The dynamic Al Jolson puts on blackface makeup to portray likable Gus, a stableman-turned-jockey who overcomes adversity and wins the Kentucky Derby after gamblers conspire to have him fired from his mount Big Boy.
With charisma, outsized singing and a fast horse, Al Jolson rides home a winner in this opened-up screen version of one of his biggest stage hits. The dynamic entertainer puts on blackface makeup to portray likable Gus, a stableman-turned-jockey who overcomes adversity and wins the Kentucky Derby after gamblers conspire to have him fired from his mount Big Boy. The role gave Jolson a chance to immerse himself in two of his great passions: the racetrack and singing, with audience-pleasers including Tomorrow Is Another Day and Liza Lee. The ebullient Jolson didn't like one of the songs in the original stage score, so he gave If You Knew Susie to Eddie Cantor. It became wide-eyed Cantor's biggest hit!
BIG BOY may well be the closest a modern audience will ever come to seeing what a genuine Al Jolson Broadway musical looked like. Based on his 1925 stage hit, the film casts Jolson in the blackface role of Gus, a stableboy at a moss-covered Southern plantation. Gus' favorite horse is the magnificent Big Boy, whom he hopes to ride to victory at the Kentucky Derby. Through a misunderstanding, Gus is fired from his job, but he manages to make his way to Louisville during Derby week by working as a singing waiter. Against all odds, our hero manages to win the Big Race -- at which point the scene fades to a "curtain call" on a Warner Bros. soundstage, with Jolson, minus makeup and out of character, cheerfully introducing the supporting cast and offering to sing few encores for the benefit of the spectators. To say the least, BIG BOY is a bizarre experience, but the film is not without its charms. The best moments include a lengthy Civil War flashback in which Gus's grandfather (Jolson again) outwits an outrageously bigoted Simon Legree type (Noah Beery Sr.), and the closing musical number in which Jolson waxes nostalgic over Sunday dinner with his family: "And I see on the kitchen table a ham -- a beautiful ham --.Ha! That ain't my house!"
Civil War |
Race Relations |
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