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Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!

The Depression-era oddity Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! concerns a Central Park hobo named Bumper (Al Jolson) who enjoys his jobless life enormously, until he meets a beautiful amnesiac (Madge Evans), falls in love and decides to get a job to support her — unaware that's she's the mistress of the Mayor of New York (Frank Morgan). The paper-thin source-story is by Ben Hecht, and the Lorenz Hart/Richard Rodgers songs are instantly forgettable and interspersed with a large amount of "rhythmic dialogue" — not quite singing, not quite natural speech, weird but not without charm. Reportedly, when Jolson first read the script he asked, "'What do you mean giving me a script like this? In rhyme yet! You really think the public wants this kind of stuff?" Apparently they didn't — the film was a flop at the box-office. Perhaps to appreciate Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!, one needs to keep in mind what the world was like when it was made. In the 1930's, roughly one in five able-bodied Americans was out of work. Hoboes were thought of as losers, but Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" was still much-loved, and folks looked at tramps and bums with sympathy — undoubtedly because so many of them were out of work themselves. The script by S.N. Behrman works overtime to convince the audience that not only is there a dignity in being poor, but that it's actually a superior way of life (Jolson's big number in the film is called "What Do You Want With Money?"), and there's a surprising amount of social commentary — one of the Central Park regulars, Egghead (Harry Langdon, sadly at the end of his career), spouts Red propaganda about the "workers" and what will happen "when the revolution comes," and Bumper's companion/lieutenant Acorn (Edgar Conner) tells him that his favorite part of working is payday: he likes the money, "but you have to waste so much time to get it." Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! is rather ingeniously directed by the great Lewis Milestone (The Front Page, Of Mice and Men, All Quiet On the Western Front) but shows the limitations of the time; for example, a rear-projection of Central Park during a carriage-ride scene features passers-by that are occasionally three times the size of the actors. And in one unintentionally surreal moment, the drunk Morgan is brought home by Jolson and says "There's no place like home ... there's no place like home" — a reference, obviously, to the popular book "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," since the film version with Morgan playing the Wiz wouldn't be released for another six years. MGM's DVD offers a good full-screen transfer (1.33:1) from an acceptable source print that shows a fair amount of damage but is still remarkably crisp. The monaural audio is quite clear in some places, muddy as hell in others, with inconsistent volume. The original theatrical trailer is included, and it's in bad shape. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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