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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.
I think I saw a clip of this movie when I watched a special on PBS a couple of decades ago called "Remembering Bing", that clip being of Crosby and Mary Martin whistling. Anyway, this was quite entertaining despite the inaccuracies that abounded. In the New Orleans sequence where a bunch of black musicians were playing, it took me awhile to realize that one of them was Mantan Moreland with his familiar bug eyes-who I knew was a native of Monroe, Louisiana. Nice color sequence involving slides being shown. One might be put off by some of the violence shown near the end but it did result in a touching scene involving Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. So on that note, I do recommend Birth of the Blues. P.S. Since It's a Wonderful Life is my favorite movie, I do like citing when players from that are in something else. Here, it's Charles Lane, Sarah Edwards, and Lillian Randolph from there who appear here. Oh, and a few decades after this movie, Bing's daughter Mary played a character on "Dallas" who was revealed to have shot Mary Martin's son, Larry Hagman, as J. R. Ewing there.
BIRTH OF THE BLUES (Paramount, 1941), directed by Victor Schertzinger,
stars Bing Crosby in an interesting production that's "Dedicated to the
musical pioneers of Memphis and New Orleans who favored the "hot" over
the "sweet" - those early jazz men who took American music out of the
rut and put it "in the grove." In musical terms, "blues" is not a form
of depression but a music style of ragtime/jazz that originated by
Southern blacks dating back to the 1890s. W.C. Handy (1873-1958),
"Father of the Blues," the most recognizable of blues composers of his
time, was only an honorable mention along with such notables of both
black and white legends as Ted Lewis, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong,
Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, George Gershwin and Paul
Whiteman before the film's conclusion. While BIRTH OF THE BLUES could
very well have been a biography to any one of these greats, playing
more like a biography in general, but in present form, is basically a
fictional account the birth of the first Dixieland Jazz Band.
Opening in the 1890s, the plot begins with prologue in "Jazz Singer" plot-style where a Louisiana boy named Jeff Lambert (Ronnie Cosbey) is seen clarinet playing to "darkie music" among black musicians on the dock side of Basin Street by Louey (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson), the family servant, thus, reporting the news to the boy's stern musician father (Minor Watson). Knowing full well that Lambert would rather have his son resuming with his classical clarinet lessons, Jeff goes against his father's wishes and accepts his punishment rather than making a promise he'll never keep. Flash forward. The now adult Jeff Lambert (Bing Crosby), better known as "Sunshine," has formed a band, but is unable to gain prominence playing in New Orleans cabarets with his all white musicians playing to Dixieland music. Jeff's luck changes with new additions to his company: Memphis (Brian Donlevy), a white trumpet player serving twenty days in a local jail, and Betty Lou Cobb (Mary Martin), a young woman from Alexandria who supplies Jeff $20 to have Memphis bailed from jail. With no money for her trip back home, Jeff finds himself having both Betty and her Aunt Phoebe (Carolyn Lee), a child no more than age six, as his house-guests. With Louey still looking after Jeff, situations occur following a successful engagement at the Black Tie Café where its owner, Blackie (J. Carrol Naish) and his thugs (Warren Hymer and Horace MacMahon) make certain that their newfound "Basin Street Hot Shots" doesn't get to leave for Chicago where a great opportunity awaits them.
During this well-scripted 84 minutes, song interludes and highlights include: "The Birth of the Blues" (sung by Bing Crosby during opening credits); "The Memphis Blues" (by W.C. Handy); "Gotta Go to the Jailhouse," "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," "Tiger Rag" (played by Dixieland Jazz Band); "Waiting at the Church," "Cuddle Up a Little Closer" (sung by Mary Martin); "Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie," "My Melancholy Baby" (sung by Crosby to Carolyn Lee); "The Waiter, the Porter and the Upstairs Maid" (new song by Johnny Mercer and Robert Emmett Dolan, performed by Crosby, Martin and Jack Teagarden); "The St. Louis Blues" (hauntingly sung by Ruby Elzy); and "The Birth of the Blues" (sung by Crosby during the montage featuring other blues performers).
Though disappointing through its historic accuracy, it succeeds in entertainment values. Bing Crosby and Mary Martin work just as well here as their did in their initial offering, RHYTHM ON THE RIVER (1940), while Paramount's resident tough guy, Brian Donlevy, has his moment fist-fighting with Bing for one scene. Aside from the aforementioned leads, the best moments go to Eddie Anderson (billed simply as his character "Rochester" from Jack Benny radio fame) where he gives singing advice to Betty (Martin)from a black man's point of view. Very much a black and white production, there's an interesting use of color slide shows on the motion picture screen during the movie house sequence. Others featured in the cast include Harry Barris (Suds); Cecil Kellaway (the French accented Mr. Granet) and Barbara Pepper (Maisie).
Out of circulation since public television broadcast days in some states (1980-1990s), BIRTH OF THE BLUES can be found on DVD along with Crosby's musical, BLUE SKIES (Paramount, 1946) on the flip side. Although the title BIRTH OF THE BLUES could easily be confused with another 1941 release of BLUES IN THE NIGHT (Warner Brothers), or even that of the television title to ST. LOUIS BLUES (Paramount, 1939), a/k/a BEST OF THE BLUES, the Crosby edition, nearly forgotten to today's generation, happens to be one of the more enjoyable birth of the blues presentations for its time. (***1/2)
*** 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.
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