Judge Ben Saylor is glad for Blues in the Night, as it illuminates a seldom-discussed cause of mental illness: trashy nightclub singers.
Hang on to your lids, kids!
Amid the slew of jazz-related DVD releases of late from Warner Home Video, including Bird, Pete Kelly's Blues, and 'Round Midnight, comes Blues in the Night, a truly odd duck. The 1941 film is a hodgepodge of genres that doesn't always hold together but certainly makes for an interesting view.
Facts of the Case
Pianist Jigger Pine (Richard Whorf, Yankee Doodle Dandy) is a temperamental but dedicated musician, and when some colleagues suggest forming a band, he reluctantly agrees. Together, with his bandmates Nickie (Elia Kazan), Pete (Peter Whitney) and Peppi (Billy Halop), Jigger hits the road, picking up a brash trumpet player (Jack Carson) and his singer wife, Ginger "Character" Powell (Priscilla Lane, Arsenic and Old Lace), along the way. The group eventually gets a steady gig at a roadhouse, but trouble ensues when Jigger falls hard for the femme fatale in residence, Kay Grant (Betty Field, Kings Row). Can Jigger get it together before losing the band, and, more important, his sanity?
Blues in the Night represents such a confluence of moviemaking talent that it's a surprise it doesn't work better as a film. Take a look at its pedigree: The director is Anatole Litvak (who made The Snake Pit and Sorry, Wrong Number, among other pictures); the screenwriter is Robert Rossen (who would go on to direct The Hustler); the film's montages are done by future Dirty Harry helmer Don Siegel; and the cast itself contains two future directors: Richard Whorf and Elia Kazan. A pretty solid lineup by any definition.
Unfortunately, Blues in the Night never really figures out what kind of movie it wants to be. Rossen's screenplay (adapted from a play by Edwin Gilbert) is all over the map in terms of tone and genre. The film starts off as a fairly light-hearted story of a band struggling to break into the business. This changes, however, when the band is riding a boxcar and is robbed by a man named Del Davis (Lloyd Nolan, Peyton Place), who immediately regrets his decision because the band is so nice to him. As a way of atoning for his behavior, Del invites the band to come to a place owned by some old "friends" of his, Sam (Howard da Silva, 1776) and Kay Grant. It turns out that Del is an escaped convict, and he was sent up for something that involved Sam and Kay.
And with this plot twist, Blues in the Night suddenly switches gears, turning into a mix of a crime movie/melodrama. Kay briefly flirts with Leo, but Jigger quickly intervenes and puts a stop to it. This provokes a fight between Leo and Character, which is resolved with comical speed once Leo discovers Character is pregnant.
Kay quickly shifts her attentions to Jigger, and at this point, her character seems like a bad girl trying to go good. We see Kay argue with Jigger as she tries to draw him out and get him to admit he has feelings for her. Jigger even works with Kay to improve her singing voice so that she can replace the pregnant Character.
But the movie fooled me again, as Kay is intended to be nothing more than a siren designed to lure Jigger away from the band and into insanity (yes, insanity). Why Jigger, who up until this point was interested in absolutely nothing besides music and the members of his band, should be interested in the crass, low-life Kay is never satisfactorily explained, despite an attempt to do so by Brad (Wallace Ford, The Furies), a dim-witted fellow who also pines for Kay even though he knows she's no good.
Once Kay and Jigger get together, things get even sillier. Jigger gets a job playing piano at a fancy nightclub but clearly hates it. And all of a sudden, despite her hots for Jigger for much of the film, Kay seems to despise the man and makes plans to leave him, only to come around again at the end of the film to tempt him once more. Jigger, despite the fact that it was Kay who caused him to go crazy and spend months in a mental hospital and temporarily lose the ability to do what he supposedly loves doing the most (music), has no second thoughts about helping Kay after she (SPOILER) plugs Del following a dispute and has to flee. (END SPOILER)
Adding to the confusion is the relationship between Jigger and Character. Jigger is respectful of her and Leo's marriage, even going so far as to call Leo out when he's looking to stray, but at the same time, there seems to be a longing between Jigger and Character that never really goes anywhere, and seems rather pointless. At one point Kay speculates that Character is jealous of her and Jigger's romance, and Character and Leo even name their baby Jigger. (The film's marketing team seem like they were confused too, as they play up the Character/Jigger relationship in the film's trailer, included on this disc.)
Once the dust settles, the band ends up in that boxcar again, happily playing music, as if the last few reels were actually from another movie, and the band was actually on the train the entire time.
The inconsistency of the writing means that, inevitably, the performances in Blues in the Night are hampered. This is especially true of Whorf and Field. The latter particularly fares poorly, as her character is shrill and annoying and elicits not one iota of sympathy. Whorf should get a little credit, however, for not going too over the top during his insane period. But ultimately, the only two actors who really leave a positive impression are Kazan and Lane. Kazan, who would of course go on to direct classic films such as On the Waterfront and East of Eden, is a breath of fresh air as the jovial clarinet player Nickie, and as Character (great name, by the way), Lane provides the movie's heart, passionately trying to keep the band together.
Litvak's handling of his material is nearly as inconsistent as the script; he often has the actors spit their lines out at rapid-fire speed, in the style of a screwball comedy—only he has them do it for serious scenes. Visually, Litvak fares better, and the inclusion of Siegel's montages was an interesting choice. The best of them is the Jigger-insanity montage, which has all manner of surreal imagery, the best being when Jigger tries to play the piano but finds that the keyboard has turned into a gooey substance. This sequence reminded me of Philip Marlowe's drug trip in 1944's Murder, My Sweet, and while it and the other montages in the film are certainly dated by today's standards, they're still interesting.
And of course, there's the music. Honestly, I wish there had been more songs included in Blues in the Night, because the melodrama frequently overwhelms the great music of the film. From the title song (heard several times and sung by a group of prisoners near the beginning of the film) to "Hang on to Your Lids, Kids" and "This Time the Dream's on Me," the music is just great. Thankfully, Warner Home Video provides some extra music of the era in its special features.
The transfer of Blues in the Night is really quite nice considering the age of this film. The sound is just about up there with the video in quality as well. The extras, like the movie itself, are something of a mixed bag. The two best are a pair of shorts, "Jammin' the Blues" and "Melody Master: Jimmie Lunceford and his Dance Orchestra." Both run about 10 minutes and are basically extended music videos of music of the era. They're both great to watch and listen to, and at least one of them—the Lunceford one—is directly connected to the movie, as Lunceford's band makes an appearance. There are also three Warner Bros. cartoons, all featuring Porky Pig. The first, "My Favorite Duck," and last, "Kitty Kornered," both incorporate the song "Blues in the Night," and the second short, "Swooner Crooner," has a musical theme, but that's as far as they get in terms of relevancy to the feature. Finally, there is a short audio outtake of "Blues in the Night" and the film's theatrical trailer, which, for about the first minute, is fascinatingly abstract.
Blues in the Night is certainly unique, but that's not necessarily a good thing. The meandering, genre-mad script really brings the film down, although for some, that might make this worth checking out. And to its credit, Warner Home Video has certainly put out a solid DVD to present the film.
Not guilty by reason of (narrative) insanity.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Jammin' the Blues" short
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