Plot: If faithful Gus can only help the racehorse BIG BOY to win the Kentucky Derby the white folks who employ him will be saved from financial ruin.
Strange, offbeat, bizarre, unique. All of these terms can describe this film which features legendary entertainer Al Jolson in blackface, playing a black man. While acted with tongue very firmly planted in cheek, and meant solely for lighthearted entertainment, this movie will definitely not be to every viewer’s taste. Not until the final minutes does Jolson appear as himself, joking with the audience and reprising the film’s dullest song yet once again.
The movie obviously has its roots in the minstrel tradition in which a group of musical white men would perform, made-up as blacks. Also, Jolson’s own career involved extensive use of blackface routines and he had become quite celebrated for them. For their time, these were all considered quite normal and not offensive (to white audiences). It should also be noted that racial meandering was engaged in routinely in films for decades, with several top white stars (Helen Hayes, Paul Muni, Kate Hepburn, Ramon Novarro, Edward G. Robinson) playing Asian roles, although these were usually done for a serious, and not a comedic, purpose.
Once past the initial oddity, it must be said that Jolson is certainly fun to watch and is obviously having a great time. Singing constantly (none of his big hits, but he does well with a couple of old Spirituals), wisecracking and ad-libbing shamelessly, he is impossible to ignore. In his heyday, he was one of the most popular performers in the world and it’s easy to see why.
Although Jolson dominates the film, there are a couple of other performers worth noting. Wonderful old character actress Louise Closser Hale, always a joy to watch, plays the plantation matriarch. In a lengthy & superfluous flashback scene, beefy Noah Beery appears as a bullying braggadocio who harasses Jolson.
It probably goes without saying that there is a fair amount of racism woven into the plot. From the Dvd!