Musical Monday: St. Louis Blues (1958)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
St. Louis Blues (1958) – Musical #659

Paramount Pictures

Allen Reisner

Nat ‘King’ Cole, Eartha Kitt, Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Juano Hernandez, Mahalia Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Ruby Dee, Billy Preston, C. Bakaleinikoff (uncredited)

A biographical film on composer and musician Will C. Handy (Cole), who is considered the Father of the Blues. Will’s father is a pastor who belives any music outside of hymns is devil-worshipping music. Nevertheless, Will is drawn to writing and performing secular music, which causes a divide between he and his father. As Will becomes successful, he is torn between his success and losing his family.

• The only film where Nat King Cole was the lead character. Many times, he appeared as a specialty performer.
• “Morning Star” was a song written for the film. It was adapted from a W.C. Handy song with new lyrics by Mack David.
• Composer W.C. Handy was a technical advisor for the film. Handy died in March 1958, a month before this film was released.
• Billy Preston’s first film. Preston plays W.C. Handy as a child.
• First film of Mahalia Jackson.
• Composer C. Bakaleinikoff plays the New York Symphony Hall conductor at the end of the film.

Cab Calloway and Eartha Kitt

Juano Hernandez in “St. Louis Blues”

• Nat King Cole in a feature film
• Ella Fitzgerald’s film appearance

Notable Songs:
• “Yellow Dog Blues” performed by Eartha Kitt, reprised by Nat King Cole
• “St. Louis Blues” performed by Nat King Cole
• “Careless Love” performed by Nat King Cole and Eartha Kitt at different times in the film
• “Morning Star” performed by Nat King Cole
• “Chantez Les Bas” performed by Eartha Kitt
• “Beale Street Blues” performed by Nat King Cole

My review:
In the late 1950s, African Americans were calling for integration and equality, particularly after serving their country during World War II.

Part of this was seeing better roles and less racial stereotypes in films. Part of this resulted in a series of films with all-Black casts released in the late-1950s, including Porgy and Bess (1959), Carmen Jones (1958) and today’s Musical Monday, St. Louis Blues (1958).

“Filmmakers sought to reach their audience in an entertaining way — contextualizing their films with African American cultural signs, markers, references and signifiers. The African American actors and actresses also relate to one another in a communal way … Hollywood seemed to understand, without openly acknowledging, that there were audiences for such films. But the industry still clearly believed that the audience was limited and thus such films were commercially risky and had to be shot on low budgets,” film historian Donald Bogle wrote in his book “Hollywood Black.”

“St. Louis Blues” is a musical biographical film on composer William Christopher Handy, who is known as the Father of Blues. Singer and pianist Nat King Cole plays Handy, who is conflicted by his love of the music that his father hates. His father, Rev. Charles Handy (Juano Hernandez), believes that any music played outside of hymns is for devil worshippers. Will receives support from his Aunt Hagar (Pearl Bailey), but his sweetheart Elizabeth (Ruby Dee) objects to the music as well, especially since it means he’s disobeying his father’s wishes. Will eventually plays jazz and blues in a nightclub owned by Blade (Cab Calloway) where Gogo Germaine (Eartha Kitt) performs. Gogo encourages Will’s music, and Elizabeth is jealous. Will has to decide if he should follow what his father wants or if he should write and play the music that moves him.

This film is groundbreaking because of its all-Black cast, particularly because of the world affairs that were going on while it was being filmed.

When “St. Louis Blues” started filming in Sept. 1957, the Little Rock Nine were integrating at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas and met with resistance. Black celebrities spoke out and criticized President Eisenhower, including Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Jackie Robinson, and one of “St. Louis Blues” stars, Eartha Kitt, according to Eartha Kitt’s biographer John L. Williams.

The film itself was difficult to get off the ground. In 1942, Nat King Cole met W.C. Handy and Cole mentioned that there should be a biographical film on him. Handy said that he didn’t feel anyone would be interested in a movie about a Black man. The idea was again brought up by music producer George Garabedian in 1954, who wanted to make Handy’s autobiography into a musical. Around the same time, Edward R. Murrow wanted to make a documentary about Handy and rumors were that Oscar Hammerstein wanted to make a Broadway show about Handy’s life, according to Nat King Cole’s biographer, Will Friedwald.

Garabedian knew he wanted Nat King Cole, after seeing Cole play himself in an 18 minute short, The Nat ‘King’ Cole Musical Story (1955). But when Garabedian took the film idea to the studios, all of the major Hollywood studios rejected the film because of the all-Black cast, believing it would lose money.

Paramount Pictures finally picked up the film, in part because Nat King Cole was performing at the New York Paramount Theater and was a huge success that the studio couldn’t ignore, according to Friedwald.

Parts of the “St. Louis Blues” plot may be fictitious, but overall this is a great film — which is largely due to the outstanding cast. In a rare acting role, singer Nat King Cole plays W.C. Handy. This was his only lead role in a feature film, and as a non-actor, I think he does a fabulous job. He really comes alive when he sings though. My only slight disappointment is that I really wanted him to sing more than he did.

Pearl Bailey is also wonderful as Handy’s aunt, who tries to toe the line between keeping the Reverand happy but also encouraging Will. I was also disappointed we didn’t hear Bailey sing more in this film, though she released a W.C. Handy record after this film’s release.

Outstanding in every film role, Juano Hernandez is excellent as the strict father who forbids his son to play “devil-worshipping music.” I recently watched Hernandez in “Intruder in the Dust,” where he is a man of few words. To see Hernandez erupt in anger and shout in this film is a stark contrast to his role in “Intruder,” but shows the range of this magnificent actor. I think I was most excited to see him in the cast.

But it’s Eartha Kitt who has the real plum role of Gogo Germaine, the fictional nightclub singer who encourages Will’s career, but not his romance. The character of Gogo has a great air about her – she doesn’t give a damn about anything about singing and success. Kitt and Ruby Dee have a few great scenes together, and I love to watch the contrast of their characters. Ruby Dee plays a sweet (and almost thankless) role of Will’s sweetheart Elizabeth who fears she is losing him to Gogo and music. Dee goes to have it out with Kitt, who is almost surprised that Dee would feel threatened by her. But Gogo also tells Elizabeth that she and Will’s father are the problems – they are driving him away because they won’t accept his music.

Other highlights include appearances from gospel singer Mahalia Jackson in her first film role and 12-year-old Billy Preston as young Will Handy. Preston later went on to work with Little Richard and The Beatles and write the song “You Are So Beautiful. Ella Fitzgerald also has a small role in the film as an unidentified singer that Will Handy sees performing his music. Cab Calloway’s role is also not what you would expect. Calloway doesn’t have the opportunity to sing, and he plays a slimy character who cheats Will out of his first music sale.

After wanting to see “St. Louis Blues” for years, this film didn’t disappoint. As some reviewers point out – parts of the plot were weak, mostly likely because Hollywood was unwilling to fund this film in the way that it deserved. Despite that, however, the wonderful performances of this film camouflage those flaws.

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