By Doug Gibson
I love the 1930 musical comedy drama "Hallelujah! I'm a Bum." Al Jolson, in his first big-budget film since "The Jazz Singer," sings wonderfully as "Bumper," the "mayor of Central Park,", as does his black sidekick, Acorn (Edgar Connor). Harry Langdon, one of my favorite early cinema comedians, is in fine form as the Marxist old-newspaper collector, Egghead. Future wizard of Oz Frank Morgan is good as John Hastings, the real mayor of New York City, and Madge Evans is very sexy as June Marcher, the mayor's ... ahem ... perhaps promiscuous girlfriend. This is a pre-code film. Besides the sensuality of Evans, topics include infidelity, alcoholism, a sexy woman stripping in Central Park, lefty politics, suicide, and so on. It all makes you furious for the artistic damage wrecked on Hollywood by the Hays Commission.
Yet, "Hallelujah! I'm a Bum" flopped at the box office. Despite the respect it generates today, reviews were mixed. I have theories why, but let's first get to the plot. Bumper is a bum, the leader of the transients who populate Central Park. He's close friends with the mayor. The mayor is always offering Bumper a job in a bank, but he prefers life on the bum. In fact, in the first scene. the mayor, duck shooting in Florida, runs into Bumper and Acorn, who camping, have snagged his duck. The trio eventually roast the duck for dinner.
The mayor has a girlfriend whom he suspects of infidelity. Their relationship is tense. One day, after the mayor gives his paramour a $1,000 bill, she drops her money purse. Egghead, picking up newspapers, accidentally snags the purse. Bumper discovers it, spots the girl's address, and wants to return the money. In an interesting scene, the transients suddenly turn greedy, particularly Egghead, but Bumper talks sense into them.
Meanwhile, discovering that the $1,000 bill is gone, the mayor accuses his girlfriend of giving it to another man. They break up. Bumper tries to return the money but the girl, June, is gone. He meets the mayor, who seeing the purse, realizes he was wrong. He gives Bumper the money and goes off in an unsuccessful search for June. Bumper, meanwhile, shares the money with the bums.
One night, Bumper is walking along when he spots June, trying to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge into water. He rescues her but June has lost her memory. Bumper has no idea that June is the mayor's girl. He falls in love with the beautiful June, who seems to have a big crush on him. With the help of one of his many friends in the city, he lets a room for the girl and tenderly takes care of her. So smitten is he that he goes to the mayor and gets that job in a bank that has been waiting for him. He even gets Acorn a job there.
Meanwhile, the mayor, pining for his lost June, is sinking into alcoholism. At Central Park, the bums, learning that Bumper as gone capitalist, hold a "kangaroo court" for him and Acorn. It's a very amusing, fun scene with lots of singing. Bumper, with his usual good grace, manages to be found "not guilty."
I won't reveal the climax of the film although it's more downbeat than the rest of the movie. The final scene has Bumper, in his business-clothes best, returning to Central Park and resting in the park. It's perfectly natural to assume that Bumper has returned to his status as "mayor of Central Park," but in my opinion, it's just as logical to assume Bumper is resting for an hour before returning to the bank.
In any event, the film is well made and the mix of acting and singing is done very well. Rhythmic dialogue
works well with the Rodgers and Hart songs and the direction by Lewis Millstone. The film bombed, though, only grossing about $500,000, a poor return on a negative cost of $1.2 million. The chief reason the film failed, I think is due to its lighthearted treatment of poverty. The film was perfect for the roaring '20s but with the nation mired in the Great Depression and many Americans facing the prospect of homelessness and life on the bum, the subject wasn't one that seemed so amusing.
A second reason may be that despite the huge budget, the film is basically an enjoyable but trifling tale of love, tramping and a quarreling couple. Jolson is likely the main reason for the inflated budget. Some reviewers felt he failed to carry the film past programmer status. One wonders if audiences felt the final product didn't merit a million-plus budget. For Langdon, the film was one of a series of early '30s features that the former star made in an attempt to move beyond the comedy shorts that were the bulk of his talkies career. Although Langdon would continue to star, direct, be a featured player, and write for features until his death in 1944, he would remain best known for his work in comedy shorts.
This is a great film, though, a fantastic example of pre-code filmmaking. Catch it the next time it's on Turner Classic Movies. Watch the trailer above!