by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film Charles and I ended up watching last night was Carolina Blues, the final movie made by bandleader Kay Kyser, who in five short years (1939 to 1944) rose up the Hollywood food chain from RKO to MGM — and then back down to Columbia for this final film, little more than a “B” despite the welcome presence of Ann Miller. Even more than most of Kyser’s movies, this one made a big to-do about his home town, Rocky Mount, North Carolina (also the birthplace of jazz great Thelonious Monk!), since the movie’s writing committee (M. M. Musselman and Kenneth Earl, story; Joseph Hoffman and Al Martin, screenplay; Jack Henley, additional dialogue) decided that one of the plot strands they would intermingle concerns Kyser’s efforts to raise enough money in War Bond sales (this was made in 1944 and the war, of course, was still going on) to fund a Navy ship — a destroyer or a cruiser — named after Rocky Mount. The other two plot strands concern the strongly expressed wishes of Kyser’s musicians for a long-awaited and long-deserved vacation after they had just returned from an exhausting tour of military bases, versus the continual flood of invitations Kyser keeps getting for them to perform for one good cause or another; and the need for Kyser to find a replacement singer for his band since his current one, Georgia Carroll, is planning to leave the band to marry a servicemember. (Over six months before this film was released in December 1944, Carroll had got married in real life … to Kay Kyser.)
Miller plays Julie Carver, niece of ne’er-do-well Phineas Carver (Victor Moore), the one poor relation in an otherwise fabulously wealthy family that includes Elliott, Hiriam, Horatio, Aunt Martha and Aunt Minerva — all of whom are also played by Victor Moore, which gives this otherwise pretty ordinary movie a unique appeal. Watching Moore as the imperious dowager Aunt Minerva is a real treat — and overall the multiple casting at least gives Moore something else to do besides whine, his annoying specialty in movie after movie (in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers Swing Time one ends up wanting to wring his neck). Moore isn’t the only one who has a multiple role; there’s a marvelous sequence in which “Ish Kabibble” (t/n Merwyn Bogue, Kyser’s lead trumpet man and also a deadpan comedian who wore his hair in what looked like a cross between Moe Howard’s and Ringo Starr’s) returns home to his family — an elderly mother and father and a younger brother and sister — and they’re all played by Bogue, complete with the trademark Ish Kabibble hair. Even the family dog is wearing an Ish Kabibble wig (remembering the gag scene in Yes, Yes, Nanette in which the dog ends up with Jimmy Finlayson’s toupee, Charles joked that this was the second night in a row we’d seen a movie with a dog wearing a wig).
All these flashes of surrealism, as well as the rather bizarre songs Kyser and company got to do — from a salute to the smallest U.S. state, “Poor Little Rhode Island,” to an elaborate number featuring African-American singer June Richmond (the first Black singer to perform in public with a white band — Jimmy Dorsey hired her in 1937, a year before Artie Shaw hired Billie Holiday) and a troupe of spectacular Black dancers do a tribute to, of all people, New York society columnist, man-about-town and well-known (for the time, anyway) Gay man Lucius Beebe — add life to an otherwise standard-issue plot in which the big dramatic issue is Ann Miller’s attempt to get the job replacing Georgia Carroll with Kyser’s band despite her penchant for accidentally insulting him (in one scene she mistakes him for a factory worker who’s supposed to be performing his imitation of Kay Kyser) and his disinclination to hire someone from a rich family — since she and her uncle have carefully concealed that they’re broke in hopes a rich background would impress Kyser instead of convincing him that she’s a dilettante who won’t take the job seriously. She eventually “outs” herself as poor just when Kyser is counting on her and her uncle to contribute the $4 million in war-bond sales he needs to fund his home town’s ship — and in a nice worm-turning scene Moore gets Kyser the money by calling in all his wealthy relatives and blackmailing them into contributing by threatening to publish his tell-all book about them if they don’t.
Carolina Blues isn’t much of a movie, but like all of Kyser’s films it’s fun and worth watching — and it’s fascinating that Kyser, not Benny Goodman, either of the Dorseys or Glenn Miller, was the biggest money-maker among the major bandleaders of the swing era, mainly because (like Martha Stewart later on) he determined to make himself the master of all media. While other bandleaders were content to do radio shows that were little more than broadcasts of their live performances, Kyser had a top-rated quiz show, “Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge” (his catch phrase from the show, “That’s right — you’re wrong,” became the title of his first film), and he was able to make successful movies playing himself as a personality instead of just trotting out himself and his band for isolated numbers the way most swing bandleaders did. Eventually Kyser gave up his showbiz career and became — of all things — a Christian Science practitioner, dying in 1985 at age 80; and during the final scenes of this film, in which he pretends to be dying to lure his band members back from their vacations to play one final benefit, I couldn’t help but wish the writers had had him suddenly rise from his (supposed) sickbed and declare that his “disease” had just been an error of mortal mind.
Ann Miller is decently but not spectacularly featured in Carolina Blues — she gets one song in which to do her famous machine-gun taps but much of it is only heard on the soundtrack (supposedly Kyser is entering the theatre late and missing what she intended as her audition piece for him) — but on the whole the film is quite entertaining in the mild but fun way most of Kyser’s films (and his act in general) were. George T. Simon noted in his book on the big bands that Kyser’s band got better musically over the years — in 1937 he reviewed them and noted Kyser’s stylistic similarity to Guy Lombardo by saying, “If you’re a Lombardo Lover you’re probably a Kyser Kraver” — but within a few years Kyser had seen the writing on the wall and bolstered his band with a few swing musicians (including a lovely sax player — I think it’s Herbie Haymer — who plays some surprisingly advanced ideas in back of the singers during one of the big novelty numbers) that made it more fun for a jazz fan like Simon to listen to then and gives Kyser’s music a bit more interest now as well.