Thursday, December 9, 2010

Murder with Music (Century Productions, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, right after The Saint in New York Charles and I watched a pretty awful movie, a cheap-jack race production called Murder with Music from 1941 that he’d downloaded off Made by an outfit called “Century Productions” and directed by George P. Quigley from a committee-written script whose authors (Georges Friedland, story; Norman Borisoff, Augustus Smith and Victor Vicas, screenplay) seemed out to prove for all time my general-field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers, Murder with Music seems to have been concocted mainly as an excuse to use several pre-existing clips of Black bands and production numbers, including three songs (“Too Late Baby,” “Hello, Happiness” and “Running Around”) by Noble Sissle and His Orchestra — by this time Sissle’s greatest stars, Sidney Bechet and Lena Horne, had all left him, but there were still enough genuinely talented musicians here to play some great swing in the Jimmie Lunceford vein — which I suspect were filmed for “soundies,” or possibly a self-contained band short, since they both look and sound better than the rest of the film and they don’t seem to have any particular relevance, visually or aurally, to the rest of the movie.

Neither does the opening number, supposedly being watched on a TV set (in 1941 — NBC actually started an experimental TV broadcast in New York City in 1939 but at the time only 100 people in town actually owned TV sets, and it seems rather unlikely that any of them were African-American) and called “Geeshee,” written (like the three songs Sissle performs) by Augustus Smith and Sidney Easton (with, according to an commentator, an uncredited assist by future jazz great Dizzy Gillespie — though that I profoundly doubt) and danced by a troupe of Black performers forced to wear burnt cork, dress up in grass skirts and enact the most insulting racist stereotypes of African life imaginable. (This number does look rather like Marshall Stearns’ description of the floor shows Duke Ellington played for at the Cotton Club or the brief glimpses we see of them in Ellington’s own early film appearances in the 1929 Black and Tan and the 1933 A Bundle of Blues.)

The musical numbers — including two other songs, “Jam Session” and “Can’t Help It,” performed by Skippy Williams and his orchestra (the latter featuring singer Nellie Hill, who was probably the closest they could come to Lena Horne’s style now that Lena herself had left the world of race movies for MGM and, ultimately, a prestigious career as a singer in nightclubs catering to whites) and written by Williams himself — are by far the best part of the film, which otherwise has a nonsensical plot about Ted (Milton Williams), a young man from the sticks who takes a job as a reporter (the office of the newspaper that hires him looks like a residential apartment and in no way resembles any newspaper office in a normal movie) and is warned by the editor (Bob Howard, inexplicably top-billed) not to date burlesque and nightclub star Lola (Nellie Hill), who ruined the last reporter he sent to cover the club scene. Needless to say, Ted does fall in love with Lola — while Mary Smith (Ruth Cobbs), sister of Bill Smith (Ken Renard), who used to be a police officer and eventually opened the nightclub where Lola performs, falls in love with him.

This romantic quadrilateral grows a few more points, including a recently released convict who used to date Lola before he was sent up and who — not surprisingly, at least in a movie — is determined to get back in her life, to the point of threatening to kill anyone else who’s involved with her. Just how this plot was resolved remains a mystery to us because the print available for download from was missing the last three or four minutes and cut off abruptly after Skippy Williams’ last song — not that we really minded. After the genuine skill which went into the making of Boy! What a Girl and the appeal of that movie (especially with its Transgender plot line!) Murder with Music came off as even worse than it probably was simply by comparison; the fact that we’d just seen a movie that proved you could make an entertaining film with a race budget and cast (though the cast of Boy! What a Girl was miles ahead of the cast of this one in acting skill; all too many of the people in Murder with Music sound like porn stars in their bored, wooden line deliveries), and the fact that we could enjoy this movie just fine with the last three minutes unexpectedly lopped off is indicative of just how irrelevant its plot is to any sense of audience enjoyment.