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THE SINGING KID (Warner Brothers, 1936), directed by William Keighley, with choreography by Bobby Connelly, became Al Jolson's final lead in a musical film, and the movie debut of Beverly Roberts. Although cast as Al Jackson, Al Jackson is definitely Al Jolson. As Jackson, or Jolson, or whatever, Al Jackson is America's favorite stage and radio star living in a New York City penthouse. While good-natured with a heart of gold, he is irresponsible with women, forgetful, selfish and forever breaking promises, this time to his fiancée, Dana Lawrence (Claire Dodd). In turn, Dana is a gold digger who not only takes advantage of Al's trusting nature, but is carrying on with his business manager, Bob Carey (Lyle Talbot). Eventually she calls off her engagement and goes away with Bob, leaving Al with a half-a-million dollar debt with the Internal Revenue for five years of back taxes, compliments of Mr. Carey. After he clears himself with the government, Al has further troubles when, after taking a few drinks, goes on stage and is unable to finish his song, "Here's Looking at You," due to he slowly losing his voice. Deciding to quit show business, Al and his cronies, Davenport Rogers (Edward Everett Horton) and Joe Eddy (Allen Jenkins), head for Indian Lakes, Maine, and rent a cottage in the country for a rest cure. While there, Al encounters his landlady, Ruth Haines (Beverly Roberts), and her precious little orphaned niece, Sybil (Sybil Jason), who add some happiness to his empty life.
The title, THE SINGING KID is something of a misnomer, making the viewer wonder whether the "Kid" in question is either Jolson, who sings plenty but being too old to be playing a kid, or Sybil Jason, a talented seven-year-old actress who sings only one song. The movie itself, is a showcase for Jolson, but the highlight is Sybil Jason, who appears rather late (45 minutes) into the story. While on screen, she manages to delight, especially when reading a bedtime story to "Uncle Al" instead of the other way around, or a little musical number by the lake in which little Sybil plays doctor to patient Al. This plays cute rather than corny. Jolson usually plays well on screen with children, and the chemistry between him and Jason are most rewarding. Unlike Jolson's previous efforts, this film focuses more on comedy, but when dramatic moments set in, the sentiment doesn't come off as thick. The movie itself hints several times on trying to bring Jolson's entertainment style up to date, having the Mammy singer surrounded by the swing band of Cab Calloway along with swing music. On and all, times are changing but many prefer to remember the Jolson of old. It's almost like trying to place 1940s crooner Bing Crosby in a coming of age 1960s rock-and-roll musical surrounded by long-haired, jive talk hippies.
For THE SINGING KID, age has caught up with Al Jolson, who physically looks a bit heavier with his hair thinning. Beverly Roberts, who was possibly in her 20s, not only looks a bit older than her true age, but talks a little like actress Frances Farmer. Roberts even gets to have a couple of kissing scenes with Jolson.
The musical program includes: Montage Opening: "Mammy," "Swanee," "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody," "California, Here I Come," "April Showers," "About a Quarter to Nine," and "Sonny Boy." Following the montage of old songs, the story begins with new tunes by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg: "I Love to Sing-A" (sung by Jolson and Cab Calloway); "My How This Country's Changed" (sung by the wild and wacky The Yacht Club Boys); "Keep That Hi-De-Ho in Your Soul" (written and sung by Calloway); "Who's the Swingin'est Man in Town?" "Save Me, Sister" (sung by minstrels, with Jolson and Winifred Shaw in black-face); "Here's Looking at You" (incomplete); "You're the Cure for What Ails Me" (sung by Jolson and Sybil Jason); "I Love to Sing-A vs. Mammy Songs" (with Jolson and in which The Yacht Club Boys try to show Al that it's 1936 and that Mammy songs are passé); "You're the Cure for What Ails Me" (reprise by Calloway); and "I Love to Sing-A."
Also in the cast are Frank Mitchell and Jack Durant, a comedy team who rely mostly on violent gags, but are no threat to The Three Stooges; Hattie McDaniel in an unbilled bit; and Jonathan Hale, the future Mr. Dithers in the "Blondie" movie series, playing Doctor Fulton.
THE SINGING KID has its share of songs, but there is hardly any dancing involved. While this may not be the very best of the Jolson musicals, it does come across as entertaining. It can be seen from time to time on cable's Turner Classic Movies. For the record, Al Jolson would return to films playing supporting roles in two 20th Century-Fox musicals in 1939, along with a third, a cameo appearance. But the Jolson legend doesn't end there. (***)
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