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If you've ever wanted to see the great Bessie Smith perform, this is your
one chance--her only film appearance is in this short.
For an early talkie, a lot of things were done right. The wrap-around plot involving the 'no-good boyfriend who done her wrong' is really quite effective, and unnerving, in it's violence. The camerawork in the big bar scene is generally well done, with people passing in front of the camera going about their business. It's obviously a one-take deal, with several cameras recording the action at the same time as three-camera sitcoms do.
But you're left wondering about the stupidity of the director who obviously hid Bessie's mic on the bar, but failed to set up a camera behind the bar! Yes she sings, but we're treated to her backside mostly, with only an occasional glimpse of her profile. You can't really blame that poor thinking on early sound technology.
Not a great film in the artistic sense, but it is all we will ever see
of Bessie Smith in action, and the music is wonderful. All the more
reason to criticize the NAACP's attempt to have all copes destroyed.
The found the crapshoot scene demeaning. Fortunately, this attempt at
Years ago, Isabel Washington, who was the first Mrs. Adam Clayton Powell, told me how she came to play opposite Bessie in this 1929 two-reeler. "They wanted my sister, Fredi, who was already in pictures, but she had the flu and recommended me. When I auditioned, they said I was too light, so I told them that I could be dipped. They agreed and I got the part."
Fredi Washington is perhaps best known for her role in the 1934 Universal Pictures film, "Imitation of Life." Having served well to get Adam Clayton Powell elected, Isabel was divorced from him, and he married pianist Hazel Scott.
See why Bessie Smith was called the "Empress of the Blues" in this early sound short. An actress she was not, but the power and expression conveyed in her singing voice as she belts out the W.C. Handy composition of the title track is incredible. This film also gives you a rare glimpse of the talent of Jimmy Mordecai. One could only imagine what they could have accomplished had they been given the opportunity afforded other actors of their time.
Bessie Smith is a legendary Black entertainer from the Harlem
Renaissance. However, sadly, this is the ONLY known film in which she
appeared. So, for historical reasons, this short if like gold. Now I am
sure some might not agree--as the film shows Black people gambling and
carousing and doing a lot of stereotypical behaviors. However, this was
THE predominate view given in both Black and White-produced films of
the time and you can't expect a lot of enlightenment back in 1929. It
is a portrait of who we were as a nation at the time and who we wanted
us to be--and I say just accept it as a little window into the times
and way people thought. Plus, remember, this is still the only way to
watch Smith perform...so deal with it!
"St. Louis Blues" gets its name from the famous W.C. Handy song of the same title. It consists of Smith arguing with her gambling and carousing boyfriend as well as Smith smacking the crap out of one of Jimmy's floozies! He slaps her around and mistreats her...yet she begs him not to leave. I KNOW this is very negative--a terrible message for women then and now. BUT, as I said, it is what it is. What follows is Smith singing her very famous tune "My Man"--and she sings it with a lot of soul and style. It also is an interesting short because it plays much less like a typical music video of the age but like a mini-movie. Smith was some talent and it's a great window into the times--warts and all.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There's a legend around the sad lives of some of the early black performers who are looked back on in reverence at the sadness of their lives but the joy of their talents. One of the unsung legends now is Bessie Smith, somewhat overshadowed by Billie Holliday. But thanks to the Broadway musical revue "Me and Bessie" and a recent TV movie, those who might not have heard of her have gotten to discover the artist behind the sad woman. This short is a rare glimpse into the talents of the real deal, playing a long- suffering lady who discovers her no good man with another woman. After beating the floozie up, she pleads with the bum of a boyfriend not to leave her, and ends up singin' the blues when he tosses her aside. Smith is accompanied by the Hall Johnson choir in what seems like her personal prayer. The short ends on a truly downbeat note that had my jaw dropping in horror.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"St. Louis Blues" is not only the name of a famous hockey team, it is also the name of a not-so-famous black-and-white short film from soon 90 years ago. This one here has sound (thank God!) and stars Bessie Smith in her 30, sadly less than 10 years before her untimely death already. In this 16-minute movie, she is in danger of losing her boyfriend/husband and thus gets the blues. Good for us because we get some pretty great singing to listen to as a consequence. I must say in terms of the story it is fairly generic and nothing special, but it was obviously writer and director Dudley Murphy's intention here only to create a miserable situation for the protagonist so she gets a chance to sing. And she does so greatly. I enjoyed the watch, and even more so, the listen. Check it out if you can. Recommended.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In continuing to review the film accomplishments of African-Americans on film in chronological order for Black History Month, we're now at the start of the talkies. St. Louis Blues is the only film appearance of the legendary singer Bessie Smith. As an excuse to warble the classic W. C. Handy-composed song that's the title of this short, Ms. Smith gets two-timed and then rejected by Jimmy Mordecai. The other woman is the light-skinned Isabel Washington, sister of Fredi Washington who's in the next short I'm reviewing, Black and Tan. Anyway, when she sings, Bessie is in a class by herself though I wish the recording on the soundtrack (which was presumably live) had sounded sharper. Mordecai later returns for some tap-dancing before coming back to Ms. Smith only to reject her again when he gets her money from her leg garter. Then she reprises before "The End" flashes on the screen. This interesting curio also had the Hall Johnson Choir doing the chorus with James P. Johnson playing the piano. One more interesting fact: The distributor was Sack Amusement Enterprises which later handled later race movies like Spencer Williams' The Blood of Jesus and Go Down Death.
St. Louis Blues (1929)
*** 1/2 (out of 4)
This early race Musical is without question one of the strongest I've seen for a number of reasons. The plot is fairly simple as legend Bessie Smith walks into a gambling hall and catches her husband with a younger, prettier woman. She begs for him to come back with her but the husband knocks her to the ground and walks out, which causes Bessie to pour herself a drink and sing the title song. This film works on a number of levels but as a race movie I think it's perhaps the best I've seen from the 20s or 30s. We've seen a black gambling house in house white films made by white folks so it was very interesting seeing the difference here and I'm going to go out on a limb and say this here is a lot more authentic than what the major studios were showing. The film is also interesting because it shows how women were looked at during this era because we see Bessie get knocked down and kicked yet she begs for the man to keep her. Even before this happens Bessie storms into the room and beats the fire out of the other woman, which is certainly something that didn't show up in those MGM shorts. Finally, I've read that this is the only known video footage of Bessie Smith and man what a voice she had. Her singing the blues would make anyone a fan of the genre and she certainly gives it her all and delivers a strong vocal performance. Her acting ability wasn't the greatest but I thought she did OK with it. The film is extremely raw and authentic and part of this is probably due to the obvious low-budget. This film works on just about every level and is highly recommended.
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