Tag Archives: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson

AS CINEMA, IT HAS ITS LIMITS: AS A TIME MACHINE, IT’S FLAWLESS: “HARLEM IS HEAVEN” (1932)

The great connoisseur of popular culture, especially women singers, Alan Eichler, just shared with us his VHS copy of the 1932 film HARLEM IS HEAVEN.  It’s a great gift, as it may be the first “all-colored” feature sound film, with starring roles for Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Putney Dandridge, James Baskett, and with incidental music provided by Eubie Blake and his Orchestra, also with an appearance by Noble Sissle.

HARLEM HEAVEN poster

Now, I have reservations about the film itself.  Henri Wessell as “Chummy” and Anise Boyer as “Jean” are both beautiful young people, although their naturalistic acting is, to my taste, none too subtle.  And the plot (the film was written and directed by Irwin R. Franklyn) is thin to the point of transparency.

But what other film shows us so much of Bill Robinson as an actor, singer, and dancer — the stair dance sequence has been shown often but without credit, but the rest was new to me.  The dancers are presented to us as the world-famous Cotton Club entertainters, which is a look behind the scenes that we would otherwise not have had.

And this is serious business: is there any other film in the history of cinema that has Putney Dandridge as a deadly moral avenger who is never arrested or tried? I rest my case.

Even though I could not view the whole film in one sitting, I was captivated from the start by the little touches of 1932 Harlem reality: the marquee reading MILLS BROS. and the glimpse of the exterior of Connie’s Inn. Then, later on, there is a whole history of early-Thirties theatre and music and dance.  For fans of pre-Code splendor, “Jean” takes off her dress, revealing beautiful silk lingerie, while “Chummy” looks elsewhere, and later on there is a brief catfight between “Jean” and “Greta Rae.”  Worth viewing?  That’s up to you.

Here’s the film.

On its own terms, it is indeed Heavenly.  Thank you, Alan.  And here — reaching back even more — is Bill, in Technicolor (!) in the 1930 DIXIANA:

May your happiness increase.

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BY THEIR OWN HAND(S)!

I visit eBay intermittently, to see what marvels are there.  Some of the artifacts simply make me wonder.  A fairly constant stream of obvious forgeries of Louis’ very distinctive signature.  Autographed pictures of voluptuous women tenor saxophonists.

Even more autographs from Dave Brubeck and Les Paul — I wonder how much time, in their final years, these aging giants spent signing every and anything pushed in front of them.

But here are some extraordinary sightings.

A first edition of Eddie Condon’s WE CALLED IT MUSIC (1947) inscribed to Kid Ory:

EDDIE CONDON to KID ORY

The inscription reads: “Dear Ory, This copy is somewhat battered from being dragged about the country in a flannel banjo case, kicked under tables of basement dinners, and spotted with licorice gin and cigarette burns. (You know how rowdy the crowds in Zibart’s are, especially when it comes to their last copy). See you at Eddie’s. Your’n, Satcho”.

BOJANGLES 1929A truly glorious autographed photo of Bill Robinson, 1929.

Here are a few people I celebrate, but whose autographs I rarely see.

OMER SIMEON 1958

The wondrous clarinetist Omer Simeon.

CHARLIE TEAGARDEN

The underrated trumpeter Charlie Teagarden, Jack’s younger brother.

FRANK CARLSON

Woody Herman’s Decca-period drummer, Frank Carlson, promising to return.

HERB COWENS

Drummer Herbert “Kat” Cowans and his little band — hot felines, no doubt.  Does anyone recognize the Kittens, one by one?

JACK TEAGARDEN

The 1962 recording, MIS’RY AND THE BLUES, signed by Jack Teagarden, Don Goldie, and Stan Puls.

Here’s Mister Tea in 1950-1, surrounded by giants: Louis, Earl Hines, Barney Bigard, Arvell Shaw, Cozy Cole.  Usually only Louis signed in green ink; did he pass his fountain pen around for everyone to use?

LOUIS ALL-STARS 1951

And here’s another real Louis signature (as a public service, so that you can recognize the banal forgeries when they appear):

LOUIS

Finally, a treasure:FATS RECEIPT

I saved the best for last.

One hundred dollars was a great deal of money in 1936.  But Fats had it backwards.  We owe him, and still do.

May your happiness increase!