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Videos of the Month

Photo of the cover of the video, Stormy Weather.Our pick for February's video is Stormy Weather, released in 1943, starring Lena Horne and Bill "Bojangles' Robinson. This movie features some of the best jazz singing, band performances, and dancing ever filmed. It starts out with main character Bill Williamson (Robinson) returning from World War I, where he served as a soldier and drummer in James Reese Europe's band. (See CD of the Month, above, for a discussion of James Reese Europe.) At this point we get to hear a lot of band music from Europe's repertoire. Europe (not the actual man - he was killed in 1919) introduces Bill to co-star, Selena (Lena Horne). She is a rising star, a successful singer, who encourages Bill to go into show business as a dancer. The movie follows both their careers, as well as their romance. As the movie progresses, we get to see an amazing sequence of superb performances by some of the most talented African-American artists of the day, including:      If you are a fan of early jazz, you must see this movie!

Cover of Swing, Swing, Swing!Our video selection for March is Swing, Swing, Swing! A Cavalcade of Vitaphone Shorts, Classic Big Band and Jazz Shorts from the '30s and '40s, Volume 2.
     Included on this CD are Desi Arnaz & His Orchestra, Larry Clinton & His Orchestra, Vincent Lopez & His Orchestra with Betty Hutton, Woody Herman and His Orchestra, Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra with the Three Brown Jacks and Myra Johnson, Cliff Edwards and His Buckaroos, Don Redman and His Orchestra with Red & Struggie, Stan Kenton and His Orchestra, and Cab Calloway & His Orchestra.
    We value this video for two of the shorts in particular. The first is the Don Redman short. Don Redman was one of the most influential jazz musicians of the 1920s and 1930s, and any film footage of him is to be treasured. He could play every instrument in the band, although his favorite was the saxophone. He was a revolutionary arranger and composer, an energetic bandleader, and a vocalist with a quiet, warm, playful, and appealing style. In this 1934 short, he and his band play "Yeah, Man!," "Ill Wind," "Nagasaki," and "Why Should I Be Tall." Don does the vocals for the first and last of these pieces. Harlan Lattimore, the band's resident crooner, sings "Ill Wind." Harlan has been compared to Bing Crosby in his sound and style. It's fun to have a chance to actually see Harlan perform. The song is accompanied by video vignettes of the song's action. "Nagasaki" is performed by the remarkable Red and Struggie, two of the funniest comedians ever filmed. Who are those guys???
     The other great short in this collection is the 1937 "Hi-De-Ho," with Cab Calloway and His Orchestra. (It seems that most of Cab's film appearances are entitled "Hi-De-Ho.") In this short, Cab seeks career advice from an amazing, skeletal deacon and his gypsy fortune-teller wife. He sings a cheerful version of "I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues," "Hi-De-Ho Miracle Man," and "Frisco Flo." Cab's classical training really shines through in "Frisco Flo." The urban set for this film is particularly well done, with the musicians showing as silhouettes in the windows of the apartment building in the background. The short ends with some truly incredible scat singing and wild dancing by Cab.
     Also of interest on this collection of shorts is the one starring Cliff Edwards, otherwise known as Ukulele Ike. Those of you familiar with this performer know that his style ranges from outrageous to sappy. This particular short tends more toward the sappy end of the spectrum, but there are a few glimmers of the other side of Cliff's personality.
     We also get to see Betty Hutton performing "Old Man Mose" with Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra. The Lopez Orchestra is as eccentric as usual, and Betty Hutton is always fun. Here you can see her jitterbugging, pecking, and beating up band members.
     One other highlight of this collection is the Six Philharmonicas performing "Powerhouse" with Larry Clinton and His Orchestra. You may recognize this piece as the one used by the Warner Brothers Studio as the assembly line leit motif in their old cartoons. The Philharmonicas are a real treat, as are their remarkable harmonicas!

Cover of Blue Melodies video from the Hollywood Rhythm set.    Our video selection for April is Hollywood Rhythm, the four-volume set of Paramount Musical Shorts filmed from 1929 to 1941. This colossal set includes 31 films featuring more than 20 great artists.
     On Volume one, Radio Rhythms, you get to see Helen Kane, the Boop-Boop-a-Doop Girl, who was the inspiration for Fleischer Studio's Betty Boop, as well as Mae Questal, the actress who usually provided the voice for Betty Boop. On the same volume are musical interviews of songwriters Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, as well as Hoagy Carmichael. Let us say that some aspects of these interviews will curdle your blood. Meet the Boyfriend with Lillian Roth is bizarre and funny. One of the several short films by Bing Crosby is also featured on this volume.
     On Volume two, Jazz Cocktails, we get a remarkable piece featuring a very young and squeaky Ginger Rogers, a look at the magical powers of Cab Calloway (who can sing "Hi-De-Ho" and conjure his entire band into the bedroom of his lover to rescue him from a jealous husband), a lesson in swing from Artie Shaw, and another sentimental Bing Crosby piece (see Bing in black face (shudder!)). On this volume we also get the landmark 1929 film Black and Tan Fantasy, starring Duke Ellington. Fredi Washington co-stars and performs some breathtaking dancing. The film also features a cameo appearance by Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon as a piano mover. Makers of Melody is a real treasure, an interview with Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. And finally, we get to see Fats Waller performing his most famous composition, Ain't Misbehavin'.
     Volume three, Blue Melodies, starts out with Duke Ellington's sophisticated Symphony in Black, which includes the earliest film footage of Billie Holliday. We also get Bundle of Blues with Duke Ellington. Also notable on this video is Cab Calloway's Jitterbug Party. This is the best copy we have seen of this glimpse into Harlem's night life. This collection also includes Bessie Smith in St. Louis Blues, the only film footage in existence of the great blues singer. This 1929 film was shot on the same day and on the same set as Duke Ellington's Black and Tan Fantasy, and includes many of the same extras, including Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon. We also see pieces featuring Bing Crosby, Vincent Lopez, George Dewey Washington, and Ethel Merman. Ethel Merman in her early, motionless, dead-pan form is an interesting contrast to what she eventually became.
     Volume four, Rhapsody in Black and Blue, starts out with the Louis Armstrong feature of the same name. This is one of the best and most amazing of Armstrong's film appearances. What a character! And somewhere inside that capacious mammy costume is skinny Victoria Spivey, the great blues composer and singer, here appearing in a non-musical role. Also on this volume are films featuring Anna Chang, Cary Grant, Eddie Cantor, Eddie Younger, Nina Martini and Rosita Moreno, Ethel Merman, and Rudy Vallee with Mae Questal.
    This is a historically and musically significant set of films, all restored to excellent condition by modern technology.

Cover of the video, Duke is TopsOur movie of the month for October is The Duke is Tops. This is Lena Horne's first movie. Lena was very ambitious, and was hoping that this gem of a movie would launch her career as a movie star. Unfortunately, the studio released the film only in Harlem where it showed for just a few days, and then it went into the vaults until it was re-released on video recently.
     This movie has a much more solid plot than you usually find in a musical. Lena Horne plays a singer (billed as the Bronze Nightengale or Bronze Venus) in partnership with Duke, the show's producer. Duke (no relationsip to Duke Ellington) is played by Ralph Cooper. They have to split up for business reasons: Lena is offered a big break in New York, but the New Yorkers don't want Duke. Without her, his show fails. Broke but not beaten, Duke takes up with an old con-man friend who sells patent medicine from a travelling wagon in small Southern towns. Business has been bad for the con-man, but with professional showman Duke to help out, the two do very well after some really humorous setbacks. Meanwhile, Lena is not doing so well without Duke. The two of them reunite, and take New York by storm.
     In addition to an entertaining plot and fine acting, the movie includes some fascinating musical and vaudville interludes, including a fine rubberleg dance, and two performances by the wonderful Cats and the Fiddle, an obscure group that resemble the Mills Brothers. We also get to see Ralph Cooper show his stuff as a singer and spirited bandleader.
     This is one of our favorite movies, and we're glad that it's finally out of the vaults.

Find this month's recommendation at Heptune's Journal of Lore and Levity!

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