Singing Along

The sun is moody, my household’s a mess (as usual at the end of the week) and I have a long list of chores. And what do I do?! Procrastinate of course. I had a lovely breakfast, practiced my dancing steps and now I love to play some of my favorite songs to sweeten my day.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t stop singing along when a classic song comes up. Especially if it’s a tune I haven’t listened to in a while but have always loved. Once a song has popped up in my mind, another one usually follows and I end up with an entire playlist. So, fellow music lovers, let’s see what I’ve come up with so far. Maybe you’re in the mood to join my lilting.

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The Benny Goodman Story

Talkie of the Week: The Benny Goodman Story

USA 1956, 116 minutes, color, Universal Pictures. Director: Valentine Davies, Written by Valentine Davies, Cast: Steve Allen, Donna Reed, Bertha Gersten, Herbert Anderson, Robert F. Simon, Barry Truex, Hy Averbeck, Sammy Davis Sr., Dick Winslow, Shepard Menken, Jack Kruschen, Wilton Graff, Fred Essler, David Kasday, John Erman

Plot summary: As a boy, Benny Goodman studied the clarinet and discovered his love for the world of music, a world he took by storm and redefined as an adult.

Review: The film industry has always loved a good story that’s rooted in real life: Al Jolson, Tom Edison, Glenn Miller – the dream factory’s fondness for biopics reaches back to its early days when Hollywood itself was still a land.
The Benny Goodman Story is one of those biographical films – not as successful as its predecessor, The Glenn Miller Story from 1954, but every bit as musical and entertaining. Starring Steve Allen as Benny Goodman, the famous clarinetist, the film starts in the musician’s childhood and follows his path from his roots in Chicago to his ultimate success in California and the rest of the United States. Throughout the film, Allen gave a quiet performance of a man whose sentiments became tangible in his music. He was supported by a lovely Donna Reed whose character underwent a believable transition from a true skeptic to a woman who fell in love with Benny Goodman and his revolutionary music.

Although already blessed with two strong, experienced performers, the real excellence of this pictures lies in the performances and appearances of many real, contemporary artists, Ben Pollack and Gene Krupa to only name two. It is their music and enthusiasm that makes this picture special and papers over the cracks of a wildly fictitious story, another biopic tradition Hollywood continued with the production of The Benny Goodman Story. For anyone who can’t help but swing it to Goodman’s rhythm and tunes, this film is a real treat. Fifty-six years after its original release, the movie still has what it takes to attract a music-loving audience of all ages.

The film is available on DVD. You can watch The Benny Goodman Story trailer here.

In Loving Memory

In 1916, my grandma was born. August 18th was her birthday. Gregory Peck was born that year, so were Kirk Douglas, Betty Grable and Olivia de Havilland. WWI was haunting Europe, leaving an entire generation lost and scarred. Radio was the connection to the world and newspapers the main source of information. Irving Berlin was a big name in music and Cole Porter presented his debut, See America First, on Broadway. Al Jolson was big in show business, as well as movie stars such as Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. James Joyce published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man while Claude Monet and Henri Matisse created some of their most beautiful paintings.

The world my grandmother grew up in seems so different now from ours and yet I always felt our souls were one and the same.When she entered her teens, she was affected by the Great Depression like everybody else. Those years shaped her understanding of money and security, and made her frugal despite her generosity. When she was barely of age, the world was shaken by another World War, a catastrophe that shaped her decisions about marriage, family and friendship. When the war was over, the world changed yet again, with women (despite their inferior legal status) struggling to juggle their jobs, children and returning soldier men. In the 50s, my grandma couldn’t afford to live the dream of a housewife, she had to work to support her two children because her husband’s salary alone didn’t suffice. She worked in a field she had been trained in with her father’s permission before the war and stayed with the same company until she finally retired at sixty. It took her years to afford a washing machine or other amenities, her household eating up much more time, without the help of her husband. I don’t know how she did it, but she cooked every day and created delicious meals on a tighter budget than I am scraping by today. She was a beloved host and as a child I always aspired to get as much praise for my cooking as she did.

It is her discipline, warmth and love I remember the most, the everyday routine she kept even after she had long stopped working. Her closet always looked impeccable, with neatly folded sheets and her well-groomed wardrobe. Her clothes were ladylike, her hair curly and naturally gray. When I close my eyes, I immediately see her in the kitchen, an apron safely tugged around her waist and her glasses steamed up from adding a secret ingredient to my favorite dishes. I often wonder how she would feel about my vintage life today and remember the feeling of reaching for the phone to ask her for a recipe or some advice long after she had already passed away. Sometimes I hear her voice in my dreams and I see her face smiling at me. When I wake up, I always feel blessed but also lonely for her presence, then I realize how many of the things I love were cherished and celebrated by her in a humble way. She read whodunits, loved music, embraced solitude as well as company and liked to talk to me at least an hour every day. Like me, she also loved Perry Mason and when I look at Della Street in her senior years, I always feel reminded of my grandma and what a gift it was to have been loved by her.

Jolson Sings Again

Talkie of the Week: Jolson Sings Again

USA 1949, 96 minutes, color, Columbia Pictures. Director: Henry Levin, Producer: Sidney Buchman, Written by: Sidney Buchman. Cast: Larry Parks, Barbara Hale, William Demarest, Bill Goodwin, Ludwig Donath, Tamara Shayne,

Plot summary: Al Jolson’s success story continues after the divorce from his first wife. He has to learn to come to terms with life outside of show business and the struggles to return to it.

Review: Jolson Sings Again is one of those rare examples of a sequel that lives up to the original film it is based on. The film does not only pick up where The Jolson Story left us, it also continues to charm us with its many convincing performances, Al Jolson’s memorable music and its predecessor’s fairytale quality.

Jolson Sings Again shows an aging and changed Al Jolson who throws himself into work after his wife has left him, only to retreat himself to a jet set life after his many shows start to wear him out. Primarily a star of gossip sections for many years, he finally decides to return to what he does best and is one of the first performers to entertain the troops abroad, starting as early as 1942. Although deeply committed to his assignment, Al Jolson is sent home from Europe after he is struck down by a fever and collapses. He wakes up in an Army hospital to the tender care of Ellen Clark, a hearty young nurse from Arkansas. The story continues as it should: Al falls in love with Ellen and marries her. Her earthy wisdom and classic beauty complement his restlessness with utmost patience and care. It is her, in contrast to his first wife, who supports his passion for singing and the stage. Although commanding him to rest enough to cure his fever, she also encourages him to resume his career in order to kill the boredom and frustration he is struggling with by sitting home all day. It is apparent that his second wife is very different from his first.

Jolson Sings Again ends on a happy note as a good Hollywood fairytale should. It is bittersweet in essence, but very inspiring. Larry Parks gives another breathtaking performance as Al Jolson, lip-synching the master to perfection and adding a believable tranquility to his otherwise lively character. Parks has a sparkling on-screen chemistry with Barbara Hale who plays good-natured, beautiful and savvy Ellen Clark. Based on Al Jolson’s fourth wife in real life, fictitious Ellen Clark adds to the skillful depiction of authentic characters, performed with ease and graceful sweetness by Baby Face Barbara Hale.

Available on VHS and DVD.

The Jolson Story

Talkie of the Week: The Jolson Story

USA 1946, 128 minutes, color, Columbia Pictures. Director: Alfred E. Green, Producer: Sidney Sklolsky, Written by: Stephen Longstreet, Sidney Buchman, Harry Chandlee, Andrew Solt. Cast: Larry Parks, Evelyn Keyes, William Demarest, Bill Goodwin, Ludwig Donath, Scotty Beckett, Tamara Shayne, Jo-Carroll Dennison, John Alexander

Plot summary: A young Jewish boy called Asa Yoelson stumbles into show business at the beginning of the 20th century and becomes a star of his own making as Al Jolson.

Review: The Jolson Story is modeled on the life of performer Al Jolson, famous singer, actor and comedian. The film, though partly fictionalized, shows Al Jolson’s roots in Vaudeville and Burlesque theater at the beginning of the 20th century and paints a rather dazzling picture of the rise of America’s famous Broadway, movie and Jazz star from the 1920s and 30s.

Larry Parks plays Al Jolson and does a beautiful job merging his own acting with original sound recordings made by Al Jolson himself. He was rightly rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for this film which features a lot of Al Jolson’s popular songs in an always exciting 128 minutes. Larry Parks is supported by a sparkling Evelyn Keyes and a highly entertaining William Demarest. Ludwig Donath and Tamara Shayne play Jolson’s parents and only add to the charm of this colorful tour de force. Originally a black & white feature, the film’s opulent scenery and production convinced studio chief Harry Cohn to re-shoot the already existing material in color – a mastermind decision, especially for the stage scenes and the overall musical appeal of the film.

All in all, The Jolson Story is a delicious example of 1940s commercial cinema. With its mixture of great acting and catchy tunes, the film is a perfect piece of nostalgia in our entertainment-hungry times. It’s an excellent lesson in the art of story-telling that uplifts the audience, as well as its protagonist and stars. Watched in combination with its sequel Jolson Sings Again (released in 1949), thisĀ  double feature package is a rhythmic treat on a relaxed Sunday afternoon with a bowl of popcorn and a pot of hot tea. A great reminder of “the good old days” when Hollywood still knew how to sell fairytales.

Available on VHS and DVD.