist Darryl F. Zanuck. Even the ridiculous call letters of the radio station where Jolson's character Joe Powers sings, QRSA, sound like some kind of a private joke. 

Zanuck couldn't even be bothered giving Powers' five year-old son a name, being referred to only as "the little kid," "junior" and, of course, "little pal" -- the name of the movie's breakout hit. I thought you needed to name your child before bringing him home from the hospital.

Jolson tries not to strangle his little pal.
Joe's imprisonment, by the way, was due to fatally beating up the radio station manager, Arthur, for trying to blackmail Joe's wife Kitty. (He would renew Joe's contract only if Kitty was "nice" to him.) In an outrageous abuse of jurisprudence, the judge presiding over his trial questioned Little Pal regarding his dad's state of mind before the killing. The bigmouth brat's helpful testimony: "He said he was going to kill him dead!" Thanks, kid. Now go play in traffic. 


Killers love nothing more than
being forced to listen to maudlin
pop songs.

Unlike most fresh meat in prison, Joe doesn't get on with the others by providing drugs, but, rather, singing them a chin-up number, "Birdies Sing in Cages, Why Can't You?" Yeah, that's what the boys in gray would want to hear in real life, a third-rate TED Talk set to music. No way would they hold his face down in an unwashed toilet while taking turns being "nice" to him.

Once he's out of the slammer, Joe tracks Little Pal down to the boarding school Kitty has enrolled him in while she works for Robert Merrill (a surgeon, not the opera singer who was always on The Ed Sullivan Show.) After a brief reunion, Joe leaves, not noticing that Little Pal is following him through the busy Los Angeles streets, where he gets mowed down by a jalopy. Considering that he was the ultimate cause of Joe's prison term, this would seem like just desserts.

"Who's that old guy putting the moves
on you all the time?"
While in the hospital, the kid is diagnosed with damage to his spine, nerves and vocal chords. You'd leave your kid in the hospital for a spell, right? Not Joe Powers. He carries Little Pal to Dr. Merrill, who has loved Kitty since he was "a young intern." Judging by his age, that would have made Kitty about six months old at the time. Merrill offers to perform life-saving surgery for free if Joe gives up kid to Kitty. Otherwise, it'll cost $5,000. That must have been part of the 1929 version of the Hippocratic oath. (Little Pal's private school doesn't even notice that he's missing until Merrill calls them the following day. What the hell kind of medical and educational standards does Los Angeles have anyway?)

Taken aback by Merrill's questionable ethics, Joe swears to "rob every house in town" in order to pay another surgeon instead, which makes no sense whatsoever. But he soon has a change of heart, returning the kid to Merrill and his dangerous-looking X-ray machine. (It appears to give cancer to people three floors below.) Little Pal can walk once more, but regains his power of speech only when hearing Joe singing "Little Pal" on a record, leading to a happy ending for the audience, who no longer has to watch the movie.


No microphone was needed for Jolson
to be heard over the airwaves.
It's been said that to truly appreciate Al Jolson, you had to have seen him live in concert. And during his upbeat numbers, that legendary to-the-rafters style is infectious, being the only times Jolson performs naturally. But no dramatic actor was he, especially during emotional scenes when his vocal chords quiver as if caught in a wind tunnel. Didn't anyone at Warners remember that Jolson was a star of Broadway musical comedies?

There are times, too, when he appears to be ad-libbing his lines, and not in a good way. When accused by Dr. Merrill of kidnapping Little Pal from school, Jolson replies, "Say, what's the idea? I came in to see about saving my boy's life, and you start beating around the bush!" Umm, yes, alright, have a seat...

Director Lloyd Bacon instructs Jolson
to believably sit still for two minutes.
Say it with Songs has an undeniably cheap look to it as well, with an outrageously phony painting of the Brooklyn Bridge standing in for the real thing being the worst of it. It was a strange way to treat Jolson, who saved the studio's bacon when bankruptcy loomed. After all, The Jazz Singer made movie history in 1927 as the first feature with singing and talking sequences. The following year, The Singing Fool, another part-talkie, immediately became the highest-grossing movie ever made (surpassed by Gone with the Wind 11 years later). 

"Alright, Jolie, enough
already!"
Say it with Songs tried to replicate The Singing Fool's success by bringing back Jolson's co-star, Davey Lee, as his son. The latter movie made "Sonny Boy" the biggest-selling record of the year, so, true to formula, Jolson warbles "Little Pal" over and over and over here. One wonders what this barely-out-of-diapers kid thought of a bombastic entertainer singing in his face like a cyclone all the time. 

Maybe Warner Bros. cynically thought that anything with Jolson's name on it would sell tickets. If so, they were wrong. Say it with Songs premiered at Warners' flagship theatre in Times Square, but was pulled after two days of negative reviews and bad business. While Jolson continued to flourish onstage, movie audiences didn't care much to hear him say it with songs or anything else for that matter.

Parental cruelty alert: Davey Lee retired from movies at his mother's request in 1930 in order for him to have a normal childhood, forcing him to give up a weekly salary of $30,000 (or about $428,000 in today's money). I got Davey's autograph, by the way, at an Al Jolson centennial convention in in 1985. What was astonishing then was just meeting someone who had starred in movies with Al Jolson in the 1920s. Now, it's knowing that he was only three years older than I am now.  

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