The Jolson Story

Inciting Event: As a boy, Al Jolson finally gets his traditional Jewish parents to allow him to enter show business with the traveling performer Steven Martin. This is a great example of an event that incites the conflict. Everything that happens in the story to follow is the result of this moment when Al first sings in a show.

First Plot Point: Now grown, Al goes pretends to be a fellow performer who is ill. He gets to sing one of the songs he’s been begging Steve to let him perform. The manager of a major minstrel show is in the audience and gives Al a job. This means Al must then physically leave his Normal World working with Steve and enter his new adventure world as a performer on his own two feet.

It’s also worth nothing how, even though he’s getting what he wants here, he is still totally reactive for the rest of the movie’s first half. He’s scrambling to figure out what he wants to sing and how to fit his creative vision into the world.

First Pinch Point: Increasingly discontent with singing the same song over and over again in the minstrel show, Al misses a performance while listening to jazz in New Orleans. He is then fired and struggles to find anyone who will hire him because he insists on sticking with his new vision for singing jazz.

This pinch point actually arrives a little early—and then we have another turning point right on the money at the 37% mark. This turning point is a positive one, in which Al gets a job on Broadway. In an episodic story such as this one, moving the story right along is important. But the sudden switch from negative energy in the pinch to 100% positive in the turning point does create a bit of a choppy emotional development between the pinch point and the Midpoint.

Midpoint: The Midpoint is a bit choppy in itself, since it covers a broad span of time. The emotional Midpoint is definitely the scene in which Al’s show is a big success on Broadway, which cements him into his status as a powerful star. But this scene is also a bit of a climactic cap on the first half of the movie. After this, the movie shifts gears away from Al’s career to his personal life. We have several small “midpoints” setting this up, starting with his childhood sweetheart’s getting married, progressing through the announcement that Al has been asked to do a movie in Hollywood, and then finally leveling out in the scene in which he meets (and instantly falls in love with) Ziegfield showgirl Julie Benson.

It’s all a bit sloppy, but the movie cycles through its necessary beats with enough rapidity and verve that it keeps the whole thing on course through this extended Midpoint section.

Second Pinch Point: Al convinces Julie to marry him—but he breaks his promise to buy her a place in the country when he decides to stay in California to make more movies. In a lot of ways, Julie becomes the protagonist in the second half of the movie, while Al and his drive to sing becomes the antagonistic force opposing his own happiness in their marriage. This is the first major mistake he makes in his relationship with Julie—as he begins pushing her farther and farther away due to his inability to recognize or cater to her needs.

Third Plot Point: When Al once again tries to get out of his promise to quit show business, Julie finally breaks down and threatens to leave him. The pressures of the Second Pinch Point went right over Al’s head. He was oblivious to the destruction that was happening right under his nose. But now the Third Plot Point hits him hard. He grows desperate at the thought of losing Julie and promises her he’ll do whatever she wants. He retires and moves with her to the country.

Climax: After managing to keep his promise and stop singing for two years, Al is finally talked into singing a song at his parents’ anniversary party. It’s the first time he’s sung for years, and he obviously loves it. Julie begins to feel the life she’s asking him to live with her isn’t the one that really makes him happy. When they then go to a night club where Al is recognized and asked to perform, she decides it would be best for both of them if she leaves him.

Climactic Moment: Julie walks out of the nightclub, while Al happily sings, unaware of her decision. I find this a very poor climactic moment, since it really doesn’t cap Al’s conflict at all. His reaction to his wife’s decision to abruptly dump him just because he was forced to sing really needs a scene from him to end the movie. The lack of it once again reinforces that it’s really Julie who is the protagonist in the second half.

Resolution: Al keeps singing.

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