Ambitious little musical drama from RKO follows ‘pop’ music’s evolution from the largely black pre-Jazz groups of New Orleans in the early 1900s to Chicago’s all-white Swing Bands of the ‘30s. Paramount had just covered similar terrain with Bing Crosby in BIRTH OF THE BLUES/’41, but visually, this is the far more imaginative work, with director William Dieterle finding striking dramatic compositions for the musical numbers and touches of magic when he pulls the melodic rug out to spotlight the pure rhythmic hush of shuffling footwork on the dance floor. If only the story elements & construction weren’t so idiotic. Adolphe Menjou comes & goes as an architect who leaves New Orleans with daughter Bonita Granville to find success in Chicago. Granville gravitates to a couple of boys, one dies in WWI while the other, cornet playing Jackie Cooper, picks up on the jazz accents she’s brought from the South. By the finale, the black musicians only remain in the picture as ghostly influences. You really get the feeling that everyone was trying for something special, something out of the ordinary, which only makes the commonplace results that much more disappointing. (It also feels like 40 minutes of story material & character development was left on the cutting-room floor.) Harry James, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and many famous others take a bow in brief cameo appearances, and you do get to see Todd Duncan, the original Porgy from Gershwin’s PORGY AND BESS, as a horn playing mentor in a rare film outing. But don’t get your hopes up, he doesn’t sing a note.
DOUBLE-BILL: Your second feature is right on the same Cohen Media DVD: a fistful of shorts featuring Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington & Cab Callaway, all in their prime.