A contract player at Columbia, Larry Parks exploded into stardom by playing Al Jolson onscreen — twice.
And, although he quickly made it to top-of-the-title billing status, we suspect that offhand, you’d have trouble immediately identifying any other Larry Parks feature. He logged nearly 50 movie and tv credits over two decades ending in the early Sixties, but much of his oeuvre hardly stands out.
One that might is the notable feature, 1947’s Down To Earth, which pitched Parks right up there with Columbia’s reigning diva at the time. Rita Hayworth. It’s a musical comedy sequel of sorts to 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan. In any case, Parks was regarded at the time by national exhibitors as the 15th biggest movie star in the U.S.
Although born in Kansas (in 1914) Parks was raised in Illinois, and attended the Univ. of Illinois before migrating to regional theater and, in 1941 at the age of 27, his maiden Columbia feature (a crime thriller, Mystery Ship). Interestingly, Parks shared top billing right from the start.
By the age of just 31, Parks landed the lead in the screen biography of Al Jolson, cementing his star status. 1946’s The Jolson Story, made for a budget of about $2 million, earned Parks an Oscar nomination as best actor (his vocals were recorded by the master himself). The picture was such a success that a sequel of sorts was ordered, 1949’s Jolson Sings Again.
The Jolson Story is a relatively modest affair costarring Parks and Evelyn Keyes. It’s a gauzy portrait of the self styled “World’s Greatest Entertainer,” recounting the protagonist’s defiance of his Jewish family’s religious prohibition against going into show business.
The fact that this movie was such a huge box office success (it was seen by over 35 percent of people in the country) indicates the esteem and star power of Al Jolson in the mid-Forties. It also begs the question of why Jolson is all but forgotten today.
All those routines in blackface, invocations of “Mammy” and the in-your-face sentimentality of his vocal approach haven’t helped Jolson’s legacy. Few major box office stars of their times have been forgotten so completely.
What derailed Parks’ career?
A familiar story linked to the blacklist. In March of 1951, Parks was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and spoke of his past membership in a Communist party cell. He tearfully provided names of associates, and found himself immediately blacklisted. Columbia dropped his contract despite the fact that it had four years left to run. Other projects and offers dried up.
Parks managed to eke out his show biz career through the early Sixties. He and his wife, musical comedy actress Betty Garrett, played in regional and dinner musical theater productions. He appeared in a ton of tv. Ultimately, Parks left show business, founded a successful construction company, and made several lucrative real estate investments.
Parks died in 1975 at the age of 60. Like Jolson himself, he is all but forgotten by many.