Friday, October 25, 2013

"Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," or Free Parking

Like bleu cheese, Al Jolson is an acquired taste.

He reveled in his status as "the world's greatest entertainer," but he was actually more than that -- the guy was a force of nature. He performed with such exuberance -- not to say hamminess -- that he crowded everyone else off the stage. When he did guest shots on radio shows, the hosts would practically have to pry him off the microphone.

Part of what makes the 1933 film "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" so interesting is that it gives us a look at a different, subdued Jolson. He's playing an actual character with human emotions, reacting to other people, as opposed to presenting an overwhelming one-man show at the expense of everyone else.

As for the movie itself, well ....

After what undoubtedly were frequent looks at similar contemporary films like "A Nous la Liberte" and "Love Me Tonight," you can tell that the very talented group behind "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" -- Jolson, writers S.N. Behrman and Ben Hecht, director Lewis Milestone and composers Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart -- wanted to capture the light-yet-adult tone of those films and their use of talked-sung songs to advance their storylines.

Ironically, Rodgers and Hart also did the score for "Love Me Tonight," and their work in that film is simple and sublime, while most of the "Hallelujah" score is more experimental -- from the mind rather than from the heart. Just watch "Isn't It Romantic" from "Love Me Tonight" and you'll see a spark of fun and a spirit of creativity that, to me at least, is missing from "Hallelujah."

"Hallelujah" tells a deeply conventional story as unconventionally as possible -- sometimes unnecessarily so. It flirts with heavy-handed class commentary, and its idealization of being down and out brings to mind the scene in "Sullivan's Travels" where Sullivan's butler reminds his boss that being poor isn't all it's cracked up to be:

"I have never been sympathetic to the caricaturing of the poor and needy, sir. ... The subject is not an interesting one. The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous." 

The mayor of Central Park, flanked by Acorn and Egghead.
Jolson plays Bumper, a lovable derelict in a soiled white suit who is the unofficial mayor of Central Park. He's good friends with the real mayor of New York City (Frank Morgan, almost as toned down as Jolson) -- seems that once upon a time, Bumper saved the mayor from being hit with a brick. So Bumper and his sidekick Acorn (a memorable Edgar Connor, a vaudeville veteran who died the year after this film was released) are always in hizzoner's good graces.

In Central Park, Bumper is the leader of a ragtag group that includes Egghead the street sweeper (Harry Langdon, reminding us of his comic chops) and carriage driver Sunday (Chester Conklin). This scene shows us Bumper's kingdom and his royal subjects:



The movie's about the parallel lives of Bumper and the mayor, often played out in Rodgers and Hart's "musical dialogue." In this clever scene, the mayor reluctantly attends a building dedication:


Meanwhile, back at the park, Bumper and Acorn live a life of leisure until, one day, they find a purse in Egghead's garbage can that contains a $1,000 bill. Egghead, a socialist, quickly turns capitalistic and demands his half. But there's a story behind the purse that the boys don't know about -- it belongs to the mayor's mistress, June (a luminous Madge Evans), who accidentally threw it away. The mayor, already worried about whether June is faithful, accuses her of giving the money to her paramour. He deserts her and she wanders the park, devastated, finally deciding to end it all by jumping off a bridge. She's rescued by Bumper.

June has amnesia. She's a childlike blank slate, totally dependent upon her protector, Bumper, who has no idea of her history. He's so smitten with her that he does the unthinkable -- he asks his buddy, the mayor (now heartsick and looking everywhere for June), for a job recommendation. Bumper and Acorn go to work in a bank -- Acorn's job is to count the towels in the men's washroom and Bumper's job is to stamp a bigshot's signature on business letters.

But Bumper is happy -- he's rented a room for June, who he calls Angel, and in one of the movie's best moments he serenades her with the movie's best song, "You Are Too Beautiful":



In the end, Bumper makes the connection between the mayor and June and arranges a meeting. When June sees the mayor, her memory returns and she's repulsed by Bumper. Bumper goes back to his real love -- life in the park with the acorns, and Acorn.

Here are the full film credits, and here's a preview:




1 comment:

  1. It would be interesting to see Jolson in a role that wasn't over the top. Thanks for reviewing this little-known fim

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