Sunday, June 17, 2012

Hi-De-Ho (All American, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Hi-De-Ho, the third and last film Cab Calloway made with his famous trademark phrase in the title: the other two were band shorts, one called Cab Calloway’s Hi-De-Ho from Paramount in 1934 (a quite remarkable 10-minute movie in which Cab is having an affair with the wife of a Pullman porter; the plot is that hubby has given wifey a radio so she can listen to Calloway’s live broadcasts from the Cotton Club, only when he comes home unexpectedly while she’s entertaining Cab, he hides out in another room and starts singing so she can pass off the sound of his voice as a broadcast she’s listening to on the fabulous new radio her husband brought her) and one called simply Hi De Ho (no hyphens between the words) from Warners in 1937 (an even weirder one described by an reviewer with the screen name “Spuzzlightyear” thusly: “While I love Cab Calloway, I'm really surprised they cast him in a role that is so dark, he regularly beats up his girlfriend, plays seedy clubs, and soon, has hits on his life set up by his vengeful girlfriend! Fortunately, his professional life is on the upswing, with his agent getting him out of seedy clubs and into the bigtime. Soon, after the hit on his life fails, and his nasty girl is out of the way, his agent takes over and soon Cab is the hit of the world!” My own notes on it similarly described it as “a surprisingly dark movie … far removed from the exuberance of the title … in which Calloway, a young Black blade who dreams of music stardom while his more down-to-earth mother works away at the washtub, visits a fortuneteller and sees a whole series of visions of his future in her tea leaves — one of which is set to a song called ‘Frisco Flo’ which is surprisingly moody and dark for Calloway, and is shot by director Roy Mack in proto-noir fashion — only an exuberant number at the very end gives us the Cab Calloway we all know and love!”).

The 1947 Hi-De-Ho was made by a New York-based studio called “All American” and features Jeni Le Gon, the great Black dancer who was featured with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Thomas “Fats” Waller in the great “Living in a Great Big Way” number that ends RKO’s otherwise workmanlike 1935 musical Hooray for Love — only in one of the most bizarre decisions ever made by a producer (E. M. Glucksman), director (Josh Binney) and writer (Hal Seeger), not only does Le Gon not get a chance to dance but the other female lead, Ida James, doesn’t get a chance to sing even though she had a superb voice (as anyone who’s seen her “Soundie” with Nat “King” Cole on “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” will know; she has absolutely no trouble keeping up with him vocally and if she’d been properly promoted as a recording artist, she’d have given Dinah Washington a run for her money). The plot, what there is of it, features James as Nettie, a woman who’s signed to manage Calloway (who, like Desi Arnaz on the I Love Lucy series, is an internationally famous bandleader in real life portraying a small-timer stuck in tiny clubs), arousing the jealousy of Minnie (Le Gon), Calloway’s girlfriend — whom he slaps so hard in the opening scene he literally knocks her down. Nettie books Calloway an audition for the owners of the Little Jive Club (he plays the audition with a cut-down personnel featuring a clearly recognizable Jonah Jones on trumpet) and he gets the job, but he’s such a success he arouses the opposition of gangster Boss Mason (George Wiltshire) and his sidekick Mo the Mouse (James Dunmore), who own the nightclub across the street at which Minnie sings … and whose business has nosedived big-time once Cab Calloway was playing at the Little Jive.

In a jealous snit, Minnie approaches Boss Mason to arrange to have Calloway killed, but when Mo (who’s so inept he makes one think he’s the survivor of an attempt to do a Black version of the Three Stooges) actually fires the gun, Minnie steps in the path of the bullet and takes the shot instead. We assume she dies — we never see her again — and the remaining half-hour of this 64-minute film (it was originally released at 72 minutes and featured Black comedian Dusty Fletcher doing his famous “Open the Door, Richard” routine, which he wrote and recorded for National, the predecessor company to Atlantic, only Jack McVea’s band beat him to the hit with their record for the short-lived Black & White label, but Fletcher’s number didn’t appear in the shorter reissue version we were watching from the Mill Creek Entertainment 20 Classic Movie Musicals boxed set) is simply a sequence of Calloway’s band (brought back up to full big-band size) at the Little Jive, mostly playing instrumentals backing up dance acts (notably the surprisingly heavy-set but still quite agile Paris Sisters) but sometimes featuring Cab’s vocals, notably a version of “St. James Infirmary” in which Calloway performs in a “tramp” getup that looks like Red Skelton’s Freddie Freeloader with a hint of Chaplin around the edges — and in which his voice projects the darkness of the lyrics (it is a song about a man contemplating his own death, after all!) surprisingly effectively for anyone who thinks of Calloway as just the guy who jumped up and down, shook his heavily “processed” hair and screamed that he was the hi-de-ho man, that’s me!

Calloway didn’t do quite as much jumping as he had in his 1930’s films but he was still in excellent command of his body and his voice was in great shape — though quite frankly I liked him better in the more intimate songs, the ones at slower tempi with lyrics full of the sly wit of pieces like “Hey Now, Hey Now.” As a movie this isn’t much; as a musical it would have been a lot stronger if they’d cut some of the dance acts and given Ida James a chance to sing with the Calloway band; but as a showcase for Calloway it’s superb and well worth watching. It also helps that producer Glucksman had access to better camera equipment than most earlier race-movie producers did — and, even more importantly, better sound equipment: the lyrics Calloway is singing are actually understandable instead of a morass of sonic sludge, and though Calloway had long since lost the two best jazz soloists he ever had (tenor saxophonist Leon “Chu” Berry, who was killed in an auto accident in 1941; and trumpeter John “Dizzy” Gillespie, whom he fired that same year as the result of a misunderstanding in which bassist Milt Hinton threw a spitball at Cab and Cab blamed Dizzy) he still led an excellent band that played great swing instrumentals as well as playing solid, driving beats behind Cab’s vocals that showcased him at his best.