(director: Lewis Milestone; screenwriters: SN Behrman/Ben Hecht; cinematographer: Lucien Andriot; editor: W. Duncan Mansfield; music: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart; cast: Al Jolson (Bumper), Madge Evans (June Marcher), Frank Morgan (Mayor John Hastings), Harry Langdon (Egghead), Chester Conklin (Sunday), Edgar Connor (Acorn), Tyler Brooke (Mayor’s Secretary), Louise Carver (Ma Sunday), Dorothea Wolbert (Apple Mary), Tammany Young (Frank the Jockey); Runtime: 82; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Lewis Milestone; United Artists; 1933)

“A whimsical, offbeat and somewhat original Depression-era musical comedy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A whimsical, offbeat and somewhat original Depression-era musical comedy (Charlie Chaplin beat this pic to the punch using the same self-sacrifice plot device for his City Lights in 1931) with an intriguing idea that never becomes more than intriguing. It stars a miscast Al Jolson, in his comeback film, as someone in real-life with a gigantic ego who plays the selfless Bumper–a homeless person depicted as the leader of a group of hobos living in Central Park. At times it becomes so ridiculous a depiction of tramps that it was unintentionally diverting; but, on the other hand, this falsified depiction of tramps is what made it such an enjoyable treat for me. Director Lewis Milestone (“All Quiet on the Western Front”/”The Front Page”/”Of Mice and Men”) and writers SN Behrman and Ben Hecht use a Rodgers & Hart score, featuring rhyming couplets, to tell their enchanting good-natured socialist fantasy tale.

Noted film historian William K. Everson, my teacher in the 1960s at the NYU film school, differed with my take on Jolson not being suited for a Rodgers & Hart musical. Everson described Hallelujah, I’m a Bum as “one of the loveliest and most original of all the musicals of the 1930s… In the dramatic scenes, there’s a poignancy which Jolson never achieved in other films where he never forgot he was a showman first and an actor second… [His] ego pops through on occasion, but never has he done any better acting than he does in the touching drunk scene with Morgan where he realizes that he has lost his ‘Angel.'”

Bumper is happy to never work and hang out in the park with his friends, such as the Marxist-spewing park cleaner Egghead (Harry Langdon, once a comic king in the silents, but a vic of the talkies and today a mostly forgotten figure) and his best pal, the black hobo, Acorn (Edgar Connor). But things change fast when Bumper rescues a pretty maiden (Madge Evans) from committing suicide in the park by jumping in the lake and acts as her protector when she suffers from amnesia (not even remembering her name, as he dubs her Angel). She soon falls in love with him, not able to recall she’s in love with the mayor of NYC John Hastings (Frank Morgan). And Bumper, who befriended the mayor while bumming around in Florida and greets him every day when the mayor dines at the Casino and tips him a dollar, gets the mayor to land him a soft job in the bank so he can support Angel. But when Bumper eventually learns of their relationship and he sees that she still loves the mayor when she snaps out of her amnesia, he sadly goes back to the other tramps in the park and tries to make us believe that’s where he belongs and is happiest.

The film had three directors (Harry d’Abbadie d’ Arrast started it and was replaced by Milestone, and due to Jolson’s insistence the film was completed by Chester Erskine), a massive reshoot, two scores and a major cast change. As a result it cost an monumental $1.25 million. It bombed big-time at the box-office and most reviews were highly negative. But when viewed today it’s considered by many to be Jolson’s best picture (I think so) – even though Jolson himself called it his worst. In any case, this was the film that put the nail in Jolson’s Hollywood coffin, as producers no longer considered him a bankable mega-star.

The Rodgers and Hart music includes “Hallelujah I’m a Bum,” “You Are Too Beautiful,” “I’ll Do It Again” and “What Do You Want with Money.” I found none memorable, but they were all at least pleasant.

REVIEWED ON 10/10/2009 GRADE: B   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/