8/3/07

MOVIES 'TIL DAWN--WALLER EDITION PT. 2




Shortly after "Stormy Weather" finally appeared on "Movies 'Til Dawn" (see previous post--if that's your idea of a good time), a movie called "King Of Burlesque" re-awakened, after a long slumber in the Fox vaults, on late-night local LA television. I knew of it because one of my Fats Waller LP's (not one of the RCA Vintage reissues but a strange, more obscure re-issue with a blank, cream-colored album cover which simply listed the songs in black bold-face type with no accompanying graphics) contained a long-ish cut of Fats singing "I've Got My Fingers Crossed." Now what was odd about this recording to my young ears was the sound of a thousand tap-dancing feet--the album notes indicated it was from the soundtrack of "King Of Burlesque" but gave no other information. Somehow, though, I tracked down the year--1936--and that the film starred Warner Baxter, Jack Oakie and Alice Faye (probably via Leonard Maltin's early edition of Movies On TV...how else, in those pre-internet days?) I used to listen to the recording and envision the accompanying movie in my head, never dreaming that it would soon appear--late at night--on our black and white Zenith. Above is the number as it appears in the film, in slightly truncated form. (Thanks, by the way, to kpjjazz--Jim--for posting this clip and the Louis Armstrong from a few days ago...)

Though the quality of the print is not great, there is much to admire in the filmmaking here. The director, Sidney Lanfield's covereage of the number is extensive, varied and inventive. (If indeed Lanfield shot this--the dance director was the great and forgotten Sammy Lee who choreographed many early musicals and later became a director--this could very well be his work as it was common, in the studio era, to use multiple directors on a movie, all charged with different tasks). Whoever is responsible, clearly much craft went into the creation of this particular production number. The dancer is Dixie Dunbar--later the dancing legs covered by the giant cigarette box in the early commercials for Old Gold And the year is 1936 (which means it could have been shot in '35) which makes the combined races on the same stage especially interesting--Benny Goodman had just started touring with Teddy Wilson that year and white people and black people performing together was by no means a sure thing. So how did Hollywood, never known for its chance-taking, wind up crossing the color-line so quickly?

The answer, alas, is probably hidden in the subtle distinction that, although whites and blacks are sharing the stage, they are not technically performing together. The band is all black, the dancers all white. Now of course they ARE all performing together--but, in a racists mind, it's possible that they didn't have to rehearse with each other. Believe it or not, this may have made all the difference in the sorry attitude of the time. Still, there they all are on stage together, Fats resplendent in his vast white suit...it was a start...

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