(director: Arthur Lubin; screenwriters: Elliot Paul and Dick Irving Hyland/ story by Herbert Biberman and Elliot Paul; cinematographer: Lucien N. Andriot; editor: Bernard W. Burton; music: Bob Carleton; cast: Dorothy Patrick (Miralee Smith), Arturo de Cordova (Nick Duquesne), John Alexander (Col. McArdle), Irene Rich (Mrs. Rutledge Smith), Louis Armstrong (Himself), Marjorie Lord (Grace Volselle), Billie Holiday (Endie), Richard Hageman (Henri Ferber), Jack Lambert (Biff Lewis), Woody Herman (Himself), Kid Ory (Red Callendar), Zutty Singelton (Charlie Beale), Barney Bizard (Meade Lux Lewis); Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jules Levy; United Artists; 1947)
“One of those films where the story gets in the way of the performers, and that’s a darn shame because the performers are Satchmo Armstrong and Billie Holiday.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
It’s one of those films where the story gets in the way of the performers, and that’s a darn shame because the performers are Satchmo Armstrong and Billie Holiday. It’s directed by Arthur Lubin from a story by Herbert Biberman and Elliot Paul, that tells of the birth of the blues in the New Orleans of 1917. But the film gets too overwhelmed with the story about the white folks (who are stiff as actors and can’t match the real stars when it comes to the music) and leaves too little time for the music, which the film was supposed to be about in the first place.
In the infamous Storyville district of New Orleans, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and his jazz band play ragtime music in the basement of the Orpheum cabaret. The owner of the gambling club, Nick Duquesne (Arturo de Cordova), known as the ‘King of Basin Street,’ enjoys the music but makes his dough from gambling. The “good” citizens, under pressure from wealthy socialite Mrs. Rutledge Smith (Irene Rich), just down here from Baltimore, force Nick to leave town (Mrs. Smith’s influential friend Colonel McArdle (John Alexander) has an article printed about the dangers facing unchaperoned debutantes visiting Storyville when socialite Grace (Marjorie Lord) is drunk and gets run over leaving the joint). When the Public Safety Commissioner condemns the district Nick relocates in Chicago, taking a bracelet from Mrs. Smith worth $20,000 which he says he needs to open a club there. Mrs. Smith gives him the dough after he promises not to take her classically trained aspiring singer daughter Miralee (Dorothy Patrick) along, who has a crush on him, digs the blues and is set to go with him. In Chi town the honorable Nick returns the bracelet by way of symphony conductor Henry Ferber (Richard Hageman), Miralee’s open-minded conflicted jazz loving music teacher. Ferber gives it to the class-conscious Mrs. Smith, but she does not tell Miralee fearing that she still loves him and will look upon the gesture as a noble one. Nick gives up the gambling business and opens the Club Orleans in Chicago, with Satchmo and piano player Meade Lux Lewis as performers of the blues. The club becomes the rage of Chicago and jazz spreads across the country. By the conclusion Miralee joins Nick in Chicago and sings the blues in a classical hall concert that her mom attends.
The story is an uninspired dud, but the film is probably worth seeing because it’s Billie Holiday’s only feature film role in a Hollywood film (she was in a short film in 1935 called Symphony in Black). Though she plays a maid (which is insulting and a poor way of utilizing her talent, especially since she was not much of an actress but a helluva performer), she still gets a chance to sing the showstopper “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans.” There’s also a treat in the lively way Satchmo introduces his great ragtime band. Other numbers include “New Orleans Stomp,” “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” “West End Blues,” “Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble,” and “Basin Street Blues.” There’s also a great Satchmo duet with Holiday on “The Blues Are Brewin’.”
REVIEWED ON 5/14/2006 GRADE: C+