Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Film Review: ST. LOUIS BLUES (1958)

"Why the Hell isn't This on DVD Yet?" -- Number 17

ST. LOUIS BLUES (1958 Paramount) Starring Nat “King” Cole, Eartha Kitt, Mahalia Jackson, Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Ruby Dee, Juano Hernandez, Billy Preston and Ella Fitzgerald. Directed by Allen Reisner.

In what would be his only feature film lead, legendary crooner Nat “King” Cole plays the legendary songwriter W. C. “Will” Handy. When we first meet Handy, he's in his childhood (played by then 11-year old Billy Preston in these scenes) and he is being admonished by his stern minister father (Juano Hernandez) for being late to church and for buying a cornet. Reverend Handy drills it into Will’s head that “there are only two kinds of music, the devil’s and the Lord’s!” and destroys the instrument. But Will’s love for the blues doesn’t go away easily, and after the adult Handy returns from his studies he confesses to his fiancĂ©e Elizabeth (Ruby Dee) that he’s also been performing in minstrel shows. Will’s songwriting talent brings him to the attention of sexy nightclub singer Gogo Germaine (Eartha Kitt), and soon Handy is writing songs and performing with Gogo in a local club, The Big Rooster. Handy’s night life is a complete secret to his father—until church choir member Mahalia Jackson spots him there while cleaning up one night.

ST. LOUIS BLUES boasts perhaps the greatest cast of music legends ever brought together for one dramatic film, and we aren’t talking cameo roles here (as in, say, THE BLUES BROTHERS). While Cole is a bit wooden at times, this fits the film’s presentation of Handy as a reserved man who grew up under a dominating and strict father. Pearl Bailey sings a few lines of the title song (sadly, she doesn't finish it) and has a plum role as Handy’s verbose and understanding Aunt Hagar. Cab Calloway surprisingly doesn't have a song, but he is solid as always dramatically as the shady owner of the Rooster.

However, the real standout here is Eartha Kitt, who gives what is probably her best film performance with the best-written role in the uneven script. Kitt’s Gogo Germaine is an assertive diva who dresses provocatively, but avoids all the bad girl stereotypes we expect. She doesn’t try to steal Cole away from "good girl" Dee, as she’s interested in him professionally, not sexually. She also rebuffs Calloway’s advances: firmly focused on her career yet using only her musical talent to get ahead. Refreshingly, for all her ambition she doesn’t step on people to reach the top, always giving Handy full credit for his songwriting. Kitt was never sexier than in this film, and while she had a tendency to overact in some of her later roles, she hits just the right note here from start to finish. She’s also given the script's most memorable lines when confronting Reverend Handy on his prejudice in a wonderfully delivered speech.

It’s a good thing Kitt and Bailey are here to spice things up, because the overall tone is too restrained for a film about "the Father of the Blues"--the "one pure art form to originate in America". The late Allen Reisner was almost exclusively a director of episodic television. ST. LOUIS BLUES was his second and last feature film (his other feature, ALL MINE TO GIVE, was also too melodramatic at times). He directs the musical sequences very well but the pacing lags here—he was a perfect director for hour-long television dramas.

Also, typical of film bios of the time, (melo-) dramatic license is taken, and the embellishments haven’t aged well. For example: while it is true that Handy suffered his first onset of blindness as a young man (he was 30; he later regained his sight, then lost it for good after a subway fall in his old age), his ailment comes across as hokey and contrived as it is presented here. It is even implied that the blindness is retribution for his "sinful" nightclub exploits, and that he is healed by the gospel. You also won't find any mention of the real W. C. Handy's fight against racial prejudice--the Paramount suits of 1958 probably weren't ready for this to be an element in the script. Instead the film Handy struggles against the prejudices of his father as a substitute, a longtime cinematic staple of musical bios (i.e. THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY).

So----why isn’t this on DVD?

It is a low-budget black and white film from 1958 and the sum is not quite the equal of its parts. Strictly average direction and the overly melodramatic elements of the screenplay have not aged well. This tendency towards melodramatic license afflicted other screen biographies of the period, too, such as MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES and THE SEVEN LITTLE FOYS.

Why it should be on DVD:

ST. LOUIS BLUES isn’t that well known, but it should be. The musical highlights alone make up for any script deficiencies, and this is a once in a lifetime cast. You have Cole, Kitt, Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald (an anachronistic but still welcome cameo) and Mahalia Jackson, all with at least one song (multiple songs for Kitt and Cole) and performances by other legendary jazz musicians such as Teddy Buckner, clarinetist Barney Bigard, and as mentioned earlier, young Billy Preston on the organ.

Future Catwoman Eartha Kitt's best screen performance IMO; this a must see film for sure if you're a fan of hers. Orson Welles once called her "the most exciting woman in the world"; seeing this film, I understand why.

Eartha Kitt and Ruby Dee are both still with us in their eighties, and it would be fascinating to bring them together for a commentary track on this one. How great it would be to have a DVD release with not only a commentary, but perhaps a more fact-based featurette on W. C. Handy's life and a "making of" featurette too. Me, greedy? Nah......

Incredibly, ST. LOUIS BLUES was never even released on VHS! A DVD release is long overdue; especially with the film’s 50th Anniversary less than a year away.