#216) St. Louis Blues (1929)
OR “Gateway to Distressed”
Directed & Written by Dudley Murphy. “St. Louis Blues” by W.C. Handy.
Class of 2006
The Plot: Bessie (Bessie Smith) comes home to find her no-good gambler boyfriend Jimmy (Jimmy Mordecai) with another woman (Isabel Washington). Distraught, she goes to a local nightclub to sing the blues, in what would turn out to be Bessie Smith’s only film appearance.
Why It Matters: Most of the NFR’s description is devoted to a quote from film historian Donald Bogle, who praises Bessie Smith’s performance, though admits the film is “marred by its white director’s overstatement”. There’s an essay by “jazz on film” preservationist Mark Cantor that calls the film, among other things, a “flawed masterpiece”.
But Does It Really?: It’s the only existing footage of Bessie Smith. Done. Preserve it. Next!
Everybody Gets One: After a childhood I’ll understatedly call “troubled”, Bessie Smith got her start as part of a traveling troupe that included Ma Rainey. Her career took off when her first record “Down Hearted Blues” became a number one hit (see “Listen to This” below). She spent most the ‘20s at the top of her game, eventually earning the nickname “Empress of the Blues”.
Wow, That’s Dated: The Mark Cantor essay goes into detail about how many negative African-American stereotypes are in this film, and the ripple effect this and other films of the era had on this country’s history of racism.
Title Track: Now THAT’S a title song! Though now that I think about it, do they ever reference being in St. Louis in this film?
- The story goes that this was shot concurrently with Dudley Murphy’s other music short/NFR entry: “Black and Tan” with Duke Ellington. I’m pretty confident that’s the same apartment set in both films.
- The film “St. Louis Blues” is produced by the same person who wrote the song: W.C. Handy. Nicknamed “The Father of the Blues” (I don’t know how that compares to “Empress of the Blues”), Handy didn’t invent the blues, but he combined it with a folk music sound to give it the form we recognize today. William Christopher gets a shout-out during the “Seventy-Six Trombones” number in “The Music Man”.
- I know it’s early sound, but this movie is miked like an Altman film; I have no idea what anyone is saying.
- Speaking of sound, Jimmy has one of the most grating voices in film. I suspect he didn’t make the transition to talkies.
- Oooh, prohibition era drinking. Very risky.
- Sure Bessie Smith is giving the definitive version of “St. Louis Blues”, but she’s no Minnie Mouse.
- Apparently the harmonizing choir and orchestral backing was Dudley Murphy’s idea. The Cantor essay stresses how out of place it sounds against Bessie’s singing.
- Jimmy the character is reprehensible, but Jimmy Mordecai sure can dance!
- Shoutout to “Rhapsody in Blue”.
Legacy/Further Viewing: There’s a lot about Bessie Smith we didn’t get to in this post, and a lot of art has been created to honor her. I recommend starting with that HBO movie Queen Latifah did a few years back. It’s standard biopic stuff, but it gets Bessie’s story across.
Listen to This: Bessie’s first hit, 1923’s “Down Hearted Blues”, was among the first 50 National Recording Registry entries in 2002. You can learn more from this essay by Library of Congress employee Cary O’Dell.