St. Louis Blues (1958)

“There are only two kinds of horns: Gabriel’s and the devil’s!”

Synopsis:
Jazz composer W.C. Handy (Nat “King” Cole) goes against the wishes of his religious father (Juano Hernandez) in joining forces with a dance hall singer (Eartha Kitt); meanwhile, his loyal girlfriend (Ruby Dee) waits in the wings.

Genres:

Review:
This biopic about “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy is notable for starring Nat “King” Cole in a leading role, as well as featuring many other famous black musicians (including Eartha Kitt and Cab Calloway) and offering up plenty of fine musical numbers. Unfortunately, Cole isn’t quite up to the task of such a major acting role; he’s clearly at his most comfortable when singing and playing the piano (a personal favorite is his rendition of “Morning Star”). The storyline, while based on facts — Handy was indeed quite religious, and his father even more so — is thin and poorly structured, with sudden-onset blindness appearing as an odd and inexplicable narrative crutch. With that said, film fanatics may still be curious to check this one out, simply for its historical value as a film with black actors in all leading roles, and for the musical performances.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many enjoyable musical numbers

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for its historical relevance and the fine music.

Links:

One Response to “St. Louis Blues (1958)”

  1. First viewing. A once-must, for its unique place in cinema history (and I feel Nat does well-enough, for someone who isn’t an actor). As per my post in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb):

    “Evil? Of course not. Whatever gave you that idea?”

    ‘St. Louis Blues’ (1958) [film link in comments]: It’s no surprise to learn that – like most Hollywood biopics – this one on songwriter W. C. Handy plays fast and loose with the facts. For example, Handy did not (as depicted in the film) experience hysterical blindness due to guilt over playing and writing ‘the devil’s music’. (He did, however, go blind at around age 70, the result of a fall.) But the real reason to watch is the rare opportunity to see (in a major Hollywood film) the following all-black cast assembled: Nat King Cole, Eartha Kitt (in a role said to be based on Bessie Smith), Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, Ruby Dee, Juano Hernandez, Pearl Bailey, (young) Billy Preston, and others. The focus (ultimately) is Handy’s breakthrough with ‘St. Louis Blues’, one of his biggest hits, which came to be known as ‘the jazzman’s Hamlet’. At age 85, Handy acted as a consultant for the production – but left this world before the film’s release. ‘Warts and all’, the film’s value in cinema history is undeniable. (I love Bailey’s take on the ‘SLB’.)

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