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Parks as Jolson meets Parks as Parks
Jolson Sings Again
1949, Columbia. Directed by Henry Levin; script by Sidney Buchman. With Larry Parks, Barbara Hale, Wiliam Demarest, Ludwig Donath
For most of its length, this movie is shapeless, pointless and really cheap. But in its last 20 minutes it turns into a classic of self-referential cinema.
Jolson Sings Again is a follow-up toThe Jolson Story, an unexpectedly successful movie biography of Al Jolson. In that movie, a little-known actor named Larry Parks played Jolson, with Jolson himself recording all the songs (and appearing in long-shot as himself in one scene that he thought Parks wasn't up to). Since that first film covered Jolson's entire career, this sequel is kind of thin on material. It purports to dramatize Jolson's later life, climaxing with his participation in the filming of The Jolson Story.
Larry Parks again plays Jolson. Consequently, when, toward the end of Jolson Sings Again, Jolson is introduced to the young actor cast to star in The Jolson Story, we see Larry Parks as Jolson shake hands with Larry Parks as himself. No double-exposure shot ever vibrated quite so much.
With two Larrys running around, the movie takes on a Where Am I? dimension. The purportedly documentary montage about the making of The Jolson Story has a surrealistic air. Jolson tells his life story to the writers, scripts are typed and mimeographed, Jolson (Parks' figure but Jolson's voice) records the sound track, cameras whir, editors snip, prints get shipped to theaters. Throughout the process, Parks appears sometimes as Jolson (his temples slightly grayed), sometimes as himself (usually wearing blue jeans). In one shot, Jolson and Parks rehearse "Toot-Toot-Tootsie" together in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror. There are four Larry Parkses! Parks as Parks, Parks's reflection, Parks as Jolson, and Parks-as-Jolson's reflection.
Apparently the real Al Jolson made Parks's life miserable during the filming of both The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again, drilling him on every inflection, every expression, every gesture. We see a bit of this reenacted in a scene where Jolson stands behind the camera watching Parks film a song; Jolson mouths the words and gesticulates along, obviously itching to be up there himself. It must have been interesting for Larry Parks, this chance to play his own tormentor in action.
Then there's the scene where Jolson and Parks meet. It starts as Jolson and the producer settle into a screening room and the lights go down. Then, without a cut, a figure later revealed to be Parks slips into the room and is subsequently presented to Jolson. Now obviously, since Larry Parks is playing Jolson in this shot, the "Parks" who comes into the room (he's seen only in shadow) must be played by someone else. My husband wondered if Larry Parks took this opportunity to get a little of his own back, agressively "coaching" his stand-in on the Parks mannerisms.
A final little collision occurs at the end of Jolson Sings Again, which shows the premiere of The Jolson Story. We see Jolson and Parks in the audience nodding at each other before the film starts. Several times we get a shot from the back of the theater, showing the heads of the audience, the proscenium, the screen draped with curtains, the movie in progress. Onscreen is a scene of Jolson performing, full-figure on a stage in front of curtains. The curtains in the film and the curtains in the movie theater blend together. It looks like Jolson is performing live on stage in that theater, except that he's about 1-1/2 times the size he would be in real life. Each time the shot comes on it's a joltfiguring out what exactly you're supposed to be seeing. If you saw Jolson Sings Again in a movie theater with a curtained proscenium, it would be even more fun.
I don't think the makers of this movie had anything sophisticated in mind about performance, artifice, or the relationship between signifier and significand. They knew, however, that people like to see movies about moviemaking, that such movies are pretty cheap to make (you've already got the props and the sets; you just turn the cameras around), and that, occasionally, the outside movie overtakes the inside movie and something funny and provocative happens.
copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein