Monday, July 21, 2008

Louis Jordan on Film: “Reet, Petite and Gone”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Eventually Charles and I hung out in the room and I dug out one of his downloaded DVD’s that included a Harold Lloyd short from 1921, Never Weaken, which I’d previously seen in wretched image quality and with a crudely recorded music track from the 1930’s dubbed in; this one had the original titles and was in excellent video quality, but alas it cut off before the ending! Then we ran the evening’s “feature,” a 1947 vehicle for Louis Jordan called Reet, Petite and Gone, which is an excellent movie when Jordan and his band, the Tympany Five, and/or the excellent Black blues singer June Richmond (who briefly joined Jimmy Dorsey’s band in 1937 and became the first African-American singer regularly featured with a white band — one year before Billie Holiday joined Artie Shaw), are on stage performing — and the film includes some of Jordan’s greatest songs, including the title song and “Let the Good Times Roll” — and a lousy movie whenever anything else is going on.

The conceit is that Louis Jordan and his leading lady, Bea Griffith, both have dual roles — he playing his father and she playing her mother — and the plot, sort of a blackface version of Cover Girl, is that years before the older versions of the characters dated but never got together permanently, and now Jordan’s dad is on his deathbed and he’s determined to get the younger Jordan and the younger Griffith together at last. (This was also the gimmick of the stage musical Maytime but it was abandoned in the Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald film.) The film was even more disappointing in that it was directed by William Forest Crouch, from a script by William Forrest (presumably no relation) and Irwin Whitehouse, and whereas Crouch’s previous Jordan movie, the short Caldonia, had had a genuinely witty plot line that satirized the strangulation-tight budgets available to race producers, this one had a dull, boring, old-fashioned plot line that made it impossible to enjoy the film when Jordan or Richmond (whose large size prevented her from playing Jordan’s love interest, though her vocals are as authoritative and powerful as her recordings with Dorsey and Andy Kirk) aren’t playing or singing.

Like Billie Holiday in New Orleans, Jordan is visibly more comfortable singing or playing than acting, and though the synchronization seemed a little “off” in his numbers I suspect that’s probably more an artifact of the digital transfer or the downloading process than anything wrong with the movie itself. As tacky as the movie is as a movie, it does give us a nice look at Jordan at the peak of his powers, playing his infectious music and making you want to dance. One of the amazing miracles of Jordan was his ability to swing hard even though he almost never played fast — none of his songs here are taken above a medium-bounce tempo, and yet they’re rhythmically irresistible. I still can’t get over the difference between the two hit versions of “Caldonia”; Woody Herman sped the song up to a speedfreak tempo in an attempt to make it as wild and rambunctious as possible, but Jordan’s version, though slower, swings harder!