Hallelulah, I'm a Bum 'Hallelujah I'm a Bum'

Hallelujah I'm a Bum, made by United Artists, was an adventurous film. Starring Al Jolson (pictured right) and directed by Lewis Milestone, it was about a gang of tramps who drop out of society in New York's Central Park. Its title supposedly summed up people's feelings about the depression.
The film was the most imaginative that Jolson ever made. He didn't black his face and he had to cope with rhythmic dialogue. 'What do you mean giving me a script like this?' he demanded, 'In rhyme yet! You really think the public wants this kinda stuff?' They didn't.
Hallelujah, I'm A Bum
United Artists (1933)
A story by Ben Hecht
Director : Lewis Milestone
Music : Richard Rodgers
Lyrics : Lorenz Hart
Cast includes : Frank Morgan, Madge Evans,
Harry Langdon, Chester Conklin.
 
World-Telegram: 'No Hallelujahs shall be shouted here, for the production is a far from enthralling example of motion picture art.'
Herald Tribune: 'The result of so much activity of so many masterminds is not a happy one.'
Screen Book Magazine: 'Is Jolson through?'
On its opening, Hallelujah, I'm A Bum was panned by the critics. It was a complete flop. Jolson's career, already slipping before he made the film, now slumped. Though he was contracted to make two more pictures for United Artists, they were never made and Jolson's banana-bag contract with United Artists was never fulfilled.
All the studios stopped knocking on Jolson's door.
Screen Book: 'Maybe Jolson, as does Broadway, feels that he has had his brief day of success on the screen.'
Jolie : ''You don't understand, Al.' they'd tell me. After thirty years in show business, I don't understand?'
 
If Al's star was waning, Ruby's was rising. 42nd Street created a new film musical where each number had a distinctive Busby Berkeley touch. Where Rodgers and Hart tried to integrate musical numbers into the story of Hallelujah, I'm a Bum, Busby Berkeley made each production number a world unto itself with overhead shots and a kaleidoscope of arms and legs.
Ruby played an aspiring dancer who taps her way to instant stardom and her 'ingratiating personality, coupled with her dances', turned out to be a highlight of the film.
New York Herald Tribune : 'Ruby Keeler was rather more valuable as a cinema player than her celebrated husband, Al Jolson.'
 
Al began a radio series Presenting Al Jolson with NBC while Ruby began Gold Diggers of 1933 again opposite Dick Powell. This film was as big a hit as 42nd Street and Jolson quipped: 'I'll be known as Mr. Ruby Keeler yet.'
Walter Winchell, the Broadway columnist, wrote a story about a murdered gangster and a woman now happily married to another man. Ruby believed the characters were based on herself and Johnny Costello. Al became indignant, and when he saw Winchell at a boxing match, he walked over to him, snarled: 'Write stories about my wife, will you?' and swung a couple of punches. The encounter ended with Mrs. Winchell's shoe conking Al on the head.
Next day, newspapers dubbed Jolson - 'The Hollywood Carnera'. Winchell took the whole thing very calmly and they made up later when Jolson sent him a jar of his famous ointment that could cure diseases that no one had ever heard of.
 
An all-star cast was used when Jolson returned to Warner Brothers to make a film version of The Wonder Bar - his name was no longer big enough to sell a film. Though almost everybody in the picture claimed Jolson tried to hog the scenes during filming, he was frequently swamped by Dolores Del Rio, Dick Powell, Kay Francis and Ricardo Cortez.
'Headin' for my last close-up. Git along, little Jolson, git along,' Jolson would sing between filming scenes.
Wonder Bar didn't live up to expectations and did nothing to resurrect Jolson's career.
Dick Powell : 'Jolson took the good song that was assigned to me and gave me in exchange the eight bars he didn't like.'
Wonder Bar
Warner Bros. (1934)
Director : Lloyd Bacon
Choregraphy : Busby Berkeley
Music : Harry Warren
Lyrics : Al Dubin
Cast includes : Kay Francis, Dolores Del Rio,
Dick Powell, Ricardo Cortez, Robert Barrat.
Not content just to be in the public eye, Jolson had to positively shine. He didn't like sharing the spotlight with his wife and it was turning their marriage into a ping-pong match. Ruby wanted to show him how big she really was in pictures while he constantly tried to prove to her that the great Al Jolson was not a has-been. He would call her a 'big shot' and a row would ensue.
As a distraction from films, Al determined that Ruby learned to play golf. Being a natural athlete she turned out to be on a par with America's top amateur women golfers and when she beat Al, he wouldn't play with her again.
Jack Warner suggested that instead of competing against each other they should team up and make a film together. The couple agreed and went into Go Into Your Dance.
'We won't quarrel, will we, Ruby?'
'No, we won't quarrel, Al.'
 
Irving Caesar : 'Basically, he was very hard. Al had no patience with the weak, only with those who stood up to him. He liked me - I used to fight with him.'
 
Warner's studio publicity machine went into action stressing how happy the Jolson-Keeler marriage was and there were no quarrels. Except the director of Go Into Your Dance was driven to distraction by Al advising Ruby about when - and where - to move during the filming.
Harry WarrenThe film turned out to be only a moderate success, though the number with Ruby dressed in a flowing evening gown walking arm in arm with Al in top hat, white tie and tails singing 'About A Quarter To Nine', by Harry Warren (pictured left) and Al Dubin was a big hit.
The public wanted to see more Jolson-Keeler pictures but Al wasn't happy: 'They don't want to see me any more. They want to see us. I'm going back to radio.'
 
Al and RubyWhat really rankled Al was that Hollywood no longer trusted him to carry a film on his own.
There were no more films with Al and Ruby doing a double act (pictured right in Go Into Your Dance).
Harry Warren : 'Jolson knew 'About a Quarter to Nine' was going to be a hit and kept pestering Dubin and myself to let him write an extra set of lyrics to the chorus. We knew what his game was - to cut himself in on the credit and royalties.'

 

 

Go Into Your Dance
Warner Bros. (1935)
Director : Archie Mayo
Music : Harry Warren
Lyrics : Al Dubin
Cast includes : Ruby Keeeler, Glenda Farrell, Helen Morgan, Barton Maclane, Patsy Kelly.
 
On completion of Go Into Your Dance, Jolson did return to radio. He had already starred in 26 one-hour radio shows for Kraft Music Hall during 13-34 on his own terms - $5,000 a broadcast and with control over his own material, and in March 15 signed as star and master of ceremonies for Shell Chateau, a weekly radio variety show.
In a radio interview a few years earlier, a reporter had asked Jolson what he thought to English beer and Jolson had replied: 'They drink it warm in England. Personally, I think they should have put it back in the horse.' These sort of remarks over radio channels sent shivers down the spines of radio producers so his contract with Shell Chateau specified that he had to stick to the jokes in the script - such puns as his greeting to Dixie Lee, wife of Bing Crosby: 'It just goes to prove that love is just around the crooner.'
The last thirteen shows were broadcast from Los Angeles.
Pearl Sieben : 'Jolson was a singer who had never mastered the acting craft. He was a magnetic personality on the stage, but in 1935 the movies were growing up, and Al's type of talent - his stock-in-trade - was too maudlin, too corny for an audience that was growing in sophistication. The advent of radio had changed the tastes of Americans, and the movies had to keep up . . . The times were simply out of step with the Jolson talent.'
 
During the filming of Go Into Your Dance, Al bought a five-acre orange grove in Encino, in the San Fernando Valley, and plans were drawn up for a colonial-style house. Realising that Al was not going to be able to give her a child of her own, Ruby decided she wanted to adopt.
The couple adopted a seven-week-old half-Jewish, half-Irish baby boy from a foundling home and Al turned his attentions to being a father. Only the best clothes, the biggest pedal cars and teddy bears were good enough for his son, re-named Al Jolson Jr.
Al called him 'Sonny'. Wheeling his baby through the orange grove, he would say to his gardener: 'Don't you think he look likes me?'
Convinced the boy was going to follow in his father's footsteps and become the World's Second Greatest Entertainer, he'd say to friends: 'Why not? He's my son, ain't he?'
Ruby : 'The baby can't say 'Mammy' yet but he cries beautifully.'
 
Early in 1936 Jolson co-starred with Beverley Roberts in The Singing Kid. Warner studios were never happy during production, and neither was Jolson, who behaved like the big star he had been six years earlier. Rows there were bound to be and for the first time crew members talked about the 'cruel Jolson'.
Full of snappy, patter songs, the film presented a 'streamlined' Jolson singing a medley of his best-known numbers. Cab Calloway gave the musical numbers some lift and sparkle but handicapped by a poor script the film was not very successful.
Needing to re-capture the great popularity he had enjoyed with The Singing Fool, Al found that anything less than 'super stardom' wasn't good enough. So most of his time was spent sunbathing by the pool and visiting the racetrack, telling bigger stories of his successes and trying to convince himself he was happy.
Jolie: 'That's it, no more crummy pictures for me. I'll decide in the future what I'll play.'
The Singing Kid
Warner Bros. (1936)
Director: William Keighley
Music : Harold Arlen
Lyrics : E. Y. Harburg
Cast includes : Beverly Roberts, Sybil Jason, Edward Everett Horton,
The Four Yacht Club Boys, Cab Calloway and His Band
 
New York Times: 'Al was singing as exuberantly as ever and trying with might and mammy to give zest to an indifferent score and a lifeless script.'
 
1936 was the year of his parent's fortieth wedding anniversary and Al arranged for them to visit Palestine. Moshe, now seventy-eight, had always wanted to go to the Holy Land. Al was fond of his youngest sister Gertrude and insisted that she accompany them; and through his contacts in the State Detment, ensured that they also had an armed escort.
 
Arrangements at Al's own home weren't going so well. Apart from radio work, Jolson was more or less in retirement. The inactivity made him tense and restless that turned to resentment at Ruby's success. Always too proud to let anyone help him, he would flare up at suggestions that his career was through and storm out.
 
Al went to New York for the broadcast of his radio show Cafe Trocadero. After a few weeks he sent for Ruby and as soon as she arrived he sent her back again.
Al also resented the way Sonny preferred Ruby and her family to him, and he gradually became disenchanted with Al Jolson Jr. Returning from one of his trips to New York, Al landed at Los Angeles airport where Al Jolson Jr. was on hand to greet his father. Al lifted the two-and-a-half-year-old off the ground and asked: 'Who am I?'
'You're the Jew,' replied the child.
Perhaps for the only time in his life, Al looked humiliated. The novelty of fatherhood began to wear off and as their marital problems worsened; Ruby played golf in the mornings and Al went to the races in the afternoon.
 
Jolson's mood improved after accepting a supporting role to Tyrone Power and Alice Faye in Rose of Washington Square. Playing a vaudeville character in blackface, he sang his most famous songs. Reviewers said he stole the picture but it set no records.
Then came a small part in Hollywood Cavalcade with Don Ameche as the male lead and again featuring Alice Faye. Jolson sang just one song, 'Kol Nidre', re-creating the synagogue scene from The Jazz Singer. At fifty-three, Jolson had become 'nostalgia'.
 
The Jolson-Keeler marriage was in deep trouble by the time Al began playing the part of the minstrel E. P. Christie - Don Ameche was again the male lead as Stephen Foster - in the film Swanee River. Ruby had tried hard to hold their floundering marriage together but it reached a climax the day Swanee River was completed. Al returned home to find Ruby had packed and gone, taking Al Junior with her. She had driven to her parents' home at Toluca Lake.
Al was visibly upset, writing to her, telephoning, begging her to come back, but Ruby had made up her mind. Jolson told the Press: 'These are family troubles - not important enough for divorce.' Ruby filed for divorce on the grounds of extreme cruelty and physical suffering and was granted legal custody of Sonny.
Al still hoped for a reconciliation, telling reporters: 'It takes a year for a divorce to become final. And Ruby's a wonderful girl.'
Al was allowed to see Sonny on Saturdays and Sundays - he took him to the premiere of Swanee River - but found the boy was growing away from him. It became too painful after a while and he turned to the racetrack.
Al : 'It just seems to happen to people out here. They called ours a perfect marriage and I never thought it would happen to us. But it did.'
Ruby : 'I went to confession every day I was married to Jolson.'
 
With Ruby gone, Jolson was anxious to get back into a Broadway show. A stockbroker friend had come to Al with a production entitled Hold On to Your Hats about a radio singer's dream of the Wild West. Jolson bought 80% of the show and became its star and producer.
After much persuasion, Ruby was contracted as lead dancer - she finally agreed after Al had asked her 'like a friend'. Rumours flew about a reconciliation but if Al saw it as a means of recapturing his wife as well as his old stardom, it didn't show. During rehearsals he would became edgy, find fault with Ruby's dancing, shout and rave, and Ruby would walk out. It seemed more like he was trying to punish her. Roses and gifts would follow in the evening but Ruby sent them back.
 
After three weeks of confused rehearsals the show opened in Detroit where Ruby suffered in silence at Al's 'personal remarks' delivered to the audience. Ruby's patience finally ran out when the show reached Chicago two weeks later and she asked to be released from her contract. Jolson claimed to have trouble finding a replacement at short notice and Ruby reluctantly agreed to stay for another month.
Ruby : 'Perhaps I shouldn't say this, but I know now that Al hoped our working together would bring a reconciliation between us. That is and always has been impossible, and I haven't been able to understand Al's strange attitude.'
Hold On To Your Hats
Shubert Theatre,
New York (1940)
A Musical Comedy
Music : Burton Lane.
Lyrics : E. Y. Harburg.
Cast included : Margaret Irving, Martha Raye.
 
New York Times: 'He is a little older now, his hair is a little thinner but none of the warmth has gone out of his singing and none of the gleam has deted from his story telling. By great fortune, he is appearing in one of the funniest musical plays that have stumbled on Broadway for years. Hold your sides as tightly as the title directs you to hold your hat.'
 
In September 1940, Hold On to Your Hats opened at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway to reveal a prodigal son returned. After an absence of nine years, Jolson was back with an expensive and handsomely-mounted production. The first-nighters screamed at the scene between Al and Martha Raye at the end of the first act but nothing could match the broadcast scene where Al tore the roof down with his old songs.
Jolson in 'Hang On To Your Hats''You ain't heard nothin' yet,' he told the audience (pictured right), and throwing away the mike, he added: 'We don't need this gadget any more than we did before.' He then sang 'Swanee', 'April Showers', 'You Made Me Love You', 'Sonny Boy', and 'My Mammy'.
If there were any late arrivals he would stop his monologue and say: 'My name's Jolson, the owner of the show. There are your seats. Now are you comfortable?'
The King of Broadway was back.
New York Post: 'It took Al Jolson in person to remind us what an extraordinary entertainer he really is. His throaty hymns to Mammy may in memory have become easily resisted. But Mr. Jolson in person and in action is quite a different proposition. The people who can match his personality are rare. He is at once host and performer, minstrel and crooner, hero and autobiographer.'
 
On 28 December 10, five months after quitting the show, Ruby obtained her final decree from a Los Angeles judge. Al had already become friendly with an eighteen-year-old chorine named Joanne Marshall but their relationship ended after an argument at a night club. Joanne Marshall went to Hollywood and became Joanne Dru.
Jolson didn't like to be alone for a minute and it was Eppy who now kept him company, sleeping in the twin bed alongside.
Jolson at 3 a.m : 'I can't understand it, Eppy. I loved that girl, and I did everything to make her happy. Got her into Showgirl and the movies. The least that she could do is see me now and then. But she won't even talk to me. Hey, Eppy, ya awake? . . . Ya know I wonder sometimes, Eppy, will there be anyone to say the Kaddish for me?'
'They'll say it, Al.'
'Who?'
'Jessel and Cantor - who else? Go to sleep, Al.'
 
Hold on to Your Hats ran until February 11 when Jolson contracted a severe chill. Diagnosed as suffering from pneumonia, he went into hospital for a week and then left for Palm Beach, Florida, to recuperate.
By late August he was in good spirits and the show was revived in Atlantic City. Unfortunately, times were changing and it played to half-empty houses while crowds queued for a movie. The show only grossed $9,800 in four performances and finally folded in November at Columbus, Ohio.
 
On 6 December 11 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour.
Al heard the news bulletin on the radio and half an hour later put through a call to Stephen Early, Press Secretary to President Roosevelt: 'Must be somethin' I can do.'
Jolson then bombarded Washington with letters and phone calls offering, without pay, to head a committee for the entertainment of soldiers. The War Department formed the United Services Organisation and booked Jolson to appear at training camps in the deep South.
Accompanied by Martin Fried on piano, they began the tour on 21 January 1942 at Jacksonville Naval Station in Florida. Opening with 'Swanee', Jolson followed with ten more songs in between clowning and gagging. The sort of jokes he told were what the soldiers could understand: 'Gypsy Rose Lee was gonna be here with us but she couldn't make it - she'd already signed to appear on the Bare Ass-prin Show.' He received a tremendous ovation.
Two weeks later they had completed 22 performances in 11 different camps and entertained 60,000 soldiers, sailors and marines.
The USO wanted to charge admission for these shows but Al insisted they be free. Jolson told Variety : 'We don't want to see any boy stand when we do our concerts, so we do two houses nightly and they average 4,500 boys per show . . . Sure, I have to catch a two a.m. milk train, or thereabouts, to make my one-night stand, but I'll do this as long as Uncle Sam will have me.'
Jolson : 'I've worked in many a town before, many an audience in my long career in the theatre from Lew Dockstader's Minstrels to Shubert musicals, but I've never had such a thrill as entertaining these boys.'
 
In May, Jolson bought the first ticket for the premiere of Yankee Doodle Dandy. It cost him $25,000 in war bonds.
The Blackface with the Grand Opera Voice
 
King of Broadway
 
You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet
Al Jolson

Al Jolson

The Jazz Singer
 
Hallelujah, I'm a Bum
 
Entertaining the Servicemen
 
The Jolson Story
Sherwood Times