Friday, July 27, 2018

Killer Diller (All-American News, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Killer Diller, produced by something called “All-American News” and with a copyright date of 1948, though it’s possible it could have been filmed a year or two earlier. It was a “race” musical with an all-Black cast, headlined by Nat “King” Cole and his trio — even though all Cole gets to do in it is play three songs (two vocal novelties and one instrumental); on the rare occasions he got speaking parts in films like Istanbul and China Gate he proved he could act, but usually he was one of those Black performers who got shoehorned in to do a number or two in a film in which he otherwise did not appear. The film came from the Mill Creek Entertainment box of 50 public-domain musicals and was advertised as a revue film, though it did have a plotlet of sorts: Dumdone (George Wiltshire), the manager of the “Lincoln Theatre” (the one exterior shot we get of it is of the real Apollo Theatre with “Apollo” painted out and “Lincoln” painted in) in Harlem, gets a call that the magician who’s supposed to perform as part of his current vaudeville show (apparently vaudeville was still a live item in the Black community in 1947 even though by then it was virtually nonexistent in the white world) isn’t going to be able to come. He sends for a replacement magician, and the one who arrives is played by old Black vaudevillian Dusty Fletcher, who when this film was made was having his 15 minutes of fame as the author of a novelty called “Open the Door, Richard!” The piece had been dredged up by Jack McVea’s combo, who had a surprise hit on it in 1946, and Fletcher got to do his own record in 1947 for National, the company founded by Herb Abrahamson just before he became one of the three original partners in Atlantic. (Atlantic’s other two founders, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, became multi-millionaires when Atlantic was sold to Warner Bros. in 1969; Abrahamson didn’t because he’d been forced to sell his Atlantic stock in 1957 to finance an expensive divorce settlement.) 

Some dialogue at the start (the script is by Hal Seeger) references “Richard” and doors opening (or not), but the big gag is that Dumdone has just presented his girlfriend Lola (Nellie Hill) with a $1,000 pearl necklace when Fletcher recruits her to be his assistant in a cabinet trick — only when he opens the cabinets (after a spectacular lightning flash) both Lola and the necklace are gone. A group of Black policemen obviously patterned on Mack Sennett’s original Keystone Kops from 35 years earlier try to catch Fletcher — who, thanks to the magic of filmmaking, is able to appear and disappear at will in his opening scene — and they get lost inside the cabinets, though they soon reappear. There are some nice novelty scenes, including one in which the Kops end up falling on top of each other at the bottom of a staircase. “Let’s try that again,” says their commander — and then director Josh Binney reverses the film and shows them going up the staircase backwards, then re-reverses the film and shows us the same scene (with the same incompetent ending) we’d just seen. Meanwhile, despite the loss of his girlfriend and the antics of his magician and the cops who are chasing him, Dumdone decides that “the show must go on” and he presents the Lincoln Theatre’s vaudeville revue. This begins with Andy Kirk’s band (he’d been a bandleader since the late 1920’s in Kansas City and at one point had had one of the top bands in the country; by 1948 he was on the downgrade and he quit the business to take a job managing the Hotel Theresa in Harlem — where Fidel Castro stayed in 1960 when he came to New York to address the United Nations — though he would sometimes reorganize bands for one-shot gigs) doing a wild instrumental called “Gator Serenade” that’s basically a duel between tenor saxophonists Ray Abrams (whom I’d heard of; he was in Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1949) and someone named (I think) “Shirley Green” (a guy). The number reveals that Kirk was keeping abreast of the times; the horn sections are playing bebop riffs and the sax soloists are nascent rhythm-and-blues. 

The next performer is a Black singer named Beverly White who sort of talk-sings her way through a couple of songs, one called “I Don’t Want to Get Married” (as you might guess, the reason she doesn’t want to get married is she wants to be able to stay out all night and “party” without a husband questioning her about where she’s been — one particularly engaging line is about how if she had a husband he’d cheat on her, so she might as well do the same!) and the other an updated version of the old novelty “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.” If nothing else, White’s act shows that rap is not at all new: Black performers had been doing this kind of half-singing, half-talking at least since Bert Williams (a bit of whose most famous song, “Nobody,” gets sung by Butterfly McQueen, of all people — she’s in the film as Dumdore’s secretary and a comic romantic partner for Fletcher — which, as Charles noted, put this entire cast one degree of separation from Clark Gable, Leslie Howard and Vivien Leigh!). After that comes the comedy dance team of Patterson and Jackson, who do routines on the songs “I Believe” (recorded in 1947 by Mel Tormé with Artie Shaw for Musicraft but done here considerably faster and in a much more raucous style) and “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Then we get a marvelous comedy routine by Jackie “Moms” Mabley, one of those incredibly talented performers who were enormous stars in the Black community but whom most whites had never heard of (I remember in the 1960’s she made several albums for Chess Records, one of which was called The Best of Moms and Pigmeat — the latter being Pigmeat Markham, another old Black vaudevillian who got his 15 minutes in the late 1960’s, when Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In decided to appropriate his old “Here Comes the Judge” routine), who does a comedy routine about her first flight on an airliner (when told by a flight attendand to “drop her jaws,” she misunderstands and gets thrown off the plane in Baltimore) and a novelty, similar to the two talk-sung songs Beverly White did earlier, called “Don’t Sit on My Bed.” (One of the great unmade movies would have been a biopic of Mabley with Whoopi Goldberg — who ripped off virtually her whole act from Mabley — playing her.) 

After that came two quite spectacular young male dancers, James and Steve Clark, billed as “The Clark Brothers” and doing two hot dance routines; obviously they’d ripped off their act from the Nicholas Brothers but they’re quite athletic and almost as exciting to watch as their models. Afterwards Nat “King” Cole comes on with his trio — he identifies the bassist as Johnny Miller but it’s not clear who the guitar player is (probably Oscar Moore) — to do a novelty song called “Ooh! Kickeroonie” which Cole apparently wrote himself; it includes a great piano solo from Cole that shows off what a first-rate jazz pianist he was and how much of a loss, as well as a gain, it was when Cole started showcasing himself exclusively as a singer instead of a piano player. Cole’s other numbers are a bittersweet novelty called “Now He Tells Me” and a hot instrumental called “Breezy and the Bass” that once again shows off what a great jazz performer Cole was and how good the other two guys in the trio were — though by 1948, when this film was released, Cole was already having crossover hits like Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song,” eden ahbez’s “Nature Boy” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” in which he was backed by large string orchestras and was pretty obviously going after the audience for white crooners. After that came a group called (if I heard the announcement correctly) The Congeroos, who do spectacular acrobatic dancing sort of like the Clark Brothers except there are four of them and two are women. Around this time director Binney and writer Seeger suddenly remember that this film is supposed to have a plot, so in the middle of the show they cut to the Black Keystone Kops chasing Dusty Fletcher across the rooftop of the theatre — “Ya remember the magician? Ya remember the cops?,” as Anna Russell might have said — and when Fletcher misses his cue to go on and perform the magic trick with the cabinets, Dumdone tells Mabley to go out there and improvise something. There’s an astonishing scene in which Mabley puts a cap on over her hair, then a wig on over the cap, then another cap over the wig, before she walks onstage and finds her attempts to perform are being upstaged by Markham and the cops chasing him across the theatre stage. 

Andy Kirk gets three final numbers, one of which is listed on the film’s page as Count Basie’s “Basie Boogie” but sounded as much or more like an instrumental version of Louis Jordan’s “Caldonia” to me, and one of which sounded like Stan Kenton’s early record “Reed Rapture.” If I’m right, this would be a rare example from the period of a Black orchestra covering a white band’s hit instead of the other way around (though it had happened before, including Count Basie’s engaging 1939 cover of Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade”), though instead of just using the sax section and orchestra Kirk does it as a full-band feature with a lovely trumpet solo I suspect is by bebopper Theodore “Fats” Navarro. Navarro was one of bop’s all too many heroin casualties (he died in his 20’s in 1950) but he’s known to have played in Kirk’s band, the solo certainly sounds like him, and if so this would probably be the only extant film of him. Kirk’s other two numbers feature an electric guitarist — he, a bassist and Kirk’s piano player stand off to the side of the band as if he were trying to create his own home-grown version of the King Cole Trio (though the solo we hear from the pianist — a rollicking boogie — makes it clear, as the rather murky photography does not, that the pianist is not Cole) — and when the guitar player is front and center we get an indication of the mix of styles, including the dying sound of the big bands and the rise of rhythm and blues, that would ultimately generate rock ’n’ roll. A final sequence wraps up the plot (as if we cared!): Dumdore’s fiancée Lola (ya remember Dumdore’s fiancée Lola?) finally reappears, but sans pearls: a previously unseen character called “Voodoo Man” (were we supposed to believe he was the indisposed magician Dusty Fletcher was supposed to replace?) had stolen them, and when he shows up and tries to sell the necklace the cops jump on him and finally, for the first time all movie, do something right. The film ends with a gag scene in which Dusty Fletcher and Butterfly McQueen talk about the rings that unite them — and which actually belong to a pair of handcuffs. They knock on the door of someone who’s supposed to be able to uncuff them, and a sign reading “The End” spills out. Killer Diller isn’t much of a movie, but it’s great fun even though some of the acts are almost too high-tension and relentless — the relative “cool” of Cole’s and Mabley’s performances are a relief from all that loud, bombastic late-era swing music and the excellent but awfully in-your-face dancing — it’s not only a document of what Black vaudeville looked like in the late 1940’s and in particular a lovely glimpse of how Nat “King” Cole performed for his own people even while he was making his music more sedate and middle-of-the-road to sell to whites!