Lewis Milestone’s Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933) is one of the oddest films of its era — but not for the reason its trailer claimed. It was not the first musical with rhyming dialogue. On the contrary, it came at the tail end of a brief vogue for for this approach — The Phantom President, One Hour with You and Love Me Tonight all came out the previous year and all did the same thing. Of course, since only a handful of films ever did this, it still seems unusual. More unusual, however, is the fact that what Milestone made with this film is the world’s only musical done in the style of the great Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. It was not — as you may suspect — something the world had been waiting for, and though it produced two hit songs for star Al Jolson — “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” and “You Are Too Beautiful” — the film was not a hit. That, however, may be because Depression-era audiences were not keen on stories about the Depression. Looked at today, it’s a fascinating time capsule — and while the Eisenteinian editing is undeniably odd, it’s really not out of place with the film’s leftist leanings. It definitely makes for a movie like no other. Even things that are more jarring than effective — school children and teachers singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” with a cut on every syllable — are unforgettable.
The story of the film is simple in the extreme. Jolson (in the only film in which he never wears blackface) plays Bumper, the respected “mayor” of Central Park, who spends his days doing not much of anything with his sidekick, Acorn (Edgar Connor). Much of Bumper’s standing — apart from such affectations as he and Acorn spending their winters in Florida — stems from his friendship with the actual mayor of New York (Frank Morgan), who keeps subsidizing Bumper owing to an incident where Bumper kept the mayor from being hit with a stone. The plot — such as it is — kicks in when the mayor mistakenly believes his girlfriend, June Marcher (Madge Evans), is cheating on him. When she attempts suicide by jumping from a bridge in the park, Bumper rescues her — only it turns out she’s lost her memory. Bumper appoints himself her protector and quickly falls in love with her — to the degree that he gets a job in a bank to support her. (Look fast in the bank scene and you’ll spot the film’s lyricist, Lorenz Hart, as a teller.) Of course, this situation can only last as long as June doesn’t remember who she is.
What works isn’t the plot, though it’s good enough and its bittersweet tone adds to the movie’s overall feeling. The biggest selling points, though, are the Rodgers and Hart songs, Jolson’s performance and the fact that Milestone directs the film with endless creativity. Nearly every song is handled differently and much of the film moves with breathtaking speed. The title song is particularly striking in execution, but it should be noted that this was in part a logistical consideration. Realizing that the title would have to be changed to Hallelujah, I’m a Tramp for the British market (where “bum” was strictly a vulgarism for backside), the director made the alternate version with its altered song easier to pull off if the viewer never saw Jolson singing the title. (The only other use of “bum” in a song — “though it’s not a good country for a bum to get rich in” — was taken care of by having someone whistle over the offending word in the export print.)
The Asheville Film Society will screen Hallelujah, I’m a Bum Tuesday, July 9, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.