ALLAN JONES, a handsome tenor who had a brief period of top stardom in films in the mid- Thirties, had the misfortune to be under contract to a studio promoting a similar star, Nelson Eddy. Better-looking, and with an arguably more lyrical tone, Jones found himself relegated to lesser roles, fell out with the studio head and slipped into B movies. He has an important part in musical cinema history, however, as the star of the classic 1936 version of Show Boat and for introducing the song with which he remains identified, the 'Donkey Serenade'.
The son of a Welsh miner, Jones was born in 1908 in Pennsylvania, and worked in the mines as a boy. After graduating from high school he won a scholarship to study music at the University of Syracuse and in Paris. Establishing himself on the musical stage as a romantic juvenile, he appeared on Broadway in a revival of Bitter Sweet (1934), then was offered a leading role in the last Broadway show for which Rudolf Friml composed a new score, Annina. During its troubled try-out tour Jones was replaced by the older Robert Halliday and the show reached New York for a brief run rechristened Music Hath Charms.
Jones was given a contract by MGM, and moved to Hollywood, where after a small role in Reckless (1935) with Jean Harlow he was cast in Rose Marie (1936), starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, in which he partnered MacDonald in sequences from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette and Puccini's Tosca. His voice was heard on the sound-track of The Great Ziegfeld (1936) singing 'A Pretty Girl is like a Melody' for the classic 'wedding-cake' sequence, though Stanley Morner (later known as Dennis Morgan) is seen on screen. (Painful dental work had prevented Morner from recording the song himself.)
After providing love interest in the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera (1935, made after Rose Marie but released first), he was given his biggest break when Universal, having been refused the loan of Nelson Eddy by MGM, instead borrowed Jones to play Ravenal in their version of Show Boat (1936). Jones introduced the lovely Kern- Hammerstein song 'I Have the Room Above Her' in James Whale's successful film.
MGM, deciding temporarily to split the MacDonald-Eddy team in the hope of getting two box-office hits instead of one, put Eddy into Rosalie with Eleanor Powell while MacDonald was given Jones as leading man in The Firefly (1937). The result, alas, was laboriously stuffy, overproduced and overlong but it did give Jones the song with which he was to become identified for the rest of his life, the 'Donkey Serenade'. Originally a 1920 piano piece by Rudolf Friml called 'Shanson', it was adapted by Herbert Stothart with new words by Robert Wright and Chet Forrest. Jones made his million-selling recording of the song on the day his son Jack, a future singing star himself, was born.
When Jones was next cast in another Marx Brothers film, A Day at the Races (1937), he quarrelled with the studio head Louis B. Mayer and after a thankless role in the Judy Garland musical Everybody Sing (1937) he left the studio. After good roles in Paramount's The Great Mr Herbert (1939) and Universal's The Boys from Syracuse (1940), which dropped most of Rodgers and Hart's score, he signed a contract with Universal and made One Night in the Tropics (1940). This had a score by Jerome Kern but is remembered today only as the film which made stars of Abbott and Costello. Jones then slipped into B musicals, pleasantly forgettable wartime trifles such as Moonlight in Havana (1942), True to the Army (1942), When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1943), Rhythm of the Islands (1943), Sing a Jingle (1944), Honeymoon Ahead (1945) and Senorita from the West (1945). He also supported the comics Olsen and Johnson in Crazy House (1943).
Jones starred on Broadway in a brief revival of The Chocolate Soldier (1942) but made a more serious bid for stardom there in Jackpot, a musical by Vernon Duke and Howard Dietz, in 1944. Despite a splendid score and impressive cast (his leading ladies were Nanette Fabray, Mary Wickes and Betty Garrett) it ran for only two months. Twenty years later he returned to the screen in Stage to Thunder Rock (1964), one of several westerns made by the producer AC Lyles utilising former Hollywood stars.
Having overcome a battle with alcoholism Jones became a cabaret and club performer and he came to Britain to tour the club circuit when in his seventies, still singing the 'Donkey Serenade'.