Pros: Louie Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Kid Ory, and a great collection of Black Dixieland Musicians.
Cons: Only a ghost of the film that Louie Armstrong and Orson Welles planned.
Strange Fruit and After:
In NEW ORLEANS (Lubin, 1947), when Louis Armstrong skips around Nick Duquesne's Basin Street club, rapping out introductions to the heroine for perhaps the greatest collection of pioneer Dixieland Jazz artists ever assembled in a theatrical feature film, there can be little doubt that here was a Star of marvelous motion picture potential. At 46, he is supple, charismatic, funny and appealing to both sexes. And all of that we can see, if we didn't know, before he even picks up his coronet or sings a jazzy word. Why he did not become fully a crossover media star until he was in late middle age, his wind gone, and his health impaired, is a bizarre, heroic, half-lost story, which in a peculiar way follows the course of the movie.
NEW ORLEANS, like its subject matter and its characters, is full of things half said; developed in muted pain and moments of joy; framed in awkward stereotypes and transcendent performances; begun in squalor and hope; climaxed in a false triumph. And yet, in the ruins of its conception, even in the dishonesty of its realization -- shot as it is with instants of curiously familiar brilliance, but sodden for most of its length with pedestrian production values -- the film accidentally tells a left-handed truth.
The pattern is set, naturally for a multi-racial film of its period, by the fact that none of the black participants are listed on the first cast card of the credits.
NEW ORLEANS begins in Storyville, the old red light ghetto of New Orleans, where what we think of as Jazz was birthed. The year is 1917, and the movie opens stylishly and curiously, but somehow irrelevantly, with a young black man dumping garbage from one can into another. The camera follows him inside a gambling club owned by Nick Duquesne (Arturo DeCordoba). Louie Armstrong is gathering his band (and what band!) for an afternoon practice. Nick is negotiating with a visiting society matron, a Mrs. Smith (Irene Rich), and her companion, Colonel McArdle (John Alexander). She is unhappy about her recent losses, and Nick the Creole gentleman, cuts cards with them, and of course, Mrs. Smith wins. Overjoyed, she brings Nick and the Colonel down to the dock to greet her blonde daughter, Miralee (Dorothy Patrick), who is returning from Europe, where she has studied operatic voice. Nick is waylaid by a fellow gambler, an early day mobster, Biff Lewis (the saturnine Jack Lambert), who has come down from Chicago to see if he can muscle in on the bayou music. Nick slips away long enough to be introduced to Miralee. She quietly imparts to Nick that she sure likes that Basin Street music.
Mrs. Smith, the Colonel and her daughter are soon uptown at their mansion, where the Conductor of the New Orleans Symphony, the leonine Mr. Ferber (Richard Hageman), visits to see Miralee, his former pupil. When they all go upstairs to the music room, who should they find at the piano but the family maid, Endie (Billie Holiday).
Whether or not this transgression leads to Endie's firing is not entirely clear, but she is soon down at the club with Louie, singing up a storm, to the approval of Mr. Ferber, who it turns out is a secret Jazz fan. Breaking in upon them, comes Miralee, much to Nick's discomfort because he has to watch his step entertaining white debutantes in his club, and because he already has a dissipated uptown girlfriend, Grace Volselle (Marjorie Lord), who is trouble and very jealous. Louie calms the situation by making the above mentioned rap introduction of his band to Miralee: Zutty Singleton on drums; Barney Bigard with his clarinet; Charlie Beal at piano; Red Callendar on Bass; and the legendary Kid Ory playing trombone.
With the basic plot and conflict set up, NEW ORLEANS progresses as a romantic triangle of sorts, monitored by Louie and Conductor Ferber, until Grace Volselle's accidental death. Sensationalized by a well-named town gossip columnist, Constance Vigil (Joan Blair), the accident and ensuing scandal causes the historical closing down of Storyville. At the same time, Miralee is persuading Mr. Ferber to allow her to sing a shocking encore of "Do You Know New Orleans" at her recital; and off stage, scored to Miralee's passionate rendition of Verdi's "La Forza del Destino," Mrs. Smith is bribing Nick to leave her daughter alone.
After Endie and (an uncredited) Ethel Waters, singing "Farewell to Storyville," lead the Black residents on a diaspora, Nick relocates to Chicago, where Louie welcomes to his new band the likes of old friends Mead "Lux" Lewis on piano, Papa Mutt Carey with his trumpet and Lucky Thompson, the incomparable saxophonist.
[Sammy Davis, Jr., is dashing about here somewhere, too.]
How rather incomprehensibly Nick thwarts Gangster Biff Lewis with the help of a very young Shelly Winters and Woody Herman (of the Herds' fame), and how Woody takes all the music away from Louie and Billie before the band reaches Carnagie Hall, I'll leave for you to discover. Many of you reading this review will already have guessed. For in a shameful, largely unconscious (therefore, truly racist) way, NEW ORLEANS traces the equally disgraceful history of how the only native American art form, Jazz, was finessed by admiring white musicians and motley commercial interests from the hands of Black people who invented and largely perfected it, and transformed it into Swing and Big Band, which was "respectable" enough for white youngster to dance to.
And so, why is Macresarf1 reviewing this flawed example of ethnic movie making?
There is another story, a secret story, revealed and documented more completely on the new Kino DVD of NEW ORLEANS than I have seen it done before.
Here is the story:
Orson Welles, who directed a groundbreaking all-Black Macbeth in Harlem when still a teenager, was always keenly interested in Jazz. When he took his Mercury Theater to Hollywood in 1939, he conceived of a movie, which had various tentative titles, the simplest of which was The Story of Jazz. Scenarios were imagined, some say complete scripts were written. The clearest story line to emerge would have been . . . The Life of Louie Armstrong. Welles and Armstrong knew each other from New York, respected each other, corresponded about the project, and on his highly individualistic stationary (reproduced in a chapter on the DVD), Armstrong wrote the story of his life, which Welles edited as story treatment.
Louie Armstrong was born in New Orleans in 1901, and he lived with his single mom until his innocently firing a loaded pistol on the street one day caused authorities to put him in The Colored Waif's Home for Boys. There a sensitive counselor gave him a drum to beat on, and then a bugle, which young Armstrong used like a Black Oliver Twist to proudly call breakfast and supper, and then a visiting King Oliver took a liking to him, mentored him, bought him a real trumpet. He joined Kid Ory's Band in 1917, playing at socials, weddings and funerals, and in 1922, King Oliver imported Louie to Chicago. By 1930, he was appearing in Hollywood films (e.g., EX-FLAME), and showed himself a competent actor in seven movies in that decade, most notably in Ray Enright's PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (with Bing Crosby, 1936), and by the mid-1930's, Louie was touring with his own band as far as Paris and London (where a British critic garbled his nicknamed of Satchelmouth into Satchmo, which we all know -- or should know -- stuck). In 1940, Louie Armstrong was one of the most famous Blackmen in the Western World.
Welles and Armstrong would have been natural partners. Both were orphans, both had unconventional educations, both had traveled far from their roots, both crossed color lines in their friendships, and both were highly and eclectically intelligent. They discussed making a movie, part of Welles's legendary four picture free-hand contract with RKO, and based on Armstrong's life. It would roughly follow the birth and development of Jazz, from the turn of the Century to 1940. Welles, who was romantically involved with young Lena Horne, signed her, Louie and various Black talents (read, the cats who appear in NEW ORLEANS, seven years later) to personal contracts, and, according to his practice at the time, assembled most of them in Hollywood, as an adjunct of the Mercury Theater. He engaged Duke Ellington at $1000 a month (a royal sum back then) to supervise the project. Welles and various writers went to work on the script. A writer who seems likely to have produced at least a scenario was Elliot Paul (one of three writers credited on NEW ORLEANS); he had written a number of radio scripts for Welles, including "Boogie Woogie in Boston" and "The Music Lesson."
Well, what happened? It is not entirely clear, but Hollywood and World War II happened. Later, Welles remarked bitterly that no endeavors were more opposed by the Hollywood Studio bosses than his attempts to develop multi-racial projects. With the box office failure of CITIZEN KANE (1941), he was encouraged to scale back The Story of Jazz, and after December 7th, much like the situation following September 11, 2001, entertainment artists were drafted into various patriotic ventures. Under-Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs Nelson Rockefeller told Welles that FDR (his hero) wanted him to undertake a project for "The Good Neighbor Policy" in South America, to help bind the Latin countries to the Allied War effort. Welles revised the concept of The Story of Jazz to encompass the Slave roots of the Samba in Brazil (part of the Latin dance craze of those years). The new format would contain a number of interconnected stories: The Samba, Latin American fishermen, Mexican folklorico, and the Jazz story.
[How, I've never quite understood.]
As Welles finished work on THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and JOURNEY INTO FEAR (both 1942), and flew to Brazil to take personal charge of the State Department-partially-financed root segment of his Pan-American music film, the various other projects were in motion. But when he asked RKO for Technicolor cameras to be sent to Rio to record Carnival, in his rather crude expression of it, "They said I was wasting their money, shooting a lot of 'Jigaboos!'" That on top of the complete debacle of MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS caused RKO to exercise its right to abrogate his contract. The Story of Jazz languished with the others segments of what was now to be called It's All True.
Duke Ellington had no problem in exercising his genius in other spheres, and Louis Armstrong continued to appear in movies as well as directing his orchestra. Lena Horne quickly appeared in the first mainstream Hollywood Black films, CABIN IN THE SKY (Minnelli, 1943) and STORMY WEATHER (Stone, 1943), since King Vidor's HALLELUJAH (1929) and GREEN PASTURES (Keighly/Connelly; 1936); and she signed a long term contract with MGM as a musical performer. Ethel Waters extended a distinguished career as both a singer and as an actress. And Billie Holiday became a tragic legend.
Although he spent many years trying to buy or negotiate the return of the various footage (some of which is salvaged in IT'S ALL TRUE, 1993), Welles days as a pocket-movie mogul were at an end. However, upon his return from Brazil, he was still a power in Radio, which was the equal of the Movies in American entertainment in those years. Among several radio activities during World War II, he hosted The Orson Welles Show, which became The Orson Welles Almanac. in 1944. These were variety shows, 26 to a season, emceed by Welles, formed around short dramatic Mercury Players adaptations with weekly guest stars. Broadcast in what we would now call prime time (9:30-10 p.m, Wednesday nights), they featured, in addition to the King Cole Trio and Ethel Waters as returning guests, "The All Star Jazz Group," consisting of Kid Ory, Bud Scott, Jimmy Noone (piano) and Zutty Singleton. These gigs are credited in reviving Ory's career, eventually leading to the Post war return to favor of Dixieland Jazz, and giving Ory's group parts in several movies, including NEW ORLEANS, plus a long career at the Club Hangover (with Muggsy Spanier) and other venues in San Francisco's Fillmore Jazz District.
We can only imagine what The Story of Jazz might have been in its original conception. (Perhaps, it would have been as cliched as NEW ORLEANS, but it is unlikely, given Welles' youth, sensitivity and powers in the early 1940's.) Most likely, it would have paralleled Louie Armstrong's life, as NEW ORLEANS does in its way. Clearly, Welles originally intended Armstrong to be the leading man. The style would be documentary, but Armstrong would be involved in a musical drama. Possibly, a Nick Duquesne character (played by Welles?) would be a kind of rival, no doubt a charming villain of the piece. I like to think that he would have managed to get away with an inter-racial triangle, in which Armstrong would win out, but to be realistic, as late as 1947, the year the hesitant NEW ORLEANS appeared, about 37 American States had Anti-Miscegenation laws on their books. [In an interesting bit near the end of NEW ORLEANS, a couple of white men appear to engage in social dancing with light-skinned Black women -- risky stuff, in 1947.] Lena Horne would have played Endie in a greatly expanded dramatic role. Mercury Players Agnes Moorehead would have been Mrs. Smith; Ray Collins, Colonel McArdle; Paul Stewart, Biff Lewis; and Joseph Cotton as Armstrong's friend and sidekick.
Well, we are into highly speculative fantasy now . . . .
The one thing that we can say with fair confidence is that The Story of Jazz would have been memorable, in ways that NEW ORLEANS is not.
Finally, what can be said about NEW ORLEANS?
First, it validates Welles perception that Louie Armstrong could have easily carried the film, certainly in 1941 or 1942.
Secondly, Billie Holiday, in the part Lena Horne might have played, gives her one singing performance in a Hollywood feature film. She appears uncomfortable in the costume of a gently uppity French maid, indeed no more comfortable later in the film, and her part of Endie seems to be severly cut, even if Louie tells Miralee that he has married her. After all, she had a reputation for taking bleep from no one; she had sung "Strange Fruit" in 1938; and she knew that over 3000 black people had been lynched in America by 1946, when the murder of a black war hero "officially" ended the practice. [She may already, too, have heard the rumor that Lana Turner was being groomed to play her in The Lady Sings the Blues!] Nevertheless, her artistry, at this stage in her life, is documented.
Third, Kid Ory and his group gather around Louie Armstrong like a family reunion to play such tunes as "New Orleans," "Farewell to Storyville," "Endie," "Where the Blues Were Born," and "The Blues Are Brewing." There is no Dixieland group of such breadth in another Hollywood film. For that reason alone, NEW ORLEANS is worth watching.
Fourth, if you get the Kino DVD, you also receive the story I've related in much greater detail, with documentation, plus a short featuring Armstrong, "A Rhapsody in Blue" (1932) and another with Holiday, "Symphony in Black" (1935).
Fifth, some of the other players in NEW ORLEANS are of interest. Arturo DeCordoba (Nick Duquesne) was a ranking star of the Mexican Film Industry, who came to Hollywood to play Antonio in FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (Wood, 1943) and stayed to act a swashbuckler like the one in FRENCHMAN'S CREEK (Leisen, 1944), opposite Joan Fontaine. Shortly after NEW ORLEANS, he returned to Mexico and eventually went to Spain, to finish out a long distinguished career. Richard Hageman (the Jazz-loving Classicist Mr. Ferber) is really playing those pianos. He was a gifted composer and musician. He did the robust, atmospheric music for many of John Ford's films: STAGE COACH, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, FORT APACHE and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON. John Alexander (Colonel McArdle) was best known as crazy "Teddy" Brewster , in both the stage and motion picture version of Arsenic and Old Lace. Marjorie Lord (the fallen Grace Volselle) quit Hollywood shortly and starred with Danny Thomas in the successful 1953 TV Series, Daddy's Little Girl. Irene Rich (Mrs. Smith) enjoyed a long career, ending up as the rep for Welch's Grape Juice on TV.
Finally, I might note that the not terribly talented Herbert J. Biberman, who also gets story credit, produced very few films, but the one before NEW ORLEANS was THE MASTER RACE (1944), which had as its theme that Nazis would go to ground and infiltrate European society. (Little did we know, that in 1947, the fledgling CIA was preparing to sponsor a "Displaced Persons Act" which would bring thousands of Nazis to the United States, where, as reward for their Anti-Communist covert activities in Germany and Eastern Europe, a number would take up positions, some of them rather important in American government, which a few held until just recently.) The film Biberman made after NEW ORLEANS was his independent answer to McCarthyism: SALT OF THE EARTH (1951). A story of a strike by Mexican zinc miners in New Mexico, shot in documentary style on location, under very difficult conditions, it won prizes in Europe, but was virtually banned in the U.S.A. Biberman made only one film after that, 20 years later, with his wife Gale Sondergaard (THE BLUEBIRD, 1940), sometimes known as "The Spider Woman," who was alse blacklisted for years; as were the American actors on SALT OF THE EARTH, such as Will Geer (The Waltons) and [another Welles' discovery] Howard DaSilva (Academy Award for THE LOST WEEKEND, Wilder, 1944).
I'll also note that veteran Cinematographer Lucian Andriot seems at times to be using Wellsian camera setups. He also photographed Rene Clair's AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945), Jean Renoir's THE SOUTHERNER (1945) and Luis Bunuel's DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID (1946). It would seem, he was trying to do his best to bring distinction to NEW ORLEANS.
And so NEW ORLEANS is strange fruit, but worth checking out for what it tells us, if only by default, about Black History in America.
Don't be put off by all the Long Hair opera.
As Louie said: "All Music is Folk Music. I ain't never heard no Horse sing a song!"
This review is part of a Black History Month observance, sponsored by Carleeta (Cletta1201). Would you please look at the fine work of the other participants:
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