Lewis Milestone, having just made “all quiet on the western front” and “the front page”, turns his attention to an anti-capitalist Al Jolson musical. Why not? It’s no more weird than going from “Frankenstein” to “Show Boat”.
IMDB reviewer puts it thusly: “The best way to appreciate this odd film is to put one’s self back in the early 30’s, the Depression era. The drama glamorizes life on the streets and parks, probably to make the ordinary hard-up person feel better about his own financially depressed plight. It also played into the prevailing poverty consciousness of the mass public.”
Written by Ben Hecht, one of the biggest screenwriters of the 20’s through 60’s. Music by Rodgers & Hart (pre-Hammerstein). Most of the musical scenes are pretty unexciting, people having halfheartedly-rhyming conversations, vaguely sung with background music not matching up… but there are a couple good songs including the title number.
Al Jolson (above, right) is the “mayor of central park”, proud to be a bum. Money is a curse, you see, and the happy denizens of the park (where the weather is always fair) are better off without it. The actual mayor of New York (above, left, oscar-nom Frank Morgan of “wizard of oz” and “shop around the corner”) has love troubles, mistakenly thinking his girlfriend was cheating, he’s lost without her. When she jumps in the river, Jolson saves her. She has a convenient bout of amnesia and they fall for each other. Jolson cleans up, gets a job to support the girl… finally learns who she is, leads the mayor to her like a good friend, goes back to his happy-go-lucky ways.
Funny that the mayor leaves June (Madge Evans of “pennies from heaven”) when he suspects she’s with another man, and desperately takes her back when she’s actually, provably with another man. Silent comic Harry Langdon plays Egghead, hardworking socialist trash collector, and Edgar Connor is Acorn, Jolson’s black friend/servant – they’re my two favorite parts of the movie. I must’ve missed the homoerotic tension between Acorn and Jolson that Rosenbaum mentions.
Rosenbaum: “Rodgers and Hart scored this one too, and once again it’s closer to operetta than to the usual song-and-dance stuff. It’s hard to know whether the remarkable inventiveness comes from the story (Ben Hecht), screenplay (S.N. Behrman), preproduction director (Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast) or final director (Milestone). Who thought up the devastating montage parody of Eisenstein timed to the American anthem, or an illustration of economic deflation via throwaway dialogue during a tracking shot across a bank floor, or the notion of a Trotskyite trash collector played by Harry Langdon? And what about the rhyming dialogue, or the homoerotic relationship between a black and a white tramp? We know that a portion of the parable-like plot involving the mayor of New York (Frank Morgan), his amnesiac mistress (Madge Evans), and the mayor of New York’s homeless (Al Jolson) was lifted from Chaplin’s City Lights, but who put it all together with such bittersweet conviction? This was one of Jolson’s rare commercial flops, but it’s so sad and peculiar that one isn’t surprised. Even though it’s a fantasy, the Depression in all its grief comes alive here as in few other pictures.