Friday, June 6, 2014

Movie of the Week: St. Louis Blues (1958) (Review)

St. Louis Blues (1958) was the featured film for the week of May 26th-June 2nd.

From Wikipedia

St. Louis Blues is a musical-drama based on the early life and career of legendary composer and musician, William Christopher Handy--known to us as W.C. Handy, of course. The late, great Nat "King" Cole leads the super-talented and all-star cast that includes Eartha Kitt, Pearl Bailey, Juano Hernandez, Ruby Dee, and more!



I'm only familiar with a few of Mr. Handy's compositions and could tell you few facts about his life, so I am in no position to assess the accuracy of St. Louis Blues. However, I can say that the screenplay was solid, as was the dialogue. The only problem I had with the story is what happened in the end of the film, sort of the "message" that the audience is left with. I'll explain this in my 'Overall Thoughts'.


Man, oh man--if I could somehow give everyone in this movie an acting award for their roles, I would. There wasn't a single bad performance in this film. Before I get into it, allow me to list the actors/characters:

"W.C. Handy" was played by Nat "King" Cole

Cabaret singer, "Gogo Germaine" was played by Eartha Kitt

William's Aunt Hagar was played by Pearl Bailey

Reverend Charles Handy, William's father, was played by Juano Hernandez

Ruby Dee played the role of Elizabeth, William's fiancee

Cab Calloway played "Blade", a conniving nightclub owner

Ella Fitzgerald made a cameo as a nightclub singer

Mahalia Jackson plays church member, Bessie May

A young Billy Preston plays the role of "Will Handy as a boy"


Nat "King" Cole (by William Gottlieb)

Nat "King" Cole did a pretty good job in his role. However, his work wasn't as memorable as his co-stars'. Someone mentioned in commentary (I forget where) that he appeared very shy on camera, and I agree.

Eartha Kitt (by Carl Van Vechten)

Eartha Kitt could have just paced the floor the entire movie and I would have loved it.

Pearl Bailey in 1946

In the few movies I've seen Pearl Bailey in (Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess), she's always played the "Mother Hen" type--the best friend who doesn't sugarcoat things and gives sound advice. "Aunt Hagar" is that same kind of character, but something about her makes her different from the others. She was a bit for rounded than Carmen's "Frankie" and Porgy's "Maria". Aunt Hagar was a woman who lived with her brother, Charles, and therefore, lived by "his" rules. She's very protective of her nephew, Will and while she protects him, she also reprimands him, but only out of fear of and obedience to Charles. 

Pearl Bailey (circa 1960)

Over time, we see this character evolve probably more than any other character. She goes from hiding Will's "sins" from his preaching father to secretly joining in on Will's sinning (this "sinning" is merely Will playing secular music). Finally, she reaches a point where she completely defies Charles and tells him he's wrong.

Juano Hernandez in Intruder in the Dust

What do I always say? "If you hate a character, that means the actor is amazing." I hate to say this, but every time "Charles Handy" appeared on the screen, in my mind, I asked myself, "Does this man die?" Juano Hernandez, ladies and gentlemen. He should have been nominated for countless awards for this performance.

Billy Preston (in 1971)

Young Billy Preston played the role of "Will Handy as a boy" and although he's in the movie for only about ten (maybe fifteen) minutes, he leaves an indelible mark with his performance--especially with his musical performances.

Ruby Dee (by Carl Van Vechten)

The character "Elizabeth" probably irritated me just as much as Will Handy's father, and of course, Ruby Dee and "bad performance" never goes in the same sentence. Never. Nothing more to say.


I don't think most people think "actor" when they think of Cab Calloway, but you know what? They should. We should. I've seen Mr. Calloway in Stormy Weather, Hi-De-Ho, and now, St. Louis Blues and he has given great and memorable performances in each of those roles. His character, "Blade", was also quite insufferable, but it was fun watching him play this role.

Cab Calloway (by William Gottlieb)

I wasn't expecting to see Mahalia Jackson in so many scenes, and I enjoyed seeing her as "Bessie May"--another annoying character with her nose in the air and in other people's business. I've grown up seeing Mahalia Jackson do nothing but sing (I don't think I've ever seen her being interviewed before, now that I think of it), so it was a joy to see her exercise some acting chops--and just to even hear her talk.

Mahalia Jackson (by Carl Van Vechten)

Ella Fitzgerald only made a brief cameo in this film, singing W.C. Handy's composition, "Beale Street Blues".



Why was Eartha Kitt the only character wearing 1950s clothing in this late 1800s-set film? As far as I know, W.C. Handy wasn't known to be a singer, so why was his character giving a solo vocal performance with a symphony orchestra? I had questions, but few, thankfully. 

Other than the faux pas in styling/hair and the dire (and understandable) need to have Nat "King" Cole sing multiple times, St. Louis Blues was beautifully filmed--and it gave us the most conspicuous shots of Eartha Kitt's legs.


Overall Thoughts

I'd actually started watching this movie many, many years ago when it came on Turner Classic Movies (I must have been about nine or ten), but wasn't able to finish it. I'm glad to have gotten the chance to complete it, and I really did enjoy it. Remember that "moral of the story" or message I mentioned earlier? Here it goes--and with a SPOILER ALERT.


Charles Handy finally makes peace with his son and his style of music when he attends a symphony orchestra concert in New York with Elizabeth and Aunt Hagar. He is blown away by the fact that Will's music is loved, that a big name orchestra found it good enough to play in New York--and that the orchestra leader loved it so much that he played in Europe. 

When the trio arrives to New York and Charles (who believed that the orchestra would be playing hymns that Will composed) finds out that the orchestra would be playing Will's blues music. Elizabeth says something along the lines of "If a big, sophisticated orchestra thinks Will's music is good, then it can't be devil's music!" Charles reluctantly goes to see the orchestra and eventually agrees with Elizabeth's statement by accepting his son.

I'm sorry, but with this, the only thing I could hear in my mind was "If da good white folks like it, then it's good! Cuz everything we do is bad lessen white folks like it!" However, you can't change the lines in a 56-year old movie, so as I like to say "Whatevs."


I would still recommend St. Louis Blues (1958) to anyone for viewing and I wouldn't mind watching it again for myself, either.

*St. Louis Blues (1958) on YouTube*


The images used in this post were all obtained from Wikipedia and they are being used for informational purposes only. If the rightful owner(s) of any of these images wishes to have them removed, please contact me, and I will do so immediately.


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