Jazz Paroxysm

BLUES IN THE NIGHT feels to me like one of the fastest films ever made, not only for the typical rat-a-tat of Warner Bros dialogue, aided by a large cast (a jazz band and various associates) but because of the hopped-up dynamism of Litvak’s camerawork and cutting, and Don Siegel’s furious, hallucinogenic montages (Vorkapich on steroids). Half jazz musical, half noir, it’s not well-known because the stars are Richard Whorf and Priscilla Lane and Jack Carson and Betty Field and Lloyd Nolan and Wallace Ford. Personally, I never knew Elia Kazan had a brief career as a Warner character player. All of them are terrific, but none is a headliner.

Though much less generic than Litvak’s CITY FOR CONQUEST, on which screenwriter Robert Rossen also worked, this one shares its surprising downbeat tendencies — the characters are all bound for fame and fortune but don’t get there, and in this film never even smell the big time. Plus crime and scheming and madness get in the way — just as the band have walked from the cattle-car they rode in on towards the latest dive venue, singing brightly together — the closest we get to full-on musical cinema fantasy — the exterior set is suitably unconvincing — things suddenly take a turn for the horrible. Field, the trampy girl from OF MICE AND MEN, who always seems to be angling for a strangling in a barn, hangs around in a barn A LOT. Lloyd Nolan plays a vicious heister who’s all the more alarming because he likes our innocent musicians. Like Kirk Douglas, so terrifying in OUT OF THE PAST, he’s PLEASANT. Wally Ford is a boozy gambling addict with a gimpy leg, and Howard da Silva is just Howard da Silva, with the face of a suspicious egg, polishing glasses and glowering with ball-bearing eyes.

Amazing stuff — a jazz riot provoked when Frank McHugh’s uglier brother pugnaciously requests “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” (good thing Sam Fuller never met this band) — jazz jail (Jazzcatraz?) where we glimpse some actual black people, so at least the movie acknowledges where the music comes from — and TWO jazz nightmares as Field tries to become a chanteuse — Susan Alexander Kane histrionics and Dali-meets-Busby-Berkeley optics — and then Whorf (a successful art director who decided to branch out — really rather good in this!) suffers a mental breakdown and things get fully Freddy Krugerish. The dollarbook surrealism of the imagery is slashed to bloody shreds by Don Siegel’s aggressive cutting (were his films as director so beautifully stark because he’d gotten all the flamboyance out of his system sweating over the Warners optical printer?)

At his lowest ebb, or on his way to it, Whorf finds himself in a candy-ass monkey suit tickling ivories with “Guy Heiser and his band,” a really vicious parody of Kay Kyser’s novelty act. I don’t know where they found the girl singer but Wally Ford may have drawn on some of his FREAKS connections…

Lowered expectations — CITY and BLUES both beat up their characters to such an extent that circumstances they’d have seen as tragic at the films’ outset come to seem like ecstatic happy endings after the pounding they’ve had. When its relentless pace and careening tonal shifts finally screeched to an end title, we were relieved too, and elated.

Melodrama at lightspeed.

BLUES IN THE NIGHT stars Jean Sherman; Mae Jackson; Sam Harris; Michael Shayne; Gooper; Phroso; ‘Googi’; Mert Fleagle / Bert Fleagle; Soapy; Dixie Belle Lee; Dad Fitchitt; Hamilton Burger; Butts McGee; ‘Hot Garters’ Gardner; Ham; Prof. Lesley Joyce; Irana Preveza; James Kirkham; and Sgt. Dickens.

9 Responses to “Jazz Paroxysm”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    My Mama Done Told Me Gadge was a really good character actor back in the day.

  2. But he threw it all away for a profitable career in stoolpigeonry.

  3. chris schneider Says:

    I am shocked, shocked to find that you don’t credit either Harold Arlen (music) or Johnny Mercer (words) in this piece. You’ve put me in touch with my inner Captain Renault. Even the makers of the film were so impressed with Arlen & Mercer’s song that they used its title rather than HOT NOCTURNE, the title of the source play. (Its author, Edwin Gilbert, wrote additional songs for the Cole Porter flop YOU NEVER KNOW as well as a number for Gypsy Rose Lee in ZIEGFELD FOLLIES OF 1936.) Apart from that song, the best known is probably the Priscilla Lane song “This Time The Dream’s on Me,” which you can find in TORCH SONG TRILOGY and MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL.

    Attention should be paid. And I would probably feel that even if I weren’t an Arlen partisan.

    I love your writing here, though, I must say — particularly the stuff about Betty Field. I’m fast becoming a big-time Betty Field fan. Remember her as Don Stroud’s mother in COOGAN’S BLUFF? (“Smartness is one thing, motherhood’s another.”)

    As for the Litvak film … my most recent encounter was the last 40 or so minutes on TCM. I was half-way between shocked and amused by the wild-eyed intensity of the thing. It’s enough to make a girl fall between the keys of her giant piano.

    To quote Renault’s sotto voce words to the croupier, thank you very much.

  4. Oh, Siegel reports Litvak worrying about if the song was strong enough. Siegel told him he should worry instead about his film, which wasn’t one-tenth as good as its title track.

    Hope that makes up for the ommission!

  5. I’ve put “Jazzcatraz” in a filing cabinet, under “Jazzcatraz.” It will be there when I need it.

  6. When we made Cry For Bobo we just could not think of a good, funny name for a clown prison, but here, when it doesn’t particularly matter, I’ve come up with the name of the jazz prison which Leonard Cohen’s Jazz Police would take you to.

  7. Several days ago, I sent you my review of Star Trek: The Motion Picture for your end of the year blogathon, but have received no response. Something’s gone wrong with my old email address. I created a new account, peterlwinkler@yahoo.com. Let me know if you got my review. Thanks.

  8. I got the review, and replied twice — many thanks — I’ll fire a shot off to your new address.

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