Videos of the Month
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:
you are a fan of early jazz, you must see this movie!
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson,
of course. He made this movie when he was 70 years old, but you won't believe
his age when you see him in action! He performs several outstanding dance
numbers, including a sand-slide tap dance, his famous drum dance, and an
abbreviated form of his stair dance at the end on Lena Horne's stage porch.
He is also a fine singer with a warm, pleasant voice, and a convincing
Lena Horne sings throughout,
with beautiful renditions of There's No Two Ways About Love, Digga-Do,
and the title song, Stormy Weather. Compare her performance in this
film to that in The Duke is Tops (1938) to see how far she came as a performer
in just five years.
Dooley Wilson does a fine job
playing Selena's crabby, jealous manager and gets to do a little singing.
Fats Waller plays himself in
our favorite part of the movie. He is performing in a little club on Beale
Street, with blues singer Ada Brown. He is at his masterful best in this
sequence, where he performs Baby, Baby with Ada, as well as his
most famous composition, Ain't Misbehavin'. Fats Waller died of
bronchial pneumonia on the train returning home from making this movie,
so this is the last footage of Fats that we have.
Ada Brown, with her magnificent,
full voice, is a perfect complement to Fats in this scene.
Cab Calloway, that wildest
and sexiest of band leaders and jazz vocalists, comes in toward the end
of the picture to participate in the grand finale. We get to see him in
his extravagant zoot suit, performing his own composition, Geechy Joe,
and we see glimpses of some of his fine band members in action: Milt Hinton
on the bass, Bennie Payne on the piano (later, the Nicolas Brothers are
on that piano -dancing on it, that is!), Jonah Jones on the trumpet.
The Nicolas Brothers perform
one of the most notorious dances in film history. You have to see it to
believe it. All we will say about this dance number is "ouch!" ("Wow!"
is also an appropriate comment.)
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.
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!
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
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.
is a historically and musically significant set of films, all restored
to excellent condition by modern technology.
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!
Visitors since 4/1/00:
FastCounter by bCentral