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St. Louis Blues

Posted by martinteller on May 3, 2015

The story of William “W.C.” Handy (Nat “King” Cole), the hugely successful composer of jazz and blues.  W.C. lives with his stern reverend father (Juano Hernandez), whose rigid philosophy is “There’s only two kinds of music: the Devil’s and the Lord’s”.  Although W.C.’s aunt Hagar (Pearl Bailey) is more supportive of the young man’s dreams of writing the blues, he faces additional resistance from his fianceé Elizabeth (Ruby Dee), who pressures him to get work as a teacher and live a more respectable life.  But W.C. is drawn to his passion, and starts working in a nightclub run by the unscrupulous manager Blade (Cab Calloway), while sultry singer Gogo Germaine (Eartha Kitt) sings his songs.

We’ve gotta talk about this cast first.  As if Cole, Kitt, Calloway and Bailey weren’t enough greatness for one movie, Mahalia Jackson also belts out some fantastic hymns, and Ella Fitzgerald makes a cameo appearance as herself.  There’s even a 12-year-old Billy Preston as young William.  I mainly wanted to see this movie for Ruby Dee… unfortunately, it’s one of her flattest parts, a small and thankless role that does little to showcase her talents.  She’s blown out of the water by Kitt, who not only sizzles as the “femme fatale” but helps elevate the character when Gogo turns out to be much more than that.  Calloway doesn’t sing a note, which is a shame, but he’s enjoyable, and Bailey is immensely likable despite being a little stiff.  Hernandez is an actor I’ve really admired in The Breaking Point and Young Man With a Horn, among others.  His character here is a little too one-note, although I truly appreciate how the film skewers his tyrannical, ignorant, narrow-minded “fire and brimstone” style of religion.  Which leaves Cole, in his only leading role.  It’s not too hard to see why it was the first and last.  He has an easy-going charm, but the dynamic range of a gerbil.  There’s just no modulation in his performance.

But, as I’m sure we all know, he can sing.  With a talent roster like this, and the wonderful compositions of Handy, the movie delivers great music.  “Yellow Dog Blues”, “Careless Love”, “Chantez Les Bas”, “Morning Star”, “Friendless Blues” and of the course the title track (and those Jackson hymns)… it’s all terrific, with captivating performances.  There’s wonderful counterpoint between Kitt’s sassy bite and Cole’s smooth silk.  Narratively, the movie isn’t great but it’s not bad either.  It takes a lot of liberties the life of Handy, but he did consult on the film (and died just before its release).  It doesn’t touch on racial issues at all, and maybe it should, but the dramatic elements are compelling enough on their own.  It gets a little muddled in the middle, where it seems to send mixed messages about Handy’s father and his religion.  Still, it’s a solid story.  I also read the ending as delightfully ambiguous, though I doubt it was intended as so (especially when you take the facts about Handy’s life into account).

In the hands of a bolder director, this could be a better-remembered film.  It was Allen Reisner’s second film, and he’d only do one more in a career that was dominated by television work.  There are a few nicely expressive shots (W.C. and his father regarding each other through the lattice of the organ’s music stand) but the material often feels like it could soar higher.  And it feels like someone should have tried to coax a better performance out of Cole.  Still, the movie is worth checking out, especially for the music and for Eartha Kitt.  Rating: Good (77)


3 Responses to “St. Louis Blues”

  1. mountanto said

    Did you know we’ve got a family connection to Handy? I’d have to confirm the details with my dad, but I do believe he was an associate of our great-grandfathers’, and somewhere my dad has a piece of Handy-autographed sheet music.

    • I had no idea. I’m glad you’ve taken an interest in the family history, it’s something I’ve never taken the time to dig into.

      • Stephen Teller said

        My grandfather, your great-grandfather, Henry Teller was a salesman for various music publishers, including W. C. Handy. In 1926 Handy edited a book entitled “Blues: an Anthology.” He presented a copy of this book to Henry Teller inscribed: “To Mr and Mrs Henry Teller / with the compliment of the season/ W. C. Handy /New York, Dec 24 1927.” This book is part of the Teller heritage.

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