Musical shorts, produced to merely fill out the film program, have in many cases acquired more value than the features they once supported. Filmed at the Paramount Studios in Astoria, Queens, these films offer unparalleled opportunities to see and hear great artists in action, and sometimes present surprisingly gutsy subject matter via truly innovative film technique. In A Rhapsody In Black And Blue, Louis Armstrong dons outlandish leopard-skin attire to stand knee-deep in soap bubbles, where he trumpets and sings "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You." In Hi-De-Ho, Cab Calloway demonstrates just what scat is all about, with the assistance of a bevy of Cotton Club fan dancers. The legendary "Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith, stars in her only film, the once-notorious musical drama St. Louis Blues. Teenaged Billie Holiday performs in Symphony In Black, perhaps the greatest of Duke Ellington's shorts. Another Ellington piece, A Bundle Of Blues, spotlights his favorite band singer, Ivie Anderson (performing "Stormy Weather"), while Black And Tan Fantasy features the Ellington orchestra imparting a bluesy mood to a surprisingly downbeat tale featuring actress-dancer Fredi Washington (Imitation of Life). Meanwhile, George Dewey Washington's powerful baritone transcends some stereotypical situations in Ol' King Cotton. Also appearing on this DVD -- definitely in a lighter vein -- are bandleader Vince Lopez (who conducts a bouncy "St. Louis Blues" in Those Blues), composer Hoagy Carmichael (performing "Stardust" with the Jack Teagarden Orchestra) and Fats Waller, who growls a definitive Ain't Misbehavin'.
Hollywood Rhythm: The Best of Jazz & Blues (Vol. 1)
is a time capsule from another era, stuffed with tuneful artifacts. With the coming of sound to film, the excitement of hearing recorded music at the movies prompted these shorts, which date from 1929 to 1941. This collection, mostly from the Paramount vaults, begins with the 1932 "Rhapsody in Black and Blue," starring Louis Armstrong (a rather notorious film discussed in Ken Burns's Jazz
). Racial stereotyping is rampant in some of these pieces, and this one has Armstrong dressed in leopard skins while playing trumpet in heaven. Absurd, yet Armstrong's performance is over-the-moon exhilarating. Three shorts respectfully showcase the composing genius of Duke Ellington, including 1935's "Symphony in Black," featuring a vocal spot for Billie Holiday.
Hoagy Carmichael is spotlighted in a 1939 short, Fats Waller sings his classic "Ain't Misbehavin'," and the awesome Bessie Smith stars in a very creaky 1929 mini-melodrama, "St. Louis Blues," built around her song. Many of the films create a flimsy story to wrap around the music. In "Cab Calloway's Hi-De-Ho," the irrepressible Mr. Calloway receives a telegram while en route to an engagement at the Cotton Club, and he must improvise a new tune in the sleeping car of his train. A few of the films present scenes at the Cotton Club (complete with saucy dance numbers), and many evoke Harlem as the magical center of black America. The DVD bonus is "Jazz a la Cuba," featuring Don Aspiazu--"The Foremost Exponent of the Rhumba," if you didn't know. --Robert Horton