|Index||9 reviews in total|
Birth of the Blues was a labor of love for Bing Crosby and it showed.
Coming up with Paul Whiteman, Bing met and worked with some of the
greatest musicians in history. He enjoyed their company, he enjoyed
working with them, just couldn't get enough. The plot is a
fictionalization of the creation of the first all white jazz combo, the
Original Dixieland Band.
This is Mary Martin's second of two films she did with Crosby and at the same time this was being shot, she was doubling as the girl singer on his Kraft Music Hall. As in Rhythm on the River, for once he's given a leading lady who matches him vocally. Why movie audiences didn't take to her is still a mystery.
Brian Donlevy was at the height of his career where he usually played villains. He's no villain here, but he's Bing's rival for Mary Martin. He plays a hot cornet player named Memphis and I do love the scene where Crosby's band engages in an impromptu jam session on the street in front of the new Orleans Jail where Donlevy is residing and Crosby's trying to get him out. In a radio broadcast dramatization of this film, Phil Harris played Donlevy's part and Dinah Shore played the Mary Martin role.
Usually Crosby's films have original material written for them, this is an exception. A whole lot of old standards are used, the only original song for Birth of the Blues is The Waiter and The Porter and The Upstairs Maid, written by Bing's good pal Johnny Mercer. It's nice, catchy, novelty number with the waiter and upstairs maid done by Crosby and Martin. The porter is jazz trombone great Jack Teagarden who's really into the spirit of the thing.
One of the standards is Wait Till The Sun Shines Nellie, this time done with a jazz inflection. Crosby and Martin duet it and it became a big seller Decca recording.
J. Carroll Naish plays a good gangster villain assisted by henchmen Horace McMahon and Warren Hymer. Hymer had a specialty in playing schlemiel henchmen and this is a typical Warren Hymer part.
Eddie Anderson is in the film, playing a Rochester like part for Bing Crosby as he did for Jack Benny. In many ways he played the typical servile black person and some would say he does it here. Personally I found his Rochester character very good, he often got the best of Jack Benny. He acquits himself well here.
Ruby Elzy plays Anderson's wife and she gets a good vocal opportunity to sing St. Louis Blues as Anderson is unconscious and the band thinks he's checking out.
No one should pass on an opportunity to see Bing and Mary Martin together.
As with many musicals of the era, the little girl of the film sparks a sort
of magic, something Carolyn Lee was quite good at. She first appears as
six-year-old "Aunt Phoebe" sliding down a spiral banister and landing on
Bing Crosby's lap, after which she smashes his lucky hat. Bing, nice guy
that he is, takes her on his lap and smiles tremendously. So Phoebe becomes
a sort of mascot/hanger-on of the early New Orleans blues band that
struggles to survive against strong prejudices against "darkie" music. Every
time she opens her little mouth to say a few lines I found myself giggling
at her. Some of her pranks are quite memorable. I especially liked the scene
where she paints herself in white-face and puts a girdle on for a dress. Her
little broom dance with Rochester is also adorable. Carolyn was a very funny
little girl. Towards the end of the movie Bing picks her up and lullabies
her to sleep with the #1 hit song of 1941, "Melancholy Baby". I never
imagined this song was written to sing to six-year-old Carolyn Lee. The
Melancholy Baby scene alone is worth the price of admission.
The movie is well filmed, the jazz is great, the acting good and the story interesting. Bing is at his best, Mary Martin is gorgeous and Brian Donlevy with his rakish mustache is quite the rogue. One thing I liked about the film was the close, friendly relationships between the African-American and White jazz musicians. Seems like the jazz folks were ahead of their time and we can only wish that the rest of the country will eventually catch up.
The blues is a black American invention...period. So, seeing and
hearing Bing Crosby and a bunch of white actors singing what they refer
to as 'the blues' and its birth is pretty funny....in a sad way. It's a
lot like the 1950s when black rock 'n roll songs were remade by dull
white singers--such as when (I kid you not) Pat Boone remade Little
Richard's "Tutti Frutti"--and outsold the original! Sad...very sad.
Now despite the title of the film being 100% ridiculous, there is one other problem with the film. Most of the music is NOT the Blues but Dixieland--a much happier and bouncier variation on Jazz and the Blues. Now I don't mind this style of music--but this isn't the film's title! So is the film worth seeing? Well, yes--provided you don't take the film very seriously. The actors (Bing Crosby, Brian Donlevy and Mary Martin) are fine--but very white and middle-class. An enjoyable film but not at all a tribute to the black men who created this music. While the black men are mentioned (such as by using enlightened phrases like folks referring to it as 'darkie music'!), this is clearly a white-wash--though an enjoyable one.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Anyone interested in where the Ealing comedy 'The Ladykillers' stole the idea of a group of musos playing a gramophone record whilst ostensibly rehearsing behind a closed door and actually stealing away need look no further than this entry, produced a good ten years before Ladykillers. At best it's a mish-mosh with its heart in the right place; Crosby, ex Paul Whiteman vocalist and a friend of several early jazz musicians, notably Bix Beiderbecke, Jo Venuti, Eddy Lang and Louis Armstrong, was interested in a fictional recreation of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band with himself as leader, natch, and Brian Donlevy as Bix - at one point the script refers to him as 'the only white cornet player in the country' and Mary Martin as a completely fictional vocalist. Jack Teagarden is along for the ride and J. Carrol Naish seldom gave a bad performance; throw in several 'pop' songs of the day and a great original by Johnny Mercer and what's not to like.
Mary Martin, was a real favorite and got her Hollywood start singing "Daddy" in Cole Porter's Night and Day". 1941. This film enjoyed the talents of Eddie (Rochester), Jack Teagarden (who sang with Tommy Dorsey's orchestra, and my favorite male vocalist, Bing Crosby. Crosby and Martin were so good together, and make you feel like hopping dancing and singing lively with them. It's a pleasure to reminisce about these great musical films.
In this musical comedy set in New Orleans in the 1890's, a clarinet
player with a passion for jazz, played by Bing Crosby, organizes a band
of white musicians in an effort to bring this "blue music" to the white
café society of New Orleans, during an era when whites looked down on
jazz as a product of Black people.
The film's screenplay is not very good. Characters are poorly defined. They exist only to further the contrived plot. For a musical, there's too much dialogue, composed largely of supposedly humorous one liners. That may have worked in 1941. But times change. Sixty years after the film, the script now seems dismissive of serious social concerns, and is therefore not funny.
Meanwhile, the shallow plot dilutes the impact of the film's music. Blues numbers include "Melancholy Baby", "Memphis Blues", and several others. But they are uninspired, and seem tangential to the talky script. The only musical number I found even faintly memorable was "St. Louis Blues", performed with passion by diva Ruby Elzy.
One thing I did find interesting was the inclusion of a couple of bit part actors who would later become well known. Mantan Moreland (from the Charlie Chan series) shows up toward the beginning as a trumpet player. And Barbara Pepper (as Doris Ziffel from "Green Acres") shows up off and on in the film as a nightclub hussy.
Given the title, I was expecting a blues extravaganza, not a talk fest. Even so, "Birth Of The Blues" might have some value given its historical subject matter. And it probably would be a good film for fans of Bing Crosby, for whom the film functions as a cinematic vehicle.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Yes, once again, early Hollywood proved it had little regard for truth
when it came to representing history! Expected. Yes, the musical
numbers, rather than being purely representatives of early southern
blues and jazz compositions, are a mixed bag of early 20th century Tin
Pan Alley compositions, mostly ballads, 3 genuine blues or ragtime
compositions by southern African Americans(AA) or whites, and even a
British music hall standard in "Waiting at the Church". Presumably, the
brass assumed that audiences would want more variety in musical styles
than just blues or Dixieland, and I can't fault them for that. At the
beginning, it says the film is dedicated to the pioneers of such music
in New Orleans and Memphis. Well, the only connection with Memphis is a
cornet-playing jailbird in NO, played by Brian Donlevy, who usually
played villains. He seems to represent a combination of NO-based
Caucasian Nick LaRocca, coronetist and co-composer of the featured
"Tiger Rag", and AA W.C. Handy, who was for a time based in Memphis,
did play the coronet, and did compose the two featured blues numbers
"Memphis Blues" and "St. Louis Blues", often converted to jazz by
others. We might expect a much more direct recognition of Handy's
importance in a film of this title. For a much more
historically-relevant treatment of his life and career, check out the
later film "St. Louis Blues".
That title song,only heard as sung by Bing during the opening credits, was, like most of the songs, actually a Tin Pan Alley composition. Even the opening "At a Georgia Camp Meeting", staged as played by an all African American band and sounding from the title like it was derived from an AA spiritual, was actually an early Tin Pan Alley composition.
Yes, the screenplay is very hokey, the way Bing, Mary Martin(MM) and Donlevy meet and all serendipitously end up staying with Bing for want of other accommodations. Expected. We are left guessing about the true nature of the relationship between 6 y.o. 'aunt' Phoebe and MM. Maybe she is MM's daughter or niece, and maybe she is actually her aunt. Yes, possible. In any case, although no Shirley Temple, she served as an occasional quirky diversion from the adult drama and music, and functions as a sleeping 'prop' during Bing's soulful rendition of "My Melancholy Baby". Of course, the composer didn't have an actual child in mind when he wrote the lyrics. Typically, Bing, Donlevy and MM form a budding romantic triangle, with Donlevy aggressively pursuing MM, who is more attracted to the laconic Bing.
J.Carrol Naish, as a shady restaurant owner(Blackie), who's willing to send his goons to wreck competing establishments that want to take his new draw of Bing's revolutionary band, is a bit extreme, but possibly realistic, and certainly adds to the drama. His nickname (Blackie) was formerly given to Clark Gable, in a similar role in "San Francisco", and presumably connotes his evil disposition beneath a sophisticated facade. Toward the end, when Bing's 'Basin Street Hot-Shots' get an offer from a Chicago establishment, Blackie is willing to hold the band hostage at gun point to prevent their leaving! Bing and Donlevy are the heroes in getting the band safely on the boat for Chicago, while Blackie meets his end in poetic justice fashion(see film for details).
The film dramatizes the difficulties pioneer Caucasians had in getting blues and various jazz forms accepted by snobbish conservative white society as legitimate musical forms for their listening and dancing. It also acknowledges, to some extent, the pioneering role of AAs in creating these musical forms. As for its characterization of AAs, it's typical of its times, with stereotypes, meant to add to the humor. I noted that all the jailbirds shown, except Donlevy, were AA's, some acting crazed with the Dixieland music. Perhaps more a reflection of southern legal prejudices, ignorance, and poverty than of their character. Certainly, Bing showed that he much valued his servant Louey(Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson) as a friend, when he appeared near death. Along with Phoebe, Louey, with his gravely voice, served to lighten the serious drama.
I enjoyed the music, on the whole. Along with the traditional Dixieland numbers, a standout was the "Wait til the Sun Shines, Nellie", sung by Bing and MM, in a Dixieland style. According to the screenplay, this rendition served as the bridge to white acceptance of Dixieland jazz. Bing's mellow rendition of "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" was enhanced by accompanying slides of appropriate paintings, in color, in this otherwise B&W film.. MM's "Cuddle up a Little Closer" was done at a very slow tempo, appropriate for a cuddling couple. This would be redone more famously by Betty Grable, a few years later, in "Coney Island". Unlike some viewers, I didn't find a problem with MM, either as an actress or singer. Ruby Elzy(AA)'s soulful rendition of "St. Louis Blues", as Louey apparently hovers near death, is also memorable.
Another of Der Bingle favorites with Mary Martin; wow, how I loved her; her heart really sang to Daddy. I haven't seen it for some years, but I do have it on VHS which I recorded. I have over 1000 recorded VHS movies all in the garage, so now that I am retired, I have time to look at some now and then. This also has Crosby singing with Louis Armstrong.
This film is gawd awful from first second to last second. Its purported story of the birth of the blues (jazz) in New Orleans is the worst re-write of history I've encountered and filled with racist-stereotypes to the hilt. Even Crosby can't save this mess. Yeah, he sings well, but never does he come near his best. Yeah, Mary Martin has a wonderful voice and range, but here she has none of her famed piz-zazz and charisma. Whether this is because her abundant stage charisma didn't work on film or it is the fault of the director is not ascertainable here. Jack Teagarden proves in his playing, why he is a legend, but he can't act at all. Gone is the bon homme of film clips featuring him performing with the great Luis Armstrong, who fortunately wasn't offered this "white" wash of the real origins of jazz.
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