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Cherry Pop

'The Al Jolson Collection'
(Al Jolson / DVD / NR / 2009 / Warner Archieves)

Overview & DVD Verdicts: Al Jolson was known in the industry as "The World's Greatest Entertainer," for well over 40 years. Foreshadowing rock & roll in shameless excess, Al Jolson belted out showstoppers in nearly 20 movies, most of which are unknown to today's viewers largely because Jolie's politically incorrect blackface has kept his movies off TV and video.

After his death his influence continued unabated with such performers as Sammy Davis Jr., Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Jackie Wilson and Jerry Lee Lewis, all mentioning Jolson as an inspiration.

'Big Boy' may well be the closest a modern audience will ever come to seeing what a genuine Al Jolson Broadway musical looked like. Based on his 1925 stage hit, the film casts Jolson in the blackface role of Gus, a stableboy at a moss-covered Southern plantation. Gus' favorite horse is the magnificent Big Boy, whom he hopes to ride to victory at the Kentucky Derby.

Through a misunderstanding, Gus is fired from his job, but he manages to make his way to Louisville during Derby week by working as a singing waiter. Against all odds, our hero manages to win the Big Race -- at which point the scene fades to a "curtain call" on a Warner Bros. soundstage, with Jolson, minus makeup and out of character, cheerfully introducing the supporting cast and offering to sing few encores for the benefit of the spectators.

Broadway legend Al Jolson and his second wife Ruby Keeler costarred in this thin backstage musical. In keeping with Jolson's earlier starring films, the plotline is melodramatic to the point of risibility. Jolson plays an irresponsible performer whose unprofessional antics incur the wrath of Actor's Equity.

Suspended from the stage, Jolson spends all his money on gambling, but is "cured" after his wife (Ruby) is wounded when Jolson shoots it out with a rival. Musical highlights include "A Latin From Manhattan", "A Quarter to Nine" (Jolie's at his best here) and the title number.

On the strength of his previous hits The Jazz Singer (1927) and The Singing Fool (1928), Al Jolson was Hollywood's hottest star in 1929. Jolson's cinematic offering for that year was Say It With Songs, a characteristic blend of music, comedy and treacly sentiment. The star is cast as Joe Lane, a radio star who hits it big then begins neglecting his wife Katherine (Marian Nixon) and his dewy-eyed son "Little Pal" (Davey Lee, Jolson's co-star in Singing Fool) in favor of the gaming tables.

Joe is brought down to earth when his manager and "best friend" begins putting the moves on Katherine. Accidentally killing the manager in a fight, Joe heads off to prison, extracting a promise from Katherine that she will wait for him. During his incarceration, however, Katherine makes the acquaintance of a handsome surgeon (John Bowers), and it looks as if their friendship will blossom into love. When "Little Pal" is struck by a car on the same day that Joe is paroled, the young surgeon saves the kid's life, thereby bringing Joe and Katherine back together again.

Popular film lore has it that The Jazz Singer was the film that established the talkie as the pre-eminent film medium in 1927. But it was Al Jolson's follow-up film, The Singing Fool that actually introduced the sound film to the general film-going population of the United States and it was the popularity of The Singing Fool that paved the way for the wide-acceptance of sound features.

Jolson plays Al Stone, a singing waiter at Blackie Joe's cafe, who writes a hit song and sky-rockets to success as a Broadway headliner. Looking ahead to unlimited success, Al falls in love with scheming golddigger Molly Winton (Josephine Dunn), whom he marries. When Molly gives him a son, Sonny Boy (Davey Lee), Al is beside himself with love for his cutey-pie offspring.

But when Molly deserts him for small-time gangster John Perry (Reed Howes) and takes Sonny Boy with her, Al is heartbroken. His spirit shattered, Al becomes a bum and, after a time, regains his singing waiter job at Blackie Joe's.

Strictly for Al Jolson's most fervent fans, The Singing Kid casts Jolie as neurotic Broadway star Al Jackson. Facing professional ruin when he loses his voice, Al heads to the country to regain his vocal timbre and to get his head back together. While recuperating, he falls in love with farm girl Ruth Haines (Beverly Roberts), the pretty aunt of precocious little Sybil Haines (Sybil Jason).

The kid bids fair to steal the picture, but Big Al isn't about to let that happen! Much as it must have pained him, Jolson shares the spotlight with such specialty performers as Wini Shaw, Cab Calloway, the Yacht Club Boys and the knockabout comedy team of Mitchell and Durant.

Based on Al Jolson's 1931 Broadway hit, Wonder Bar transposes the "Grand Hotel" formula to a lavish nightclub in Paris' Montmartre district. Presiding over the evening's entertainment is manager-emcee Al Wonder (Jolson), who after greeting his guests in a multitude of languages (a la Joel Grey in Cabaret) introduces a steady stream of top variety acts. The star attraction of the Wonder Bar floor show is the Latin dance team of Inez (Dolores Del Rio) and Harry (Ricardo Cortez).

Al worships Inez from afar, but she is hopelessly in love with Harry, a no-good louse who is carrying on with Liane (Kay Francis), the wife of prominent banker Renaud (Henry Kolker). Meanwhile, German military officer Captain Von Ferring (Robert H. Barrat), who has lost his fortune to bad investments, enjoys one last fling at the Wonder Bar before committing suicide.

The two main subplots converge when Inez stabs Harry out of pique, whereupon the ever-loyal Al deposits Harry's body in Von Ferring's car, knowing full well that Von Ferring intends to drive himself off a steep hill to his death.

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