Thursday, September 20, 2007

St. Louis Blues - Handy's Haunting Tune

As noted in the essay on “King Kong” (1933) this week, Robert Armstrong has a scene where he briefly whistles a bit of “St. Louis Blues.” This is a follow-up perhaps to his remark, “Blondes are scarce around here,” when it is noticed that the natives are fascinated by Fay Wray. The song’s lyric, “If it wasn’t for powder and her store-bought hair, that man of mine wouldn’t go nowhere,” is possibly the cue for his cavalier whistling of this blues song. Kong is clearly taken by Wray, more than she is “taken” by him.

The song “St. Louis Blues” with its famous first line, “I hate to see evening sun go down,” has been featured in a number of films, most effectively in “Ladies They Talk About” (1933) where it is played against the opening credits and at the end, and sung by Etta Moten in the prison sequence to evoke hard-bitten women of loose morals and rough lives.

Possibly first featured in a 1929 short called “St. Louis Blues,” the song is sung and dramatized by legendry blues singer Bessie Smith, reportedly chosen by its composer W.C. Handy for the job. It features an all-African American cast, and bit of it can be seen here. Miss Smith’s rendition is raw, tortured, and though the rest of the cast in the café sing with her, they do not notice her pain. Only at the end we see the anguished expression of the bartender.

The song was also featured in the other films called “St. Louis Blues” made in 1939 and in 1958, both with unrelated stories. The last was a biography of Handy starring Nat “King” Cole and Pearl Bailey.

The tune is haunting, rhythmic, captures a time and a mood, and it’s interesting to see how many times and in how many ways it has been used in film. Can you think of any others?

Tomorrow, a special reprise of a blog entry on director William Wyler for the “Wyler-thon” going on at the GoatdogBlog site from the 21st through the 23rd. Stop by this site for other blogs on William Wyler’s films.

And, we’ll see you Monday. Have a great weekend.

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