This oneâ€™s more like it. Four black-and-white movies about and featuring music, all with all-black casts, all marketed primarily to black audiences. Which may be why only one of the four is otherwise available on DVDâ€”and that only because The Duke is Tops, Lena Horneâ€™s first movie appearance, was reissued years later after she became a star and is available on a twofer DVD. The prints vary from very good (with a few missing frames) to poor. But the music? Ah, the music!
Paradise in Harlem, 1939, b&w, Joseh Seiden (dir.), Mamie Smith, Norman Astwood, Edna Mae Harris, Merritt Smith, Francine Everett, Percy Verwayen, Babe and Eddie Matthews, Lucky Millinder and his band, Frank Wilson, Alec Lovejoy, Madeline Belt. 1:25.
The plot centers on a would-be dramatic actress whoâ€™s stuck doing blackface (yes, a black actor doing blackface in a Harlem club, playing Uncle Tom), and who witnesses a mob hit. The mob tells him to get out of town, which he does, becoming a traveling drunk. Eventually, he comes back, gets the chance to do Othello, and comes to a remarkable scenic climax with the aid of impromptu a cappella gosel (and an absurd ending to the crime plot). Quite a bit of excellent music along the way. Some damage. $1.25.
The Duke is Tops, 1938, b&w, William L. Nolte (dir.), Ralph Cooper, Lena Horne, Laurence Criner. 1:13 [1:15!]
Lena Horneâ€™s first movie, as a singer in shows produced by her boyfriendâ€”until she (and only she) gets a chance at Broadway. He trumps up a scene so sheâ€™ll leave him and goes to work with a traveling medicine showâ€”eventually coming back to rescue her from a bad show and make everything right. This oneâ€™s also mostly music and some comedy (Cooper does a fine medicine-show routine). Lena Horne was still young and a bit low on star power, but the musicâ€™s nonetheless excellent. $1.50
Reet, Petite and Gone, 1947, b&w, William Forest Crouch (dir.), Louis Jordan (and the Tympany Five), June Richmond, Bea Griffith. 1:07 [1:10].
The plot doesnâ€™t amount to muchâ€”rich dying father, industrious bandleader son, wicked lawyer, faithful butler, daughter of the fatherâ€™s first loveâ€”but it also doesnâ€™t take up much time. This movie is really about musicâ€”14 complete songs filmed head-on, with good sound and a good picture. If you want to nitpick, the dancers in one or two numbers seem to be doing random steps, but who cares? Jordanâ€™s a showman, the musicâ€™s first-rate, and this oneâ€™s all about the music. Even with a few missing frames, I give this a solid $2. Iâ€™ll watch it again.
Killer Diller, 1948, b&w, Josh Binney (dir.), Dusty Fletcher, Butterfly McQueen, Jackie â€œMomsâ€ Mabley, Ken Renard, Nat â€˜Kingâ€™ Cole and the King Cole Trio, and many more. 1:13.
The sleeve talks about a â€œloose storyline,â€ and thatâ€™s almost an exaggerationâ€”it involves a show producer, his fiancÃ©e, a slapstick magician, four very slapstick cops, and maybe 10-12 minutes total of whatâ€™s essentially a filmed revue. (Butterfly McQueenâ€™s only in the â€œplotâ€ portion.) Moms Mabley is cleaner than Iâ€™d expect (but it is a movie), Nat King Cole isâ€”well, Nat King Cole, even if heâ€™s doing lesser-known numbers. Other musicians, dancers, and singers keep it goingâ€”including one great performance of â€œAinâ€™t Nobodyâ€™s Business But Mine.â€ Unfortunately, there are continuous projector-damage lines throughout the film, and the soundtrackâ€™s even distorted at times, which reduces this hour+ of comedy, dancing, and mostly music to $1.25.