When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
White Folks Wanna Be Cool (circa 1941!)

Watching old Paramount movies on TV as a teenager, I thought — out of all the major studios’ films — theirs were the most racist :  Fred MacMurray and Madeleine Carroll’s interactions with the ‘plantation darkies’ in VIRGINIA, Bob Hope’s bizarre (in retrospect) relationship with his ‘boy,’ Willie Best, in THE GHOST BREAKERS, or even worse, the non-interactions with hired help such as in TAKE A LETTER, DARLING when a maid opened the door and bowed to Rosalind Russell, who entered a room without even acknowledging the servitude.

But now I see that in the worldview of Paramount Studios’ movies, Blacks and Whites at least existed in the same space, unlike the vast Imaginary Caucasian World created by the rest of Hollywood, where only Whites lived and the occasional Black person would appear doing a specialty number on the dance floor of a nightclub.

That’s why I’m not surprised that Paramount made the first film in which Whites, as they have in real life for the last half-century, wanted to learn how to be more Black.  To sample the morphing parlance used over the last few decades, they created the first film to capture how Whites wanted to have more Soul, show more Swagga, be Funky, to Get Down, to be Fly.

I’m just surprised that the film was made in 1941.  The film was a Bing Crosby musical, BIRTH OF THE BLUES.

Opening with graphics that were 10 years ahead of their time (resembling the Verve label’s 1950s bebop LP covers), the credits end with this dedication:

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 groove.”

Broadway composer and Gershwin collaborator Buddy DeSylva had recently become head of production for Paramount.  (His 1922 jazz opera collaboration with Gershwin, Blue Monday, was a Harlem-based version of Pagliacci.)  As with most newbies on the job, I suppose he went with what he knew.  So he greenlighted a film about an early twentieth-century jazz band that sets out to smack White arbiters of taste on the head and make them appreciate, or at least begin to understand, Black music.  (Although using a fabricated plot line, BIRTH OF THE BLUES seemed conceptually to be telling the tale of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a group of White musicians who were veterans of Papa Jack Laine’s racially-integrated New Orleans street bands: they made some of the earliest jazz recordings and changed the name of the idiom from “jass” to “jazz” sometime around 1917.)

I want to learn how to sing like the colored folks, states Mary Martin.  Today the C-word is un-PC, but in this 1941 scene, a White girl actually begs a person of color to teach her an Afro-Centric art.

Race is never avoided in this film, and it never disappears.  “Hey, a white boy!” shouts an African American musician in the first scene when he discover a kid (who grows up to be Bing Crosby) hiding behind the bandstand and jamming along with the Black musicians.  Liking what they hear, a musician says, “White Boy, come and sit next to me!” — one of the first Hollywood instances where a person of color told a Caucasian what to do. 

As an adult clarinet player looking to form a jazz band, Crosby is told to run down the street because there’s “a White guy in jail who plays the cornet as good as a Black guy.”  Another radical notion for the time:  in one simple line of dialog, 1941 White Americans are told that they can’t do everything better than “colored folk.” 

[Compare this scene to the condescending smile of Dorothy Patrick’s character in the independently-produced NEW ORLEANS (1947) as she listens to her maid (Billie Holiday) sing.  As the romantic lead, Patrick should be inducing envy and fantasy in the audience, but in her non-thinking attitude toward her maid’s talents, she comes across as clueless and smug.]

Crosby, Martin & Teagarden perform Johnny Mercer's The Waiter, The Porter and the Upstairs Maid

The tacit rules of Hollywood racial hierarchy were totally shattered about forty-five minutes into BIRTH OF THE BLUES by a scene in which milky-white, porcelain doll Mary Martin begs African American comedian Eddie “Rochester” Anderson to teacher her “how to sing like the colored folk.”  The movie had already established that “Darkie Music” (as the stuffy White elders in the film referred to it) was socially unacceptable in the presence of Caucasians in the early days:  one of the first gigs for Crosby and his band was to play Jazz at a movie theater during the interval between films.  As the band began to play, the sounds coming across the footlights offended the ears of the theater’s Caucasian patrons, and they left en masse.  After a scene like that, having the proper leading lady express a desire to learn African American music was a rebellious, transgressive moment for Hollywood.  (Fifteen years later, over at M-G-M, the musical HIGH SOCIETY was filmed, yet it’s impossible to conceive of two of its stars, Grace Kelly and Louis Armstrong, having a similar scene.)

Julliard-trained Ruth Elzy burns through the movie's veneer with her version of St. Louis Blues.

Even the one original song written for the film (the rest were period tunes) raised issues of class and transgression.  Johnny Mercer’s The Waiter, The Porter and the Upstairs Maid told a tale of breaking social barriers, where the genuine party during a stuffy social affair was taking place in the kitchen among the hired help.

Even when Crosby’s band starts getting legitimate gigs, the script reminds us that while Caucasians are playing and enjoying it, it still belongs to African Americans.  Outside the posh nightclub where Bing and company are playing, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (who can’t enter the club due to his race) says to the Black doorman that “our music” has hit the big time.

While the race barrier politics of this film are noteworthy, the film itself is not.  Paramount, who at that time was making the wittiest and most brilliant comedies, generally created musicals that were heavy on tunes and lean on character and narrative.  This one falls into that league.

BIRTH OF THE BLUES was directed by Victor Schertzinger.  Musically trained in Europe, Schertzinger was a concert violinist and symphony conductor before he began directing films.  He made a lot of them, but was not the most competent director; e.g., his coverage in one scene of BIRTH OF THE BLUES was inadequate and closeups had to be optically printed from the master for the scene to cut.  Yet Schertzinger had an inventive mind:  this film had a technically surprising scene where Crosby, on a vaudeville stage, sang in black-and-white while a color slideshow was projected in accompaniment.

BIRTH OF THE BLUES includes a partial color sequence as Crosby sings along to a slideshow.

While child actress Carolyn Lee was already outgrowing the preciousness she had displayed a couple of years before when she stole the show in the demi-sublime HONEYMOON IN BALI, the other casting choices are archival blessings.  Ruth Elzy, the original Serena from Porgy and Bess, sings a definitive St. Louis Blues for posterity; and while legendary trombone man Jack Teagarden has insufficient screen time for his gifts to be savored, there’s enough of both his antics and tristesse captured on film to see the visual equivalents of those qualities present in his recordings.

There's an entire movie in the haunting face of jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden.

Although the director of photography is credited as William C. Mellor, the choices of light and optics don’t resemble his famous outdoor spectacle work later at M-G-M, but look more like Paramount’s then-big-honcho Victor Milner’s style, who lensed classic 1930s films for Lubitsch and DeMille.

Paramount brought sophistication to America when they imported Lubitsch in the 1920s.  Before that, cinema in the United States was still basically playing by the rules of homespun D. W. Griffith:  in the vein of Little Nell picking forget-me-nots down by the ol’ mill stream.  Lubitsch’s coming to work for Paramount brought cocktails, sidelong glances and European urbanity.  Two decades later, they made post-slavery African Americans visible and tried to get the US to loosen up.  I take back what I used to think about Paramount.

Doug / PoMo Joan

P.S. At one point in the film, a fist fight erupts between Crosby and Brian Donlevy, who plays the band’s cornetist.  There’s a quick call of “Get some arnica!!” to prevent the musician’s lip from swelling, ruining his ablity to play.  I thought that was only something they’d say at Whole Foods…

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2 Comments to “White Folks Wanna Be Cool (circa 1941!)”

  1. Russell says:

    Interesting bit of ethnocentric imperialism, that they have the same attitude that European society had about Columbus “discovering” America, when the Native Americans knew where it was all along. While the script has blacks telling whites what to do, is there any mention in the film that the blues were “born” long before Bing and his band ever played a note?

    • Doug says:

      In the scenes where Bing’s character was a kid, it was established that Blacks had been making music down on Basin Street for quite a while, but it came up short of giving proper tribute.

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