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SAY IT WITH SONGS (Warner Brothers, 1929), directed by Lloyd Bacon,
reunites the legendary Al Jolson with little boy wonder, Davey Lee, of
'SINGING FOOL' (1928) fame, in yet another sentimental musical drama
that failed to live up to the success of its predecessor. This,
Jolson's third feature film, contains several firsts in his movie
career: His first full length talkie (with no silent passages); no
black-face song numbers; and the first Jolson movie to flop at the box
office. It was also one of the few films in his career in which his
on-screen character isn't named AL, and the second and last casting him
as a married man.
The story involves Joe Land (Al Jolson), a radio singer with a loving wife, Katherine (Marion Nixon) and five-year-old son he calls Little Pal (Davey Lee), sent to prison for accidentally murdering Arthur Phillips (Kenneth Thompson) his friend and manager for making advances on his wife. Upon his release, Joe meets with his son at a private school grounds during recess. When son is struck by a passing truck, Joe takes him to Doctor Arthur Phillips (Holmes Herbert), a specialist and Katherine's former beau now working for him as his private nurse. Phillips agrees to perform the delicate operation on the condition that Joe goes away, grants Katherine a divorce so he can marry her, or else pay the high fee of $5,000.
As syrupy as the plot sounds, it's even more thicker on screen. Relying heavily on the success of THE SINGING FOOL, lightning didn't strike twice for Jolson, Lee and director Bacon. Jolson and Lee even repeated some of the same sentimental gimmicks, including Davey Lee's raising his arms for Daddy to pick him up and give him a kiss. Some heavy melodramatics might have worked somehow had it not been for Jolson's bad acting, hearing scratchiness in his voice, looking back and forth leaving his mouth open as if he were waiting for further instructions from his director. Overacting is evident as Jolson cries in his jail cell after telling his wife he never wants to see her again. Even worse, after he finds that it's his own son who's been struck by a passing truck, he unconvincingly shouts out, "Oh my God, it's MY baby"; or when Jolson sings "One Sweet Kiss" on a coast to coast radio hookup on Christmas day, he does this in such dramatic manner it almost leaves an impression that he was hoping for an Academy Award nomination. Regardless of the results, the finished product is often embarrassing to watch, especially for a story that's supposed to take place in a considerable time frame of several years, only to have its major characters, especially little Davey, not aging a day. As Robert Osborne mentioned in his 1994 commentary on Turner Classic Movies, audiences flocked to theaters to see the film (hoping to get more of that Jolson magic, as he did with THE SINGING FOOL), but business dropped off in a hurry, and movie quickly disappeared. At least it didn't became one of many lost films from the "dawn of sound" era.
SAY IT WITH SONGS, such as it is, does have scenes of some potential, first where Joe sings "Why Can't You" to his fellow prisoners, followed by a montage and split screen of fellow convicts, concluding with Jolson's singing showing his face behind the prison bars; second where little Davey falling asleep, dreaming of his Dad appearing to him while singing "Little Pal"; and another borrowing from the climactic scene of the silent version of STELLA DALLAS (1925) which has Joe looking in on his son from the outside window.
Marion Nixon, in her Janet Gaynor manner, wasn't much help in her partake as Joe's wife through some bad acting, but it's Jolson's performance that bogs down the plot considerably. Aside from the lead actors, Davey Lee has his tender moments on screen, but at times (as his eyes look towards the camera), it's hard to understand what he's saying. One scene where he follows his father down the street comes off funny considering how he's wobbling about either like a puppet or silent film comic Charlie Chaplin.
SAY IT WITH SONGS does have its considerable amount of songs, none listed on the hit parade. The songs include: "Used to You," "Little Pal," "I'm in Seventh Heaven," "Why Can't You?" "One Sweet Kiss," "Little Pal," "Little Pal" (reprises) and "I'm in Seventh Heaven." Supposedly distributed in theaters at 95 minutes, TV print that airs on TCM, is 85 minutes, ten minutes shorter. One noticeable cut occurs in the early portion of the story in the radio station where Joe Lane asks one of the visiting sponsors if he wants to hear his new song, "I'm Crazy for You." After Joe goes over to the piano to plug it, the scene that follows is dialog between Katherine and Arthur Phillips in his office. Another reported song, "Back in Your Own Back Yard," supposedly written for the film, is also absent. While both these songs do not exist in the existing print, they are, however, included in a 1980s soundtrack recording titled "Legends of the Musical Stage (Rare Soundtrack Recordings 1928-1930), compliments from Sandy Hook Records. SAY IT WITH SONGS never made it to video cassette, but did become part of the Al Jolson film collection when distributed on laser disc in the early 1990s, and a TCM archive collection onto DVD in 2010.
SAY IT WITH SONGS is not the kind of movie one would see for entertainment, but solely as a curiosity to find out why it failed and why it doesn't hold up today. One can be thankful, however, for TCM airing SAY IT WITH SONGS, for that it has satisfied my curiosity. (**)
Say It With Songs is the first all talking film that Al Jolson did on
initial Warner Brothers contract and for him the first flop in his
You can't say that the Brothers Warner didn't follow the usual Hollywood formula in that if something succeeds, copy it as best you can. Jolson had scored well with his second film The Singing Fool and his singing of Sonny Boy to four year old Davey Lee was the big hit. What to do, team them again and you even get the crack songwriting team of DeSylva,Brown&Henderson to write this score as well.
Except for the song Little Pal none of the other songs had any lasting staying power from Say It With Songs. Little Pal did become a Jolson standard though not to the same degree as Sonny Boy. But the score is serviceable for the plot which has Jolson as a radio singer.
Being a radio singer obviated the need for Jolson's usual blackface persona. Say It With Songs became the first of two films he did without the blackface, a fact I hadn't known before. I had assumed and I'd seen it written that Hallelujah, I'm a Bum was the only film he did without the blackface.
More's the pity here because if Say It With Songs had been a hit Jolson might have abandoned the burnt cork and his historic reputation wouldn't have suffered so.
The plot has Jolson a happy go lucky radio singer who unfortunately likes to drink and gamble and generally carouse. A wolfish radio manager has some designs on wife Marian Nixon and offers her an indecent proposal. When Jolie hears of it he kills him when he hits the wolf just a little too hard and his head strikes a cement curb. That lands him in jail.
Marian Nixon has to support herself and goes to work for a doctor who's always had an eye on her as well. Of course when Jolie hears about in prison he's all for it, but not for her taking up their kid as well.
Jolie gets one of the earliest paroles in penal history, even for what probably is a manslaughter 2 conviction because little Davey Lee ages not a bit. But little Davey also gets himself hit by a car while chasing his dad. Davey becomes paralyzed and what's Jolie to do? By coincidence the doctor is a specialist and he offers Jolie the indecent proposal this time.
I think with the general description of this plot you get the idea of the general mawkishness of the plot. Director Lloyd Bacon doesn't try to control Jolson's incredible overacting for the camera. Those two factors were what mainly sank the film.
Yet Jolson's dynamism as an entertainer still shines through and when he's singing you almost forget about the plot. Almost that is.
New York radio singer Al Jolson (as Joe Lane) is appalled when his wife
Marian Nixon (as Katherine) reveals a shocking incident. She has been
invited to be "nice" sexually with the station manager in order to
advance Mr. Jolson's career. Jolson takes matters into his own hands,
resulting in an unexpected tragedy. Consequently, Jolson is arrested
and separated from his beloved son Davey Lee (as "Little Pal"). Even
greater tragedies follow. This was made to look like a sequel to
Jolson's "The Singing Fool" (1928) but falls significantly short.
Probably, Jolson's already tremendous ego was too much for director
Lloyd Bacon and the studio to bear...
"Say It with Songs" could have been a successful melodrama, but the players look helpless and uneasy. Performances, set direction, camera-work and editing are not entirely competent. The artful sequences highlighting Jolson's previous films are mostly absent. The soundtrack and music are good, though. "Little Pal" b/w "I'm in Seventh Heaven" and "Why Can't You" all made the national top ten. While not as strong as "Sonny Boy", "Little Pal" provided and interesting interlude near the end; it was another #1 hit record. The #2 flip side, "I'm in Seventh Heaven" was the superior tune; it's the closing song and ends the film on a good note.
*** Say It with Songs (8/6/29) Lloyd Bacon ~ Al Jolson, Marian Nixon, Davey Lee, Holmes Herbert
This was my first time to view this film, having only heard about it by
reading the book A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film,
which painted a totally unflattering portrait of this film, to say the
very least. This film is not as bad as you would gather by reading
other reviews on the subject. In the first place, Al Jolson was a great
entertainer, but he never was a great actor. Also, you have to
understand that Jolson's films were mainly just made as vehicles for
audiences to see and hear what Al Jolson did best - sing his heart out.
His films were never meant to be competition with "All Quiet on the
The problem here is that this film is obviously recycling parts of "The Singing Fool" - primarily the big love Jolson's character has for his little son, "Little Pal", again played by Davie Lee. Jolson plays ex prize fighter Joe Lane, now a radio star married to a devoted wife who is losing patience with Joe's continued love for gambling. At the same time, the manager of the radio station where Joe works is infatuated with Joe's wife and puts the moves on her. Of course Joe's wife tells him what happened. Joe then confronts the guy and an argument between the two ends in Joe landing an all too effective punch that results in Joe going to prison for manslaughter.
The plot is thin even for 1929, but as over-the-top as Jolson's acting style could be in these early films, he is still much more natural before the camera than many other full-fledged movie actors of the time. That and the fact that it is always a pleasure to hear and see Jolson sing makes this worth watching. I only wish that the songs could have been a bit more memorable. Only "Seventh Heaven" really sticks with you. Also note that this is one of very few Warner Brothers films that still survive from 1929. I think there are only seven in all that are still with us in their entirety. My recommendation would be that this is a definite must-see if you are a Jolson fan - I am. If you are not, then you probably won't enjoy it at all.
This is the first all-talking movie starring Al Jolson. Although he
made two 'talkies' before this, they were both essentially silent films
with sound portions added. This one was always intended as a sound film
and is a bit more modern in this sense. However, in many ways, the film
is very, very old fashioned and plot-wise it's just the same old, same
old by Jolson....but even schmaltzier!
The film has a fatal flaw in how it portrays Jolson. He is a married guy with a cute kid (Davey Lee--who played Jolson's adorable son in several films). But he's also a heavy gambler and hot-head-- and a very difficult man for any woman to love. Despite this, she steadfastly stands by her man--even when Al's wicked boss tries to put the moves on her. Her big mistake is telling Al about this, as soon he gets into a fight with the boss and accidentally kills him. Next, Al's in jail and his heart is breaking. The wife STILL refuses to abandon him, but Al is a knuckle-head and somehow comes up with the notion that she'd be better off without him--so he deliberately pushes her away.
Now here is where things get weird. While in prison, Al's great singing ability is discovered and he goes on the radio (I am sure that MOST radio shows of the day originated in prison, right?!). And, even weirder is when Al gets out of prison. He doesn't tell the wife and instead sneaks off to see the kid. Soon (due to the stupidity of the kid), the boy is run over and has one of those mysterious movie ailments. And, Al doesn't tell anyone that the kid is in the hospital. And, when the kid is discharged, Al doesn't bring the child to the mother. Does any of this make any sense? Nope. But neither does what follows.
The bottom line is that the film never makes much sense, is WAY too sentimental and schmaltzy and lacks the usual hit tunes of his other films. Overall, this is a boring and silly little film where Jolson and the filmmakers went to the well too many times--and came up with a syrupy sweet mess.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Due to the surprise gross receipts of The Singing Fool, Director Bacon,
Star Jolson and Sidekick Lee were rushed back to WB to produce
something worthy of the former. What they produced was a weak imitation
of The Singing Fool and SIWS bombed. It was a bomb then, it still is 80
years later. Rarely does lightning ever strike twice. SIWS is a really
good example of that.
I have been a huge Jolson fan for 30 years, since I was a teenager. He may be the world's greatest entertainer, but he really shows his acting limitations here. His upbeat scenes are fine but anytime he is supposed to show some emotion, and that's most of the time, none of it is genuine. It's forced, certainly nothing organic. I've seen better acting in high school productions... or in an Ed Wood movie.
In his defense, he was given some really crappy dialog. "Early talking" is no excuse. They had great writers on b'way. Why not bring 'em over to H'wood? Oh that's right, WB was too cheap for that back then.
SPOILER One of the many examples of bad dialog and bad acting is when Little Pal gets hit by a car, Jolson with wide eyes exclaims "Oh my God, it's MY baby!" is truly an unintentional hysterical moment in the history of film. The reaction I had was, to be sure, not the one Bacon had in mind when he was directing this turkey.
I'm not sure if Davey Lee can act. He certainly was cute and lively. He had the best moments in the movie, the courtroom scene being one. I do think that there was genuine fondness between Jolie and Lee and that rings loud and clear here. This was the only thing that was successfully carried over from the first film to the second. I'll give Bacon the credit for that. In fact, years later in The Singing Kid, his scenes with another child actress, Sybil Jason, are even more phenomenal. So Jolie had some panache working with children. He should have done more that.
It would have been nice to have, in these first few Jolson films, some A list co-stars. Imagine Helen Morgan as his wife and Adolph Menjou as the doctor!! Most of his early films tend to suffer from being "all about Jolson". Imagine a Jolson and Morgan duet!! I suppose that at this stage in his career that Jolson didn't want to share the marque with anybody on his level, hence, the forgettable supporting actors. In the long run, that was a bad decision on his part as Jolson's infamous ego has hurt the watch-ability of the early films today.
Speaking of mediocre, the songs are just that. Little Pal did stay in his rep for the rest of Jolson's life. Not sure why, it's too much like Sonny Boy, which is the better of the two and its by no means a pop masterpiece.
The best scene in the film is a brilliantly directed dream sequence of Little Pal dreaming his father is singing... Little Pal... (what else?) to him. It's a really, really nice, very imaginative scene.
In conclusion, I still love Jolie. By far, this is the worst film he ever made. It is a curiosity only for Jolson fans like me. The good news is that as the years progress, the scripts got better and he got better and more relaxed as an actor. His ego was more or less in check when worked with A list people like Dick Powell, Frank Morgan, Kay Francis, Don Ameche, Alice Faye, Ruby Keeler and ... Helen Morgan. (Still no duet though - what a loss!) It is a shame that Jolson went out of style, or something, by the end of the '30 as we lost what could have been a wonderful fatherly character type actor in the '40s.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The 4 reviews that precede mine are fair. This film really is for buffs only. I wouldn't have missed it, but it's poorly done at all the important levels. And Jolson really is a ham here. At times he makes fluffs in his lines, as if he just barely had them memorized. I was surprised at how shoddy the film was, in writing and in set design. The courtroom scene has a stark set which looks like the kind of empty sets that Monogram used in the 40s. The songs are subpar for Jolson, with lame lyrics that have you guessing ahead to each rhymed line ending. Two really cheesy scenes gave me the most entertainment. First, in the prison, the (unseen) orchestra starts playing and Jolson sings verse after verse of "Why Can't You?" to his fellow cons. The burden of the lyric is, if caged birds can sing, why can't you? Picture this in a modern prison -- he'd be lucky not to get shanked before the bridge. Second, and even more deranged, he is told by the first attending doctor that his son, who has just been hit by a truck, has spine damage. In the next scene, Jolie carries his son to another doctor for treatment! They had some tough spines in '29. The big message of "Say It With Songs" was in the box office -- Warners learned that all-talkers did not guarantee profits.
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