The Jolson Story

The Jolson Story is a 1946 American Technicolor musical biography film which purports to tell the life story of singer Al Jolson. It stars Larry Parks as Jolson, Evelyn Keyes as Julie Benson (approximating Jolson's wife, Ruby Keeler), William Demarest as his manager, Ludwig Donath and Tamara Shayne as his parents, and Scotty Beckett as the young Jolson.

The Jolson Story
Directed byAlfred E. Green
Produced bySidney Skolsky
Written byStephen Longstreet (screenplay)
Sidney Buchman (uncredited)
Harry Chandlee (adaptation)
Andrew Solt (adaptation)
StarringLarry Parks
Evelyn Keyes
William Demarest
Bill Goodwin
Music byMorris Stoloff
CinematographyJoseph Walker
Edited byWilliam A. Lyon
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • October 10, 1946 (1946-10-10)
Running time
128 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$2 million[1]
Box office$8 million (est. US/ Canada rentals)[2][3]

The Columbia Pictures production was written by Sidney Buchman (uncredited), Harry Chandlee, Stephen Longstreet and Andrew Solt. The dramatic scenes were directed by Alfred E. Green, with the musical sequences directed by Joseph H. Lewis. A sequel called Jolson Sings Again was released in 1949.


American burlesque performer Steve Martin offers to play a song for his audience, if they agree to sing along. Only one person does sing, a young boy named Asa Yoelson. Steve is bowled over by the boy's voice, but Asa realizes he should be singing at the synagogue with his father, Cantor Yoelson. Asa arrives late, and is later reprimanded by his strict father. Asa is reluctant to explain where he was, but Steve Martin visits the Yoelsons' home. He explains that he heard Asa sing at the burlesque house, and that he wants Asa to be part of his act. Papa Yoelson refuses to consider it.

Asa is determined to be in the act, and runs away to Baltimore, where he is taken to a home for boys. The kindly superintendent, Father McGee, is moved by Asa's determination, and finds Steve Martin, but he also notifies Asa's parents. When they appear, Asa tells them that he will keep running away until they allow him to go into show business. Asa's mother believes that it would be better to give Asa what he wants than have him running away all the time.

On stage, Asa gets bored with singing songs the same way all the time, and begins to improvise, much to Steve Martin's annoyance. When his voice suddenly breaks in the middle of a number, he starts whistling instead, but is unhappy and wants to go home. Steve says that they can work on stage together, which Asa has always wanted - previously he has only stood in the audience. Asa changes his mind, and his name: he begins to perform as Al Jolson.

At a variety show, blackface entertainer Tom Baron passes out drunk, and Al goes on in his place. Two theatrical entrepreneurs, Oscar Hammerstein and Lew Dockstader, are in the audience. Dockstader realizes that it was really Al who was on stage, and hires him join his minstrel show. Meanwhile, Hammerstein, who has not seen Baron work before, offers him a job at his theatre. Jolson doesn't wish to leave Steve Martin, but Steve thinks it is a perfect opportunity for him, and deliberately leads him onto the wrong train. Jolson enjoys his new job, and Dokstader is impressed by his abilities, but Jolson wants to add some new songs to the repertoire. He tries to discuss it with his boss, but Dokstader constantly fobs him off. One night, Jolson is out walking when he hears a band playing new, exciting jazz music; he enjoys it so much that he forgets that he has a show that night. Dockstader fires him, but wishes him luck for the future.

Al visits his parents, but does not stay long, because he receives a call from Tom Baron, who is now a theater manager  his singing was so bad that Hammerstein paid him off if he agreed to quit singing for good. Baron invites Al to join his Broadway show. Al agrees, but insists on choosing his own material. Tom is reluctant, but agrees. Al sings many new songs, including his signature tune, "Mammy", and he becomes so popular that he becomes the leading player and takes the show on tour.

At a Sunday night concert, Al, who has never been interested in girls, meets an up-and-coming dancer named Julie Benson. It is love at first sight for Al, and only a few hours after meeting her, he proposes to her. (Al Jolson was actually married four times. The character Julie Benson is modeled on his real-life wife Ruby Keeler). She is not in love with him, but he will not take no for an answer, and she finally agrees to consider it. Julie falls in love with Al, after he supports her during her first show, and they marry. But Julie is not as fond of show business as he is; she wants to quit and settle down. Al persuades her to continue with it. She stars in a string of pictures, and becomes a success. Eventually, they star in a film together, but Julie can't stand any more. When Al realises that the only way to keep Julie is to quit showbusiness, he agrees to quit, and they move to the country.

Al refuses all job offers and absolutely will not sing, even for family and friends. But one night, at a dinner celebrating the wedding anniversary of Al's parents, Papa Yoelson persuades his son to join him in a song  the music he and Mama Yoelson danced to at their wedding  and Al gets caught up in it and ends up improvising words. Then, Tom Baron suggests they go to a nightclub and see the early floor show. Jolson is reluctant, fearing he'll be recognized, and the bandleader indeed does introduce him as he sits at the table with the others. The crowd demands a song and though he tries to fob the crowd off, it is no use and he has to sing. He initially agrees to sing one song, but the crowd yell for more, and he ends up taking over the show. Julie realizes he is happier than he has been in a long time and leaves while he's performing. She walks out of the picture, and out of his life, leaving Al to his first love: singing.


Plot accuracy

Some of the plot details were fictionalized. There is no evidence that Jolson ever appeared as a child singer, and he was brought up by his sister, not his mother (who had died). Jolson actually had three managers, who were combined into the William Demarest character, "Steve Martin". Ruby Keeler refused to allow her name to be used, so the writers used an alias, "Julie Benson". [4]


Larry Parks' vocals were recorded by Al Jolson; Scotty Beckett's songs were recorded by Rudy Wissler. Al Jolson, determined to appear on screen somehow, persuaded the producer to film him instead of Larry Parks for the blackface "Swanee" number. Jolson is seen entirely in long shot; he performs on a theater runway.

Filming was already under way as a black-and-white feature when studio chief Harry Cohn, impressed by the scenes already filmed, decided to start the project all over as a Technicolor production.

Jolson had a 50% share of the profits.[5]

Awards and honors

The film was a tremendous financial success, and won Academy Awards for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture, and Best Sound Recording (John Livadary). It was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Larry Parks), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (William Demarest), Best Cinematography, Color and Best Film Editing.[6] The film was also entered into the 1947 Cannes Film Festival.[7]

The film is recognized by the American Film Institute in these lists:

Radio adaptation

Lux Radio Theatre presented The Jolson Story on February 16, 1948. Jolson starred as himself in the one-hour adaptation.[9]


  • "I heard some music tonight. Something they call 'jazz.' The fellows just make it up as they go along. They pick it out of the air." (Jolson to Dockstader)
  • "[I'm] trying to make songs out of music I picked up. Music nobody ever heard of before, but the only kind I want to sing." (Jolson, explaining what he's been doing)
  • "That's an audience that never saw a live show. People in small towns who can afford a movie, where they can't afford anything else. Audience of millions. I'd be singing to every one of them at the same time. That's really something!" (Jolson, discussing the new talking picture)
  • "Tonight, folks, I'm only going to sing two thousand songs. One to a customer." (Jolson)
  • "Broadway? What a street! You know something, baby? It belongs to me. You know something else? If you want, I'll give it to you." (Jolson)

Songs in the film


  1. "Al Jolson Sequel", Variety, 16 July 1947, p. 1
  2. "All Time Domestic Champs", Variety, 6 January 1960, p. 34
  3. "Top Grossers of 1947", Variety, 7 January 1948, p. 63
  4. Natale, Richard; Natale, Richard (1993-03-01). "Legendary Keeler dies of cancer". Variety. Retrieved 2019-04-19.
  5. "Inside Stuff-Pictures". Variety. February 5, 1947. p. 18.
  6. "The 19th Academy Awards (1947) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-19.
  7. "Festival de Cannes: The Jolson Story". Retrieved 2009-01-06.
  8. "AFI's Greatest Movie Musicals Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-13.
  9. "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 43 (4): 32. Autumn 2017.
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