Friday, June 17, 2011

Beware (Bud Pollard/Berle Adams, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Beware, a 1946 race production by Bud Pollard in association with Berle Adams and a showcase for Adams’ managerial client, Louis Jordan. Jordan’s involvement with films came about through a weird set of circumstances tied in with World War II: the U.S. had instituted price controls and as a result Jordan’s label, Decca, couldn’t raise prices of their basic record series past 35¢ per disc, which was no longer enough to cover the cost of manufacturing them. (Eventually Decca solved this problem by starting a new black label, the “Personality Series,” for which they could charge 50¢ because it was technically a “new” product — even though Bing Crosby and Decca’s other white artists simply shifted from the old 35¢ blue label to the new “Personality Series.”) Jordan had just recorded the song “Caldonia” (which he’d written himself but for tax purposes had been credited to his then-wife, Fleecie Moore, who shortly thereafter split up with him and thereby made off with the royalties) and Adams smelled a blockbuster hit.

So did a lot of other people, including Woody Herman, who cut a version of “Caldonia” and sped up the tempo to a frantic speedfreak pace — it’s indicative of the power of Jordan’s music that his “Caldonia,” though slower, swings much harder than Herman’s — and Adams wanted to force Decca to release Jordan’s record before Herman took the hit away from him. So he booked time at a movie studio in New York and came up with a quite charming 20-minute short called Caldonia, which was made on a starvation budget but made a virtue out of necessity by making the starvation budget the central issue in the plot (the gimmick is that Jordan’s producer hits a bad streak on the numbers, and so every song Jordan performs has to be filmed with tackier costumes and surroundings than the previous one). The film fulfilled its original purpose of getting Decca to release “Caldonia” and turned out to be a hit in its own right — though he never got the enormous white audience that Louis Armstrong or Nat “King” Cole did, Jordan crossed over enough that his band, the Tympany Five, not only got to do “race” movies but did guest shots in mainstream white musicals like Follow the Boys and Meet Miss Bobby Socks — so Adams hooked up with Bud Pollard for Jordan’s first feature, Beware.

Based on another Jordan hit — a song whose spoken lyrics mark Jordan as one of the founding fathers not only of rock ’n’ roll but of rap as well — Beware had a simple, clichéd plot line: years before, Jordan (under the preposterous name “Lucius Brokenshire Jordan”!) attended the historically black Ware University, founded in 1867 by Benjamin Ware I. Alas, though Ware I left an endowment that should have secured the university’s future indefinitely, Benjamin Ware III (Milton Woods, looking like a Black version of John Eldredge, Gavin Gordon and other white “roo” actors) got pissed off when the campus’s physical education teacher, Annabelle Brown (Valerie Black), rejected him for Jordan, who soon quit college and became the nationally famous Black swing star Louis Jordan. The school’s dean (Emory Richardson) and head professor (Frank L. Wilson) hatch a scheme to get all Ware’s alumni to contribute to replenish the endowment Ware III has supposedly drained, but none of them show up — though Jordan does only because his train has got stranded on his way to a gig at the Paramount Theatre in New York. Eventually Jordan entertains the student body, attracts a lot of new admissions and puts on a big show that saves the school — while his own tax accountant uncovers the shenanigans by which Ware III had made it look like the Ware endowment had been depleted when in fact all the money was still there.

No, the plot isn’t particularly important — but then it wasn’t in the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musicals either; the point of this movie is to showcase Louis Jordan performing. It could have done better in that regard — Bud Pollard shoots Jordan’s numbers from straight ahead, with no attempt to liven them up by cutting to the fast-paced swingy rhythms of Jordan’s songs, and cinematographer Don Malkames lights him weirdly: the top of Jordan’s face looks like that of a normal African-American male, but the lower half is so dark it looks like he’s got a three-day growth of beard throughout the movie. But Jordan is such a striking performer, and his music so infectious and irresistible, that it doesn’t really matter: from the tearing instrumental he does over the credits (revealing that Jordan, for all his antics and the vibrancy of his singing, was also an excellent jazz alto saxophonist; he’d got his first big-band job when Chick Webb hired him to replace Johnny Hodges, who’d quit to join Duke Ellington, and Jordan was thoroughly worthy of the comparison: he’s actually good enough to fit in the top tier of pre-Parker altoists alongside Hodges, Benny Carter and Buster Smith) to the title song, the marvelous novelty “Salt Pork, West Virginia” and some other proto-rock and proto-rap, Jordan’s marvelous art is well showcased throughout.

There’s also a remarkable scene that shows off his little-known skill as a ballad singer: staying in his old room at Ware, Jordan sees a picture of Annabelle Brown and, recalling their relationship and its bittersweet end, he sings, of all songs, “Good Morning, Heartache.” The chutzpah of Jordan taking on one of Billie Holiday’s signature songs is pretty incredible — but he does it justice; his version may not be quite as emotionally wrenching as hers (but then, whose could be?), but in its own right it’s a finely honed, beautifully phrased rendition that proves Jordan’s singing could encompass far more than fish fries, chicken coops, trains and women whose big heads were so-o-o-o hard. (So does “Why’d Ya Do It, Baby?” — an amazing blues ballad Decca relegated to the flip side of “Fussin’ and Fightin’,” one of Jordan’s hilarious rap novelties — and the odd “A Man Ain’t a Man” from a Jordan compilation on Rhino, originally released as part of an album Jordan and British Dixielander Chris Barber did together in 1962 that would be well worth reissuing in toto.)

Beware is a stunning film that shows off one of the great musical talents of the 20th century — the man who almost singlehandedly was the inspiration for the so-called “swing revival” of the 1990’s (Les Brown was quite right when he said that most of what the young people then were calling “swing” had little to do with what he, Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller had played — but it had a great deal to do with what Louis Jordan had played) and who managed a virtual “comeback” 20 years after his death in 1975: his records and these films got reissued, his songs were covered and a whole musical based on Jordan’s music, Five Guys Named Moe, was an enormous Broadway hit.