50-Movie Classic Musicals, Disc 3

This one’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 DVD—and that only because The Duke is Tops, Lena Horne’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 who’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 Horne’s first movie, as a singer in shows produced by her boyfriend—until she (and only she) gets a chance at Broadway. He trumps up a scene so she’ll leave him and goes to work with a traveling medicine show—eventually coming back to rescue her from a bad show and make everything right. This one’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 music’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 doesn’t amount to much—rich dying father, industrious bandleader son, wicked lawyer, faithful butler, daughter of the father’s first love—but it also doesn’t take up much time. This movie is really about music—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? Jordan’s a showman, the music’s first-rate, and this one’s all about the music. Even with a few missing frames, I give this a solid $2. I’ll watch it again.

Killer Diller, 1948, b&w, Josh Binney (dir.), Dusty Fletcher, Butterfly McQueen, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Ken Renard, Nat ‘King’ Cole and the King Cole Trio, and many more. 1:13.

The sleeve talks about a “loose storyline,” and that’s almost an exaggeration—it involves a show producer, his fiancée, a slapstick magician, four very slapstick cops, and maybe 10-12 minutes total of what’s essentially a filmed revue. (Butterfly McQueen’s only in the “plot” portion.) Moms Mabley is cleaner than I’d expect (but it is a movie), Nat King Cole is—well, Nat King Cole, even if he’s doing lesser-known numbers. Other musicians, dancers, and singers keep it going—including one great performance of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business But Mine.” Unfortunately, there are continuous projector-damage lines throughout the film, and the soundtrack’s even distorted at times, which reduces this hour+ of comedy, dancing, and mostly music to $1.25.

Comments are closed.