Eubie Blake, beautiful Nina Mae, and the fabulous Nicholas Brothers!
Here's another fascinating Vitaphone musical short, one of those quirky 10-minute novelties that used to play before the feature attraction, along with a cartoon, a two-reel comedy, and a newsreel. Most of the major studios produced these mini-musicals, sometimes using them as screen tests (in effect) for popular stage or radio stars who might then "graduate" to appearances in features. The shorts were quickly cranked out and generally regarded as ephemeral little trifles in their day, but for theater historians and movie buffs alike they provide a valuable record of some of the top entertainers of the 20th century. Some of these shorts simply offer straightforward footage of the artists doing their thing, but others -- like Pie, Pie, Blackbird -- are more imaginative. Here, the filmmakers employ clever touches such as giant props, overhead camera views, etc., to keep viewers amused, but the central point of interest for us today is that this film showcases several first-rate African American performers who were rarely given such opportunities in mainstream Hollywood feature films. Top billing goes to Eubie Blake and his Band, with featured billing for the gorgeous Nina Mae McKinney, star of King Vidor's Hallelujah, but for me what makes this film really special is that it marked the movie debut of two very young stars who received no billing in the credits at all: the fabulous Nicholas Brothers, 17 year-old Fayard and 11 year- old Harold.
The film opens in a kitchen as Nina, playing a cook and dressed in traditional Aunt Jemima garb, is shown taking a pie from an oven and setting it out on a counter to cool. The Nicholas Brothers (looking even younger than their actual ages) enter excitedly and ask what she's baking. She replies by singing a song about blackbird pie, and as soon as she's finished the pie splits open and out pops a miniature version of Eubie Blake and his orchestra, dressed in chef outfits. They perform a beautiful instrumental rendition of "Memories of You" and are then joined by a doll-sized Nina Mae, who sings "Everything I've Got Belongs to You" while her full-scale double looks on approvingly. For the finale, a miniaturized pair of Nicholas Brothers appear from behind the giant pie and perform one of their amazing tap specialties, all the more amazing when you consider how very young they were in 1932, and that they were facing a movie camera for the first time. The short ends on a bizarre, macabre note, with a closing gag that implies the boys' dancing is so hot that it literally causes the whole place to ignite.
The musical performances in this little film are terrific, and the artists manage to transcend the patronizing presentation so typical of its era. Modern day viewers will wince at the implications of the lyric when Nina Mae sings "the master says it takes a Blackbird/to make the sweetest kind of pie," but somehow she conveys an unshakable dignity and strength that overcomes any insult implicit in the script. It's too bad that McKinney, Eubie Blake, and the Nicholas Brothers didn't live in a more enlightened time, and didn't get to show what they could do in major feature-length films tailored to their talents, but, thanks to the Vitaphone series, we can at least catch these brief glimpses of them in their heyday.
This film is available as an extra feature on the DVD release of King Vidor's Hallelujah, along with another musical short featuring Nina Mae McKinney and the Nicholas Brothers.
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