A Lesson in Film Structure: The Jolson Story & Humoresque

The Jolson StoryThis is a story about film structure. At various times, I have tried to lecture on the subject of structure in screenwriting, and I usually am forced to admit that we teach structure, in part, because it is something that can be taught. There’s some sort of indefinable spark of creation in any work of art that defies all attempts to analyse it or turn it into an equation. But structure is something that has heft and definition. It can be dissected and studied. One of the main questions that comes up when talking about structure – especially the three-act structure that has dominated most American feature film – is this: If so many movies are employing the same structure, doesn’t that suggest that the movies will all be derivative of each other? Here’s one answer to that that question.

The year was 1946. The war was over and the boys were coming home. It should have been a time of great joy, and in fact, in many ways it was. But there was disquiet as well. The nation’s focus had been so riveted for fifteen years on crisis. First the Great Depression. Then, the second Great War. Crisis has a way of removing distraction. In 1946, distraction returned. Hollywood captured this magnificently in one of the best movies of the decade, William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives.

Two other movies from 1946, Alfred E. Green’s The Jolson Story, and Jean Negulesco’s Humoresque, dealt with a different type of disquiet. Unlike Best Years…, which explored the fears and frustrations of soldiers returning from war, the movies directed by Green and Negulesco examined the fears and frustrations of men imbued with high artistic aspirations. In some very fundamental ways, the movies are nothing alike, and that is what makes them so interesting to look at in tandem.

The Jolson Story, produced by Columbia, is schmaltzy to the nines. It is jam-packed with popular songs made famous by the title character, Al Jolson. Of course there is conflict, but it is of such a good-natured variety that nothing really gets in the way of a good time. So when a blackface vaudeville performer gets too drunk to go on stage, the young Jolson simply slaps some shoe polish on his face and blows the audience away. The drunk gets a new contract due to his supposed bravura performance. Jolson also gets a new contract from the sharp producer who knows it was him all along. Everybody is happy.

Humoresque plays a totally different tune, this one on the classical violin. Produced by Warner Brothers, it is dark and hard. The movie straddles the genres of film noir, with clipped, smart dialogue from Clifford Odets, and romantic melodrama, with the outstanding adapted score of composer/conductor Franz Waxman. Maybe nowhere are the differences in the two movies more obvious than in the way each resolves its central romantic relationship. Without giving away too much, The Jolson Story delivers break-up with a song and a laugh. Humoresque, well Humoresque takes a different tack. Suffice to say, everyone is decidedly not happy.

But the remarkable thing, and this is where we can talk about structure, is how similar the two movies are in their broad strokes. They are both about men driven beyond any limit to perform. Al Jolson must sing. He runs away from his family when they refuse to let him. In Humoresque, main character Paul Boray must play the violin. He has a scene early on when he sees his first violin and stubbornly refuses to accept any other present for his birthday, much to his father’s chagrin. In both movies, we get an extended sequence of the two characters as boys, initially falling in love with their performance mode of choice.

HumoresqueAs young men, both will be taken under the wing of older, more experienced artists. In Jolson, William Demarest’s Steve is a wise-cracking vaudeville vet who will help guide Al’s career until Al blows past him. In Humoresque, Oscar Levant’s Sid is a wise-cracking classical pianist who will help guide Paul’s career until Paul blows past him. Beginning to see some parallels? Both Al and Paul will meet and fall in love with women. And the second half of each movie will be largely predicated on the conflict that arises when the women threaten to come between the artist and his art. Art will win out in both cases, but as mentioned above, the feeling will be very different.

Structurally, the movies are almost identical. And that is the point about structure. The same structure can be used to tell a wide range of stories with a wide range of emotions. I usually think of it as the blue print for a house. Two houses may have similar floor plans, but a million other decisions, from what paint to put on the walls, to where to put the love seat, to how many kitschy little knick knacks to stuff onto your bookshelves, combine to create totally unique spaces.

There’s plenty more to say about the two movies in question. Neither may be great, but both are good, and must-sees for anyone interested in the golden age of American film. The Jolson Story was through-the-roof successful, leading to a sequel in 1949. That is in part due to the wealth of great songs, which however dated they may seem to 21st century ears, remain undeniably fun. It is also no doubt due to the filmmaker’s decision to smooth over any painful edges. For instance, the movie would have you believe that Jolson was Warner Brothers first and only choice to play the lead in The Jazz Singer, when in reality, had Eddie Cantor not demanded too much money, he would have had the role. Most obviously, the movie ignores Jolson’s first two marriages and makes his one on-screen marriage seem like total bliss right up until the divorce. In reality, the wife in question, hoofer Ruby Keeler, was so turned off by her experience with Jolson that she demanded the character’s name be changed on screen. Thus Evelyn Keyes plays “Julie Benson” even though the whole world knew it was Keeler. Still, no one really cared. The heretofore unknown Larry Parks delivered an outstanding Oscar-nominated lead performance, and it was all great entertainment.

As for Humoresque, it was a more modest success, but still had the star power of Joan Crawford, coming off her Oscar-winning turn in Mildred Pierce, giving what many of her fans consider her greatest performance. John Garfield seems an unlikely violinist (there is even a joke about his looking more like a prize-fighter than a musician), but he does quite well. And it has possibly the greatest death sequence from Hollywood’s classical period – often satirised, but still capable of bringing chills. So, if you like that sort of thing….

Finally, Jolson had Jolson singing – he recorded all the songs and Parks lip-synched them. And Humoresque had Isaac Stern, whose fingers stood in for Garfield’s during the frequent musical passages, playing violin. Not a structural similarity, perhaps, but another way in which two movies can be alike, and yet oh so different.


The Jolson Story

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

11 thoughts on “A Lesson in Film Structure: The Jolson Story & Humoresque

  1. Thanks for the comments and the George Jessel correction. Having just binge-watched Boardwalk Empire, I clearly had Eddie Cantor on the brain.

  2. Hi…just a quick note. It was George Jessel who demanded too much money for The Jazz Singer…not Eddie Cantor. Jessel was playing the role on Broadway (loosely based
    on Jolson’s life) and he was afraid the audience wouldn’t like his voice, thereby possibly ending his career. Warner’s refused to pay Jessel that kind of money…enter Jolson…and the rest is history.

  3. Hi Jon, as schmaltzy as it may be, The Jolson Story has always been one of my favorite old Hollywood musicals. Larry Parks is so engaging as Jolson. His performance is simply charming and his lip-synching is flawless. As for Humoresque, there is something disconcerting about that film for me…can’t quite put my finger on it, but I will watch Crawford no matter what.

    One thing: it was George Jessel who was offered the lead in The Jazz Singer, not Eddie Cantor. Jessel had played the part on Broadway and it was only natural Warner Bros. would offer him the lead first. He held out for more money and Jolson came in the back door. Thank goodness.

  4. It’s so funny, Jon–I just watched Humoresque for the first time the other night and was pleased … no small feat, considering it had Joan Crawford, one of my least-favorite actresses, in it. This is a good article showing the similarities between these two films and suggesting that structure in disparate pictures can be very similar (and successful). One note: Franz Waxman’s adapted score mostly borrowed from classical music’s greatest hits, including Bizet’s Carmen, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (I think the death scene was set to the liebestod) and, of course, the titular Dvorak piece. I think that’s in part why I liked it so much. 😀

    • Thanks Simon. I shouldn’t leave the impression that Waxman composed the music. Actually, I’m not quite sure how to designate what he did. Most of his work in the movie was as an arranger, but in some cases, mainly the Carmen sequence, what he did seems to have risen above what an arranger typically does. Suffice to say, he had some great source material to work with, and he did a great job with it.

      • No worries, Jon–it’s definitely difficult to describe Waxman’s role. From what I could hear, unless I’m mistaken, it sounded like he did a transcription of quite a few of the pieces, including Carmen and Tristan, in an effort to highlight a solo violin role. I’m a purist when it comes to these pieces, but for some reason, I found it surprising effective in the film. Perhaps it was the strong editing; the concert sequences didn’t become dreary, as I had feared; instead, they augmented the picture. I should see the movie again and see how much incidental music there was from Waxman–that would be interesting.

  5. Wonderful post! I enjoyed your discussion of structure and placing the two films in the historical climate. The three act structure is the skeleton. It is interesting to see how you’ve demonstrated at the core, tones may be different, but they follow similar themes/structure.

    • Thanks Cindy. Here’s my favorite example of what you’re describing. In 1992, a major American movie opened with two young men committing a crime. Their level of involvement and actual culpability was unclear, but an innocent man ended up dead. The two young men were tried for murder. That’s the set-up. The bulk of the movie is about their lawyer, a brilliant talker who is totally inexperienced with this type of trial setting. He begins to feel the pressure. He clearly seems overmatched. But he has a woman along to help him and together, they are able to save the lives of their clients.

      Now, what’s the movie? Is it A Few Good Men, or My Cousin Vinnie? The description suits both the tense courtroom thriller and the romantic comedy.

  6. I remember thinking how well Larry Parks mimed to the songs sung by Jolson. Mind you, it is a long time since I have watched it, so it will be interesting to see if that still holds good. It is hard to tell from the trailer clip. I thought Garfield was a strange casting choice for ‘Humouresque’. Although a very good actor of course, I never took him seriously in the role of a classical violinist, simply because I kept picturing him in tougher roles.
    Your points about similarities in structure are well-argued Jon, and undoubtedly correct. There are very few ways to tell a story though, any story. There is the flashback route, the time-line progression route, or the start at the end, and tell the story retrospectively route. They have all been used repeatedly of course.
    For me, it has always been casting that was crucial, as certain actors can elevate any film, and others struggle to make it believable.
    A very enjoyable article.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. Parks did very well, especially considering so much was in close up. Except for Swanee. It’s not in the trailer, but the performance of Swanee was curiously filmed in almost all long shots. That’s because it’s Jolson on screen. He didn’t like the way Parks was doing it. Parks was ruined by the HUAC witch hunt, one of the saddest chapters in Hollywood. He and wife Betty Garrett (from On the Town and My Sister Eileen) acted mostly on stage after the early ’50s.

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