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biographical film, biography, review, biopic, the jolson story

The Jolson Story (1946)

One of the first and most popular movie biopics of all time, The Jolson Story also set the standard for never letting the truth get in the way of a good story. In this it follows the guiding principal of its title character, whose primary concern was always to entertain.


The film’s early scenes mirror the plot of The Jazz Singer, as young Asa Yoelson defies his father and runs away from home to become an entertainer.  Teaming with vaudevillian Steve Martin, Jolson’s big break comes when he appears in blackface, leading to his signing with a travelling minstrel show.  But he soon grows tired of the show’s uniformity and having discovered ‘jazz’, sets out on his own to become ‘The World’s Greatest Entertainer’.  Yet the unending lure of the audience comes at a personal cost.


Nominated for an Academy Award, Larry Parks is simply superb as Al Jolson. He somehow manages to make the star’s brass egotism seem endearing rather than off-putting, and his performance and lip-syncing of the star’s songs are flawless.  Comic relief is provided by William Demarest as Jolson’s long-suffering partner cum-manager Steve Martin, as well as Ludwig Donath and Tamara Shayne as Jolson’s parents (whose fictional anniversary provides one of the film’s most memorable moments).


So successful was the biopic that a sequel was made, confirming Jolson’s catchcry that we ain’t heard nothing yet.

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The real-life inspiration for the fictional character of Julie Benson is actress Ruby Keeler, who refused to allow her name to be used in the film. Despite this, the titles of her films are correct.

The fictional character of Steve Martin is said to be a composite of the three managers Al Jolson had during his life.

Al Jolson's mother died in 1895, long before he became a star.

Biopic infers that Jolson had no personal life before meeting Julie Benson/Ruby Keeler. However, Jolson was married twice before their marriage.

Scene in which Jolson sings ‘Liza’ from the audience while his wife is on stage is fabricated. Jolson did sing from the audience, but not to help his wife but rather, in Ruby Keeler’s words, because he wanted to be part of the show.

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Most of the biopic's recreations are of Jolson's performances on stage. Though some time is dedicated to the pre-production of film’s first talkie The Jazz Singer, no scenes of that movie were recreated. Instead we get a scene from Al Jolson and his then wife Ruby Keeler’s only film together Go Into Your Dance.

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