The early days of sound must be seen as a lost moment for black genre film. At last the motion picture became capable of recording the most ancient black mode of expression—folk music and dance. At the same time, Hollywood editorial controls were muddled by new technology, opening the opportunity for black intrusion into the Hollywood system. Indeed, during this brief, promising period, Bill Foster, one of the earliest black filmmakers, and Walter White, the soon-to-be Executive Secretary of the NAACP, shared a belief in a legend that on the first generation of sound recording equipment, black voices recorded with higher fidelity than white.
Unfortunately for Afro-Americans, Hollywood technical crews, augmented by a westward migration of Broadway voice coaches and theatrical directors, soon recovered both equilibrium and dominance over the medium of sound film. Nevertheless, in the pioneering years that coincided with the Great Depression, while sound technicians learned their craft, a few significant black musical movies surfaced. Characterized by a buoyant, flashing style, they pointed toward a future musical subgenre of black movies. Unfortunately for blacks, the early musicals adopted the short film format; as the rental structure for short films was a less precise measure of popularity than normal box office returns, the black genre filmmakers were thereby removed one step further from the audiences they desperately needed as sounding boards or feedback circuits. Nonetheless, black musical film survived as a subgenre until after World War II.
For its melding of the blues idiom with the demands of motion picture scoring and recording requirements, The St. Louis Blues was among the best of the genre. Because black music came to the screen less affected by white infusions, the film promised to emerge from the filmmaking process with unprecedented purity. W.C. Handy's original musical composition inspired the movie, and thus provided the basis for a successful blending of black music and filmmaking. Because the music itself came from deep within black social circles, it could provide aural reinforcement of segregated, inward-looking symbols of black life and enhance the meaning of the film. Thus if musical movies lacked generic traits—a sense of advocacy, an anatomical view of black life, and cool heroics—they transformed other traits of the genre into a rhythmic ritual which celebrated black life.
Black music had been changing in the twentieth century from a mainly rural tradition of shouts, hollers, and spirituals to a broader, less cohesive expression that included outrageous, jangling forms of more urban music: rousing funeral marches, ragtime, jazz, secular forms of blues, and intensely felt gospel songs. Good generic movies borrowed from both urban and rural traditions and a few managed to capture the spirited rivalry between the two modes. Like black heroes, twentieth-century black music embraced two common sources: the rich Southern rural folk tradition with its pastoral reverence, pride in survival, and covert political expression beneath the surface of the lyrics; and the equally densely packed urban tradition with its secular, more abrasive forms.
The two traditions spoke to the two black cultures only recently perceived as separate by historians. As Herbert Gutman has noted in The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom and John Blassingame in The Slave Community, rural Southern black society bore up so well under slavery that, contrary to Daniel P. Moynihan's view in The Negro Family, the black family did not suffer fragmentation until the rigors of the Great Depression shattered the family's economic and social foundations. For our purposes this means what music critics knew all along: that both traditions provide a rich musical heritage, and therefore, each contributes to black film music.
A few movies caught the conflict between the two spirits: the cohesive, rural, familial life of the South, and the contentious, fractious life of the Northern ghetto. Murray Roth's Yamacraw, Duke Ellington's Symphony in Black, King Vidor's Hallelujah!, Langston Hughes, Clarence Muse, and Bernard Vorhaus's memorable Way Down South, and even the latter day Wattstax succeeded in expressing the stresses brought on by the twentieth-century change from black pastoral to black urban life.
Among the standouts of the genre, Roth's Yamacraw defined the dilemma confronting Negroes on the verge of moving to the city from the rural South. Drawing upon James P. Johnson's music and Jimmy Mordecai's performance, Roth transformed the sentimental sources of Southern genre cinema into a black hymn to the agony of being caught between homesickness for the South and an itch to live in the urban North. Yamacraw opens on a cardboard silhouette of a Southern cabin, then tightens the focus onto old black parents who symbolize the enduring South. Part of the strength of the set derives from angular distortions reminiscent of the German expressionists. In front of the shack, two lovers clasp, wracked by indecision. Shadowed hands reach up in plaintive piety, forming what would become a visual cliché in later films. As the lovers walk down the hill, intercut with two-shots, a crane shot sweeps upward while Mordecai sings "Yamacraw;" as he hefts his bag on his shoulder, we know he will leave the farm. In contrast, the city is everything different: a symbolic montage of stark and jagged sets, a nappy-headed dancing girl, a noisy street scene, ending at last in the young black migrant's turning away and heading home southward. A trade paper called Yamacraw a "jazz symphony of Negro life that is arresting as well as dramatic." If the film lacked something, it was ambition. Running only a quarter of an hour, it grasped at the limited goal of contrasting urban with pastoral, and settled for small success.
Within months, two major studio productions, Vidor's Hallelujah! and Paul Sloane's Hearts in Dixie, attempted a similar theme by using the black musical idiom as a medium through which to record on film the Afro-American experience. In 1929, these two rivals for black audiences' attention wisely employed black counselors, Harold Garrison as an assistant director on Hallelujah! and Clarence Muse as star and adviser on Hearts in Dixie. Both of the films succeeded as sincere celebrations of black life and fortitude, even if they failed to be major hits of the genre.
Hallelujah!, for all its fidelity to Southern ambience, depended too much on Tin Pan Alley infusions of music rather than on black folk music. Unfortunately, when the plot moved to the city, Vidor's vision blurred and melodrama dominated over the anatomy of the black South with which he had opened the film. Despite touches of black piety, pastoral reverence, and stirring evangelism, the film lost its focus and surrendered to a busy, hard-working plot. Hearts in Dixie featured Stepin Fetchit's finest performance, a near-tragic role that slipped only slowly into his stylized comedy resented by so many middle-class Negroes. Its black religious ecstasy rang more hollow than that of Hallelujah! And its redemptive last sequence, a farewell to a child taking the steamer northward to study medicine in order to return to help his village, asked a lot of its audience's credulity. The achievement of Hearts in Dixie and Hallelujah! consisted more of their outreach to a surprisingly large white audience appreciative of some sort of faithful rendering of black folk life.
Duke Ellington's two films, Black and Tan, and especially Symphony in Black, represented the other side of an evolving black musical genre with an urban inspiration. Indeed, the films carried the medium a step further into the sound era by making highly integrated use of black music, and in the process, most certainly rivalled many major Hollywood productions. Ellington's films perhaps led the process of innovation precisely because they were black, short, and cheap, with no risk to either white money or white stars.
Each in its own way, Black and Tan and Symphony in Black combined eloquent black story lines, stylish, moody lighting and sets that foreshadowed film noir of a later decade, and Ellington's music. More than illustrated musicales, they were genuine genre films.
Symphony in Black, for example, rolled on the format of a symphony in four movements: the heavy cadence of the "middle passage" from Africa to the New World, the plodding grind of slave labor, the jazzy beat of urbane Harlem, and the vaulting spirit of black folk religion. A trifle too intellectualized, the film unfolded in carefully structured order, but was more constrained by an urge for correctness than for imagination. Throughout the four movements, the music changes texture and beat with each sequence of dissolves that carries us through the forlorn halls of black history but does not engage our spirits. The film comes alive in the Harlem sequence because of a fleeting, erotic bit by Billie Holiday and Earl "Snakehips" Tucker in a mottled streetscape. An upbeat evangelistic sequence heightened the effects, and was partially responsible for the rumor that the movie was in the running for an Oscar. If the film seemed too much an exercise, it was not because Ellington was merely a heartless craftsman, but rather, that in the early 1930s, cutting filmed sequences to fit pre-scored music was still an unenviable task. Black and Tan took a narrative tack, allowing the music to flow out of a thin story in which Fredi Washington, although weak of heart, dances so Ellington can finish his "Black and Tan Fantasy." She dies with its notes ringing in her ears, her deathbed scene a darkened frame broken by Franz Kline strokes of black on white.
Dozens of these little movies, none of them running more than four reels, followed the example set by The St. Louis Blues and the early Ellington films. They reached their most self-conscious artistic apogee in 1944. Gjon Mili, a Life magazine still photographer, made the brief Jammin' the Blues for Warner Brothers, an exercise that was all lights, shadows, and cigarette smoke set to music. By abandoning the formal structure of the symphony, Mili allowed the tempo of jazz to contribute to the cutting and pacing while shooting from varied angles which focused on a smoky jam session. But as Ernest Hemingway wrote of bullfighting, the precise moment of highest artistic refinement coincides with the first moment of decadence. Most musical shorts declined into two-camera setups featuring white bands that were performing near some under-used studio. A single black entrepreneur, Fritz Pollard, made "soundies," sixteen millimeter set pieces designed for marketing in visual jukeboxes, but he eventually sold out to white interests. By the late 1940s Billy Eckstine, a jazz singer who also reached for a popular audience, attempted to combine a jazz setting with a detective story in a style reminiscent of the then current film noir. But his Rhythm in a Riß (1947) failed to take off.
Not until Wattstax in the 1970s' post-insurrectionary years of black urban life did music open up to more cinematic treatment because of a willingness to shoot "quick and dirty" exterior footage using multiple camera setups in Los Angeles Coliseum's annual Watts festival. Ed Mosk's Soul to Soul (1971) also tried to enlarge the range of black musical film by intercutting from two sets of footage, one shot in West Africa featuring the Ike and Tina Turner revue, the other shot in Los Angeles with black African performers. But these outdoor pageants pointed toward the birth of a new genre apart from that introduced by The St Louis Blues.
Dudley Murphy's The St. Louis Blues suffered more than the usual disabilities of independent genre film. Indeed Variety tried to reassure audiences that Afro-America was not accurately represented by the denizens of the saloons and circles of crapshooters who haunted the frames of Murphy's movie. If The Scar of Shame celebrated the black bourgeois hero's itch for success, The St. Louis Blues paid tribute to the hustler, an urban hero who won the game by exploiting its victims. Like Ruth Benedict in Patterns of Culture, early genre film sorted mankind into either straight, calculating Apollonian societies or volatile, mercurial, sensation-seeking Dionysian groups. The Colored Players shaped an Apollonian hero; Murphy paid homage to the Dionysian sybarite. As genre film The St. Louis Blues rested on the strength of a segregated point of view and ambience, an anatomy of what Harlemites called the low life, and a cool celebration of black urban survival powers through Bessie Smith's blues singing, rather than via direct advocacy or heroics.
Murphy, at first glance, seemed an unlikely candidate to produce a black genre movie. A white man with raffish notions of Harlem life, a dabbler in avant-garde films, and director of a few Hollywood comedies, he held scant promise of making a sensitive black movie.
But lucky circumstances fell his way. Legions of black performers were at liberty as the Harlem Renaissance waned. New sound equipment and stages seemed to demand an idiom that would open new possibilities. W.C. Handy, the composer-arranger of blues, and J. Rosamond Johnson, author of the "Negro national anthem," the durable "Lift Every Voice and Sing," lent their music and talent. Legendary black performers were luckily free to work for a few days: Bessie Smith at the height of her powers, miniature comedian Edgar Connor, Isabel Washington, Fredi's sister, in a bit, and Jimmy Mordecai, the reed-slim, flashing dancer who made one of his rare film appearances.
Together they made the best black genre film of the early sound era. With slight pressure from the trade papers and censors, they could have created a smooth vehicle that would have been overpraised by white audiences, then forgotten. Instead, they gave free rein to Bessie Smith to display her hard-edged blues voice at its peak. Even a polished, harmonized chorus that intruded on the blues idiom upheld the spirit of the movie. The low budget and the New York studio conspired to add authenticity by denying the filmmakers the use of expensive and inappropriate stock shots and distracting locations.
By inadvertently limiting the inventory of images and symbols, the filmmakers gave the black contributors an increment of control over the product. These fortuitous circumstances worked to good effect in the film's opening. The script called for an establishing shot of Beale Street, Memphis, that might have been a cue for a parade of flashy, street corner razor-toters; instead the release print opened on an appropriately dingy hallway.
Even then, the movie might have slipped into cliché, for the shot establishes the urban metier of the cocky hustler (Mordecai), who coolly outrolls the neighborhood's petty gamblers. Under the stairs we see a crapshooters' huddle, establishing the segregated circle into which we intrude. The players, rather than cookie-cutter stereotypes, are genuine characters, marked off from each other and rendered human by variations in bulk, style, and manner. The janitor's (and camera's) racial point of view and loyalties are communicated when he intrudes on the game and wheedles a cut of the action as payment for protection from "the white man [who] pays me to keep this place clean."
The game is merely a setup for Mordecai's entrance. Black audiences were already familiar with his reputation as a cool cat, and many placed his talent far above Bill Robinson's, whose success they attributed to his easy manner with whites. When Mordecai glides into the frame, he is like John Wayne playing a larger-than-life version of himself. A slim figure in a vested suit and homburg, he rolls the dice with a crooked smile, peeling off bets from a big wad of money. A pretty yeller woman ("you know they're liable to do anything," he says), the new girl in town, rolls the dice on her hip for luck and Jimmy scores, picks up his winnings, and leads her into his room.
So far, the shots are the conservatively chosen wide angles that cheap movies use as insurance against the risks of bungled experiments that require expensive retakes. But from the moment Bessie Smith enters, powerful, black, "looking evil," as she hears her name bandied by the circle of losers, she dominates, and the shots come closer. Eyes glaring, she walks right into the camera and out of the wide-shot under the stairwell. Scowling, her lip curling, she strides into Jimmy's room where he is explaining to his new "yeller gal" that they are not in Bessie's room: "she just pays for it."
As the new girl promises Jimmy a roadster, Bessie bursts in and roughs up her rival. She abuses the bluff janitor, then falls to the floor pleading with her man, promising him new suits. Lying at his feet, clinging, wheedling, she takes a sharp blow. In a last desperate gesture as he walks out, she takes a neat slug of gin. The shot comes in tight on Bessie. It is clear that Murphy intends her strong black presence to give character to the film even before she sings a note. Slumped half-upright on the floor, she begins crooning the classic blues theme, the loss of her man.
The cutting from one shot to another is often insignificant, but Murphy and his editor used cutting more effectively than had ever been done in the youthful medium of sound film. To get Bessie out of the dead-end binge on the floor, the camera comes in tight. Then a slow fade to black takes us out of the shot into a fade up on her down-turned, mournful face; she keeps singing without missing a note. Pulling back, we see and hear her perfectly synched song, but now she is leaning on a bar, nursing a mug of beer.
With Smith's voice over the scene, the camera flows over the large room peopled, one imagines, by friends at a party. Waiters glide by, spinning trays in fleeting closeup; a stiffly posed band plays Handy's music as the camera pans; at the tables, ringsiders harmonize a chorus backup to Bessie. At last the camera settles on a louvered door, raised above the crowded floor.
Through it comes Jimmy Mordecai, cool and sleek. Everyone knows him, and he greets them with a tip of his homburg, receiving their homage with a grin and a few bars of a dance. The camera comes in tight, the cuts flashing from his blurred feet back and forth to his fluid body. The camera barely follows the blinding tempo. The viewer, black or white, has intruded on an arcane world.
Jimmy ends with a low bow near the downhearted Bessie and greets her with exaggerated but hollow ecstasy. They dance in grinding slow time with the music, an erotic bit that Variety explained away as a trait, not of Negroes, but of the demi-monde, somewhat like the apaches of Paris. Bessie brightens at the apparently easy reunion, which lasts until Jimmy filches the money in the top of her stocking and triumphantly struts through the door.
The film ends by again narrowing our attention to a tight profile closeup of Bessie Smith at the bar. Supported by the chorus, she takes up her blue refrain. The whole sequence becomes a smokey blue visual symbol of the meaning of the blues, while it avoids stereotyping the black deviants from the straight black bourgeois milieu.
Throughout the film the small Gramercy Studio where it was shot allowed a fine control over the textured lighting and the pleasingly claustrophobic setting, thereby heightening the feelings of insularity, in-group tension and rivalry, and the intrasexual competition for scarce dollars. The orchestrated and arranged music suggested, without overpowering, the mournful idiom of the real blues. Together the music and the setting put the black demi-monde into ritual form that depicted black life without the need for formal elements of anatomy and advocacy. Mordecai's cool jazz dancing and Smith's blues singing were so pointedly on target that any more literal attempt to render black life would seemed didactic.
If it had a weak spot at all, The St. Louis Blues suffered the limitations imposed by using stars from other media. Like athletes whose fame is exploited by the movies, Bessie Smith and Jimmy Mordecai could be asked to reach only uneven middle levels of conviction even if, like Gary Cooper, they attempted only to play themselves. And it was certainly true that their characters seemed closely modeled on their actual personae. Therefore, no matter how well the movie succeeded in reaching its ambition, its brevity and inexperienced cast allowed it to attain only the small success of doing a small thing well.