Judge Barrie Maxwell digs in for a generous helping of early African-American cinema.
A double dose of jumpin' jive!
A while ago, I reviewed one of director Edgar G. Ulmer's early efforts—Moon Over Harlem—an independent all-black film made in New York on a shoe-string. Today we have an opportunity to look at a double bill of independent black films made for black audiences of the '30s and '40s. The titles are Hi De Ho (1947) and The Duke Is Tops (1938); both films have been available on VHS in the past although they never made it to laserdisc as far as I'm aware.
The two films have now been packaged together along with a contemporary newsreel and cartoon by Whirlwind Media, Inc. as part its Europa Theatre Series.
Facts of the Case
Hi De Ho—Band leader Cab Calloway is caught between two women, his girlfriend Minnie and his manager Nettie. Nettie manages to get Cab a gig at The Brass Hat Club, but he is soon pressured to leave there to work at a nearby gangster-run establishment due to Minnie's intervention with its owner, Boss Mason. Cab refuses, so Mason sends his men to persuade Cab otherwise, using force if necessary.
The Duke Is Tops—Promoter Duke Davis runs a traveling musical revue that features singer Ethel Andrews who is billed as The Bronze Nightingale. Believing that he is holding back her career prospects, Duke tricks Ethel into leaving him so that she can be free to pursue stardom in New York. Meanwhile Duke falls on hard times, but eventually has some success after linking up with a con man selling a universal medical elixir in small towns. When Ethel fails to click in the big time, Duke returns to her side in New York. The two decide to develop a new show using specialty acts to showcase Ethel's singing.
You certainly don't buy this disc for the acting or the plots. Hi De Ho, for example, has some of the worst acting I've seen in a film. Cab Calloway is Cab Calloway and he's competent as an actor, but the rest range from mediocre (Ida James as Nettie and Jeni Le Gon as Minnie) to downright awful (George Wiltshire as Boss Mason, James Dunmore as Mo the Mouse, and a host of bit players in the various clubs). The resolution of the conflict that sees Cab involved in a shooting with Boss Mason's men is laughably incompetent in its execution. The upside is that the plot basically ends at that point—only 35 minutes into the film—and we are mercifully released to simply enjoy Cab Calloway and his band and a number of specialty acts for the remainder of the time. Plot- and acting-wise, The Duke Is Tops is a cut above Hi De Ho. It's about on a par with the typical independent B-picture of the times. As Duke Davis, Ralph Cooper (who gained fame as the founder of the famous Amateur Night at Harlem's Apollo Theater) is quite charismatic. Laurence Criner as Doc Dorando ably abets him in the medicine show sequences. On the other hand, Lena Horne who makes her film debut as Ethel Andrews is quite stiff in her acting sequences. Reportedly, The Duke Is Tops was shot on a shoestring in ten days. An NAACP charity premiere was held in Pittsburgh, but Lena Horne did not appear, as she had apparently not been paid for her work. After she became more well known, the film was re-released in 1944 as The Bronze Venus with her name above the title.
The reason to have this disc is the musical numbers—the ever-energetic Cab Calloway, the singing of the wonderful Lena Horne, plus a host of talented black specialty singing and dancing acts. In Hi De Ho, there are ten musical numbers all featuring Cab and his band either alone or as backup (for two numbers with The Peters Sisters trio). Highlights include: "Hi De Ho Man," "Dawntime," and "St. James Infirmary." We are also treated to a tremendous tap-dance routine by the Miller Bros. & Lois—you name it; they tap-dance on it. In The Duke Is Tops, Lena Horne's singing is the highlight with the number "I Know You Remember" prominent. Backing her up are such acts as Willie Covan, The Basin Street Boys, Cats and the Fiddle, and Rubber Neck Holmes.
The picture on both of these black and white films is far from stunning. It's somewhat soft, with speckling and scratches present throughout. That said, it is workable given the age and condition of the source material. The audio is mono and subject to some hiss, but the musical numbers sound okay. Accompanying the two films on Whirlwind's disc are a Movietone newsreel from 1939 featuring footage of the famous crash and burning of the dirigible Hindenburg, and a Commonwealth Pictures colour cartoon "Trolley Ahoy." The latter is frequently out of focus and features unappealing characters—not exactly on a level with the golden age of Looney Tunes. Whirlwind has also included an informative four-page insert detailing the background of the principal performers in the films.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the generous number of musical numbers in Hi De Ho, the film runs only 63 minutes. This is apparently an incomplete print of the original film that ran either 72 or 77 minutes according to the American Film Institute Catalog. Among the missing footage is a performance by Dusty Fletcher of a trademark routine of his called "Open the Door, Richard."
The dates of both Hi De Ho and the newsreel are wrong on the DVD menu. More of a concern, however, is the lack of any chapter selections for either film. Thus, one is unable to access specific musical numbers with any ease.
Whirlwind has performed a good service to fans of Cab Calloway and Lena Horne by making these two films available on DVD. Packaging them together makes a lot of sense and it provides a wonderful opportunity to see a number of black specialty acts go through their paces. Anyone who has delighted in the earlier laserdisc boxes of Vitaphone shorts will find this disc to be a nice complement to them.
The condition of the films is far from ideal, but given their origins and the limited modern-day appeal, I can't imagine much better versions ever appearing. Look past the plots and acting, and focus on some incredible musical performers.
The court finds the defendant not guilty and gives a tip of the hat to Whirlwind for making these titles available to us. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Whirlwind Media
• Movietone Newsreel 1939 (6 Minutes)
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