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.
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.
Posted in "Thanks A Million", Bliss!, Generosities, Ideal Places, Irreplaceable, It's All True, Pay Attention!, Swing You Cats!, That Was Fun!, The Heroes Among Us, The Real Thing, The Things We Love, Wow!
Tagged Alan Eichler, Anise Boyer, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Bill Robinson, Bojangles, Connie's Inn, Cotton Club dancers, DIXIANA, Eubie Blake, Harlem, HARLEM IS HEAVEN, Henri Wessell, Irwin R. Franklyn, James Baskett, Jazz Lives, Michael Steinman, Mills Brothers, Noble Sissle, pre-Code, Putney Dandridge, tap-dance, Technicolor
Two days ago on Maui, we wandered into a second-hand store in Wailuku and I saw a beautiful ukulele hanging on the wall. In the grip of musical hubris and hopefulness, I asked to see it and improvised a simple Thirties single-note riff, impressing the Beloved, who said, “I didn’t know you could play!” “I didn’t either,” I replied.
Since I was quite young, I have made half-hearted attempts at learning a number of musical instruments. Some of those nstruments ornament my apartment, although I am cautious lest it turn into a one-bedroom version of a music store / pawnshop.
The ukulele has appealed to me for a long time, because I had the notion that it might be fairly simple to play — four strings rather than some more intimidating number, and not a great deal of aesthetic ambition attached to it (unlike, say, the violin). It also has a Jazz Age history — on all the Twenties and Thirties sheet music I collect, the line above the treble clef has chord diagrams for imagined ukulele players to read off the page — and the diagrams are just my speed, a diagram of the four strings with a dot on each string to show where the novice should place his or her fingers.
I haven’t bought the ukulele yet, although we visited the Mele store, where Peter (the resident self-taught virtuouso) tried to teach me to play YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE, with middling results. (I am a recalcitrant, stubborn pupil.) The second-hand store was closed today, and I refuse to pay full price unless I am compelled to by circumstances. I also don’t plan to turn into Arthur Godfrey, Don Ho, or Tiny Tim, never fear. My aesthetic model is Cliff Edwards. I don’t aspire to starring in Technicolor, being the voice of a Disney character, or dying penniless, but his swinging insouciance is immensely appealing.
There are many wonderful Ukulele Ike clips on YouTube — too many to up or download, so you might want to investigate them on your own. I’ll report back about the results of my four-string quest.
(On YouTube, you can also see a brief clip of Buster Keaton at home in 1965, happily croaking his way through “June Night,” accompanying himself on a tenor guitar with a fair deal of skill. Who knew?)
Posted in The Things We Love
Tagged Arthur Godfrey, Buster Keaton, chord diagrams, Cliff Edwards, Don Ho, four strings, Hawaii, home movies, Jazz Age, jazz blog, June Night, Maui, Mele ukulele, Michael Steinman, quest, second-hand store, sheet music, Technicolor, tenor guitar, Tiny Tim, ukulele, Ukulele Ike, Wailuku, Walt Disney, YouTube