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Al Stone is singing waiter in a speakeasy who is in love with Molly, the singing star at the speakeasy, but she spurns him. Al gets his big break and goes on to become a Broadway sensation. Written by
THE SINGING FOOL (Warner Brothers, 1928), directed by Lloyd Bacon, is a worthy follow-up to the historic "first talkie" of THE JAZZ SINGER (WB, 1927), starring Broadway headliner Al Jolson. Upon its release, THE SINGING FOOL reportedly broke all box office records to date, until that record was broken 11 years later with the Civil War epic of "Gone With the Wind" (Selznick, 1939). But in spite of its popularity with the public way back when, THE JAZZ SINGER remains well known to cinema history while THE SINGING FOOL today is virtually forgotten, which is unfortunate because it's a much better movie than THE JAZZ SINGER. The one thing both movies have in common other than being musical dramas is that they are both part-talkies, with THE SINGING FOOL featuring more songs and dialog than its predecessor.
The story opens in the silent film tradition with title cards and Vitaphone orchestral score at Blackie Joe's (Arthur Housman) café where Al Stone (Al Jolson), works as a waiter (title cards read: "By occupation, a waiter; by ambition, a songwriter; by nature, a singing fool"). Al is hopelessly in love with a pretty blonde named Molly Winton (Josephine Dunn), a cold-hearted but ambitious singer who entertains at the club. Also employed at Blackie Joe's is Grace (Betty Bronson), a petite cigarette girl who secretly loves Al. Because Molly shows her lack of interest in Al and his proposed love song written especially for her, Al decides to impress her by going out, taking the spotlight and introducing his song to the patrons. The song makes such an impression with Louis Marcus (Edward Martindel), a famous producer visiting the club with his guests, that he offers Al a contract to perform on Broadway. After learning of this, Molly "suddenly" takes an interest in Al, who accepts Marcus's offer on the promise that he could take Molly along with him. Over the next few years, Al and Molly, now married, become successful headliners, with Molly scoring success singing the songs Al has written for her. Al opens up a nightclub where he not only manages but is its star singing attraction, with the catch phrase, "I'm going to sing you a thousand songs." What makes Al's personal life so complete is his little three-year-old son he calls Sonny Boy (David "Davey" Lee). But all that changes when Molly becomes bored with Al and finds herself having a secret rendezvous with Al's friend, John (Reed Howes) while he entertains at the club. Due to Molly's extravagant spending which puts Al heavily in debt, the marriage falls apart, causing Molly to walk out on Al, taking Sonny Boy with her. After Al hits the skids, he struggles to restore his career.
THE SINGING FOOL features many memorable tunes, all sung by Jolson, compliments of songwriters Lew Brown, B.G. DeSylva and Ray Henderson, including: "It All Depends on You," "I'm Sitting on Top of the World," "The Spaniard That Blighted My Life" (written by Billy Merson); "There's A Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder," "Golden Gate," "Sonny Boy" (sung by Jolson to Davey Lee in front of a Christmas tree); "Keep Smiling at Trouble," "Sonny Boy" (reprise) and "Sonny Boy" (finale with Jolson in black-face). Of all the songs written for the film, most of which became Jolson standards, "Sonny Boy" took the honors as its Number One song of the year, almost outdoing Jolson's signature song of "Mammy." As for "The Spaniard That Blighted My Life," no movie print today is known to exist containing this song and number. However, in the motion picture soundtrack album to THE SINGING FOOL, distributed in music/record stores in 1981, featuring a still photo of Jolson in Mexican attire of that number on cover, compliments of TAKE TWO RECORDS, DOES include that missing song, along with the closing instrumental "Sonny Boy" theme song at the end of the soundtrack not available in today's movie print.
In spite of THE SINGING FOOL being overly sentimental at times, it succeeds without going overboard. Jolson's occasional bad acting during the dramatic moments is evident here, especially during the talking segments when he is arguing with his wife, for example, but appears more relaxed and natural when he gets his chance to be funny in reciting witty dialog and singing those lively tunes. Jolson's bonding with Davey Lee comes across in a believable manner on screen. One particular segment where Al gets to bid goodbye to his Sonny Boy in Central Park before the boy leaves for Paris with his mother and her lover, ranks one of the most tender moments ever captured on film. What makes this scene so memorable is that it is done with the underscoring to "Sonny Boy" with dialog between father and son presented only on screen through well-written title cards. Aside from Davey Lee almost succeeding in becoming another Jackie Coogan (a popular boy actor of the 1920s), which never happened, there is Betty Bronson, best known to silent movie lovers as PETER PAN (Paramount, 1925), in one of her first adult movie roles giving a convincing tearful performance. Sadly, her voice sometimes doesn't register clearly on the soundtrack, which at times her spoken dialog gets drowned out during the music underscoring. The same also happens with Josephine Dunn. Also in the supporting cast are Robert Emmett O'Connor as Bill Cline; and Arthur Housman, famous for his numerous drunken characters in many comedy shorts and features, giving in a rare sober performance.
In spite of its age, THE SINGING FOOL still ranks one of the best feature films made during the dawn of sound. It can be seen and studied when presented on Turner Classic Movies. (****)
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