The Columbia Pictures production was written by Sidney Buchman (uncredited), Harry Chandlee, Stephen Longstreet and Andrew Solt. The dramatic scenes were directed by Alfred E. Green, with the musical sequences directed by Joseph H. Lewis. A sequel called Jolson Sings Again was released in 1949.
American burlesque performer Steve Martin (William Demarest) offers to play a song for his audience, if they agree to sing along. Only one person does sing, a young boy named Asa Yoelson (Scotty Beckett). Steve is bowled over by the boy's voice, but Asa realizes he should be singing at the synagogue with his father, Cantor Yoelson (Ludwig Donath). Asa arrives late, and is later reprimanded by his strict father. Asa is reluctant to explain where he was, but Steve Martin visits the Yoelsons' home. He explains that he heard Asa sing at the burlesque house, and that he wants Asa to be part of his act. Papa Yoelson refuses to consider it.
Asa is determined to be in the act, and runs away to Baltimore, where he is taken to a home for boys. The kindly superintendent, Father McGee (Ernest Cossart), finds Steve Martin and notifies Asa's parents. When they appear, Asa tells them that he will keep running away until they allow him to go into show business. Asa's mother (Tamara Shayne) believes that it would be better to give Asa what he wants than have him running away all the time.
On stage, Asa gets bored with singing songs the same way all the time, and begins to improvise. When his voice suddenly breaks, he starts whistling instead, but is unhappy and wants to go home. Steve says that they can work on stage together - previously Asa has only stood in the audience. Asa changes his mind, and his name: he performs as Al Jolson (Larry Parks).
At a show, blackface entertainer Tom Baron (Bill Goodwin) passes out drunk, and Al goes on in his place. Two theatrical entrepreneurs, Oscar Hammerstein (Edwin Maxwell) and Lew Dockstader (John Alexander), are in the audience. Dockstader realizes that it was really Al who was on stage, and hires him join his minstrel show. One night, Jolson is out walking when he hears the new, exciting jazz music; he enjoys it so much that he forgets that he has a show that night. Dockstader fires him.
Al visits his parents, but does not stay long, because he receives a call from Tom Baron, who is now a theater manager. Baron invites Al to join his Broadway show. Al insists on choosing his own material, including his signature tune, "Mammy", and he becomes so popular that he becomes the leading player and takes the show on tour.
At a Sunday night concert, Al meets an up-and-coming dancer named Julie Benson (Evelyn Keyes). It is love at first sight for Al, and only a few hours after meeting her, he proposes to her. (Al Jolson was actually married four times. The character Julie Benson is modeled on his former wife Ruby Keeler). She agrees, although she does not love him yet. They marry during Al filming The Jazz Singer, by which time Julie has fallen in love with him. But Julie is not as fond of show business as he is; she wants to quit and settle down. Al persuades her to continue with it, and they star in a film together, but eventually Julie can't stand any more. Al admits that he would rather have her than show business, and he finally quits. They move to the country.
Al refuses all job offers and absolutely will not sing, even for family and friends. But one night, at a dinner celebrating the wedding anniversary of Al's parents, Papa Yoelson persuades his son to join him in a song, after which Tom Baron suggests they go to a nightclub and see the early floor show. Jolson is reluctant, fearing he'll be recognized, and the bandleader indeed does introduce him as he sits at the table with the others. The crowd demands a song and though he tries to fob the crowd off, it is no use and he has to sing. Julie realizes he is happier than he has been in a long time and leaves while he's performing. She walks out of the picture, and out of his life, leaving Al to his first love: singing.
Some of the plot details were fictionalized. There is no evidence that Jolson ever appeared as a child singer, and he was brought up by his sister, not his mother (who had died). Jolson actually had three managers, who were combined into the Will Demarest character, "Steve Martin". Ruby Keeler refused to allow her name to be used, so the writers used an alias, "Julie Benson".
Larry Parks' vocals were recorded by Al Jolson; Scotty Beckett's songs were recorded by Rudy Wissler. Al Jolson, determined to appear on screen somehow, persuaded the producer to film him instead of Larry Parks for the blackface "Swanee" number. Jolson is seen entirely in long shot; he performs on a theater runway.
Filming was already under way as a black-and-white feature when studio chief Harry Cohn, impressed by the scenes already filmed, decided to start the project all over as a Technicolor production.
Awards and honors
The film was a tremendous financial success, and won Academy Awards for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture and Best Sound, Recording (John Livadary), and was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Larry Parks), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (William Demarest), Best Cinematography, Color and Best Film Editing. The film was also entered into the 1947 Cannes Film Festival.
2006: AFI's Greatest Movie Musicals – Nominated
"I heard some music tonight. Something they call 'jazz.' The fellows just make it up as they go along. They pick it out of the air." (Jolson to Dockstader)
"[I'm] trying to make songs out of music I picked up. Music nobody ever heard of before, but the only kind I want to sing." (Jolson, explaining what he's been doing)
"That's an audience that never saw a live show. People in small towns who can afford a movie, where they can't afford anything else. Audience of millions. I'd be singing to every one of them at the same time. That's really something!" (Jolson, discussing the new talking picture)
"Tonight, folks, I'm only going to sing two thousand songs. One to a customer." (Jolson)
"Broadway? What a street! You know something, baby? It belongs to me. You know something else? If you want, I'll give it to you." (Jolson)
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists: