Sunday, January 31, 2016

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for February on TCM

Priscilla Lane, Betty Field and Richard Whorf are top-billed in Warner's 1941 release Blues in the Night, but the real stars are Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's Oscar nominated title song and the thrilling montages by Don Siegel.

Richard Whorf (Yankee Doodle Dandy, Christmas Holiday) plays Jigger Pine, a piano player with a lot of talent and lot of dreams. He wants to form a unit that will play their own style of music, five guys who think as one. Actually, what Whorf really wants to do is direct and he will do so in features such as Champagne for Caesar and much of the classic television we enjoy: Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Ann Sothern Show, The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Perry Mason, The Beverly Hillbillies, My Three Sons, etc.

Elia Kazan, Richard Whorf, Billy Halop, Peter Whitney
Jack Carson, Priscilla Lane

Jigger is a nice guy who draws to him equally committed musicians and friends. Elia Kazan (City for Conquest) is Nicky, a reed man, also a law student who wants to kick over the family expectations and play the blues. What gives with these actors who aren't content without telling everybody else what to do?  Kazan's impressive directing chores include On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd. An uncredited Kazan also worked on the play Hot Nocturne by Edwin Gilbert that was the basis for this film. Billy Halop (Dead End) is the drummer, Peppi. Peppi's health ain't so good, but the kid has heart. Big Peter Whitney joins the gang as bassist Pete Bossett.  Pete may be the most sensible of the group, but with these starry-eyed fellows that is not saying much.

William Gillespie

A little dust-up at a joint where the boys are playing puts them behind bars and the now standard title tune is introduced by fellow inmates. William Gillespie, baritone with the Hall Johnson Choir, gives out with: -

My mama done tol' me, when I was in knee-pants
My mama don tol' me, "Son a woman'll sweet talk
And give ya the big eye, but when the sweet talkin's done
A woman's a two-faced, a worrisome thing who'll leave ya to sing the blues in the night...

It is the first, but not the last time we will hear the tune that inspires our fictional bandmates and imprinted itself so on audiences that the song sounds as if it was always around; that it sprang from all our deepest regrets.

Harold Arlen (1905-1986) and Johnny Mercer (1909-1976)

Arlen, the cantor's son from Buffalo, and Mercer, the Georgian gentleman, have in common with the characters in our screenplay by Robert Rossen (The Roaring Twenties, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Hustler) a love for music and a driving ambition. Arlen started playing in bands in his teens and by the 1930s, with lyricist Ted Koehler, was the staff composer for the Cotton Club in Harlem. By the end of the decade, he was in Hollywood writing the songs for The Wizard of Oz with E.Y. Harburg. 

Hollywood was very good for composer and lyricist Johnny Mercer's career, as these standards attest. Mercer and Richard Whiting wrote the immortal Hooray for Hollywood and Too Marvelous for Words. Hoagy Carmichael and Mercer won an Oscar for In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening. Johnny and Jerome Kern were nominated for an Oscar for Dearly Beloved. Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen's classic compositions include Blues in the Night, My Shining Hour, and One for My Baby from 1943s The Sky's the Limit, That Old Black Magic, and Come Rain or Come Shine. Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer were both inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971.

Blues in the Night was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music, Original Song, and lost to Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's The Last Time I Saw Paris. Good as that song is, it was not written for the film Lady Be Good but used as a goodwill gesture to the city of Paris recently occupied by the Nazis. Ah, the Oscars and their everlasting controversies. Rules of the category were changed as a result. Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Frank Churchill, and Gene Autry also had songs in the hunt.

Jimmie Lunceford leading his band

Blues in the Night benefits from the presence of bandleaders Jimmie Lunceford in the New Orleans segment and Will Osborne leading the Guy Heisler Band, the successful flipside of Jigger's group. Pianist Stan Wrightsman does the playing for Richard Whorf. He also doubled for Bonita Granville in the picture Syncopation.   

Our stalwart little band of dreamers rides the rails with two more joining the group. Trumpeter Leo Powell played by Jack Carson (The Strawberry Blonde, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) is, you should pardon the expression, a blowhard with talent. Somewhere behind that loud mouth must be a decent sort because his wife, a pretty songbird known as "Character" played by Priscilla Lane (The Roaring Twenties, Saboteur) puts up with him.

So far we've got the makings of a decent little rags to riches showbiz tale, but here's where we take a sharp turn into film-noir territory. Del Davis played by Lloyd Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Sleepers West) is a crooked gambler who has broken out of a federal hotel and is looking for his old gang. He hops on board the same freight car as our happy-go-lucky kooks and pulls a gun on them for their measly cash and sandwiches. No biggie. Jigger is an open-hearted sort of guy who treats everyone with kindness and respect. He figures Del must be dealing with tough stuff so why make things tougher. This attitude touches Del deeply who is determined to do the group a favour.  Some favour! He takes them to The Jungle.

Betty Field, Lloyd Nolan
Del Davis:  "You're just like me, Kay.  You want what you can't have."

The Jungle is a broken down club in New Jersey wherein hides Del's old gang. The money from their previous job is gone and they are not smart enough without Del to make a go of things. There's double-dealing, double-crossing Sam played by Howard Da Silva (1776, Border Incident). There's a broken-down piano man Brad played by Wallace Ford (Freaks, T-Men). And there's a sour canary by the name of Kay Grant played by Betty Field (Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby). Kay used to be Del's girl. Actually, before that Kay used to be Brad's girl. Currently, Sam thinks Kay is his girl. Kay ... Kay is no good. Apparently, Kay has never gotten over Del, so she sets her sights on Leo (it's mutual) to make Del jealous. When that doesn't pan out Kay moves on to Jigger.

Jigger's breakdown montage
Richard Whorf

There is no earthly reason for Jigger to fall for Kay except for his deeply ingrained chivalrous nature. Jigger always sees good in people. He just cannot accept that sometimes you can put all the goodness you have out there in the world and there are some people (Kay) who will never change. For Kay's sake Jigger breaks up the unit and takes a steady job with a popular and successful dance band - wearing a white tuxedo yet! His buddies are disgusted. Kay doesn't appreciate the sacrifice. Jigger has a nervous breakdown.

Betty Field, Lloyd Nolan, Wallace Ford
We interrupt our musical program for a noirish interlude.

Blues in the Night was directed by Anatole Litvak (The Snake Pit, Anastasia) and the musical drama clocks in at just under 90 minutes. The fast-paced craziness is greatly enhanced by a series of montages by Don Siegel, still a few years away from his directing career (The Big Steal, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry). The imaginative sequences highlight the influence behind the song Blues in the Night, the progress of the band from town to town, Jigger's hopeless attempt to make Kay a decent vocalist, and Jigger's mental breakdown. Cinematographer Ernest Haller (Mildred Pierce, Jezebel, Lilies of the Field) deserves our applause as well.

"Here We Go Again"

If you want to hop on that freight car with Jigger, Character, and the gang, TCM is screening the movie on Wednesday, February 24th at 8:15 am.  In the network's 31 Days of Oscar chain, I believe it hooks up with the previous showing of Mr. Skeffington through the presence of actor Peter Whitney and joins up with Priscilla Lane in the following presentation of Four Daughters.


  1. Kazan knows what he is doing and having been involved in writing the original play was obviously invested in the story. His character is enthusiastic and stubborn. I would say his performance is energetic, yet he knows to pull back when he should not be the focus of a scene.

    His other screen work in the previous year's "City for Conquest" was as a street tough who makes good. In brief scenes he successfully conveyed both the big shot and the loyal pal.

  2. Great review, makes me want to see this film right away. I think Dawn Siegel also directed the wonderful montages in Casablanca. Thanks for all your good work, love reading your stuff.

    1. Thank you very much.

      Siegel's talent was quite evident at this early stage in his career and it appears he was wisely given free reign in "Blues in the Night". It's a quirky film, but I find it very appealing.



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