Hot Nocturne

Most Hollywood films about musicians that were made during the studio era were usually biopics and focused on individual artists such as George Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue, 1945) and Glenn Miller (The Glenn Miller Story, 1954). It was rare to see a feature film that detailed the ups and downs of an entire band and, in the case of 1941’s Blues in the Night, the featured jazz sextet was entirely fictitious. Originally titled Hot Nocturne, the name was changed just prior to its theatrical release to capitalize on the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer hit song that became its signature tune.

Band members from left to right – Jack Carson, Elia Kazen, Peter Whitney, Richard Whorf, Priscilla Lane and Billy Halop arrive at their new gig, a roadhouse dive called The Jungle in 1941’s Blues in the Night.

Directed by Anatole Litvak, the movie follows the formation of a band led by pianist Jigger Pine (Richard Whorf) which features trumpeter Leo Powell (Jack Carson), his wife, a singer nicknamed Character (Priscilla Lane), Peppi, a drummer (Billy Halop), bass player Pete Bossett (Peter Whitney) and clarinetist Nickie Haroyen (Elia Kazan). None of the actors in the band were real musicians with the exception of Priscilla Lane, who first earned early fame as part of a singing duo with her sister Rosemary in orchestra leader Fred Warning’s band.

Character (Priscilla Lane) sings a tune while bass player Pete (Peter Whitney) jams away in the background in Blues in the Night (1941).

On the surface, Blues in the Night is about a gifted group of itinerant musicians trying to make a living amid an endless series of one-night stands on the road. They don’t even have a car; they mostly travel by hitch-hiking or hopping freight trains. Just when it seems like they are on the verge of success, frictions within the group threaten to derail everything and the movie zigzags back and forth between high-spirited exuberance and total despair.

Among the films released by Warner Brothers in 1941, Blues in the Night is a bit of an anomaly. It has the look and feel of a typical Warner Bros. grade B feature but the talent involved behind the camera is A-plus calibre all the way. Litvak had already directed the lavish historical romance All This, and Heaven Too (1940), a Best Picture Oscar nominee, and other Warner Bros. star vehicles like The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (Edward G. Robinson) and Castle on the Hudson (John Garfield). The screenplay by Robert Rossen was adapted from an unproduced play by Edwin Gilbert and Elia Kazan. Rossen was still penning scripts at this stage of his career but would soon become an acclaimed writer/director with All the King’s Men in 1949. Kazan was also about to break out as a director with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) but was still struggling to make it as an actor.

Screenwriter/director Robert Rossen at his desk

The other standout talents behind the camera are cinematographer Ernest Haller, who garnered seven Oscar nominations during his career (he won for Gone with the Wind with fellow cameraman Ray Rennahan), composer/arranger Heinz Roemheld of Yankee Doodle Dandy fame and future director Don Siegel, who created the many cinematic montages within the film just as he would for Casablanca the following year.

A publicity still from the 1941 Warner Bros. musical drama Blues in the Night, directed by Anatole Litvak.

The peculiar thing about Blues in the Night is that it defies easy categorization and is actually a pastiche of several movie genres. It’s a musical; the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer score is particularly memorable for the haunting title song, “This Time the Dream’s on Me, “Hang on to Your Lids, Kids,” and the novelty number, “Says Who? Says You, Says I,” plus Jimmie Lunceford and his Band appear in one sequence and Will Osborne and his orchestra pop up in another billed as Guy Heiser’s Band.

An atmospheric vignette featuring Jimmie Lanceford and His Band is a musical highlight in Blues in the Night (1941).

At other times, Blues in the Night is a melodrama. The various band members with their distinctly different temperaments clash from time to time, which is to be expected when you have a manic-depressive bandleader like Jigger paired with brash egotist Leo or the overzealous road manager Nickie.

Richard Whorf plays Jigger, a moody songwriter/pianist who is the semi-tragic romantic hero of Blues in the Night (1941).

The film is also a film noir. In a key plot twist, an escaped convict named Del (Lloyd Nolan) arranges for the band to play at The Jungle, a roadhouse run by his sleazy associate Sam Paryas (Howard Da Silva). Sam’s employees include the downtrodden Brad (Wallace Ford) and his scheming tramp of a wife Kay (Betty Field), who has a tormented relationship with Del. Kay soon sets her sights on Jigger and her poisonous machinations threaten to break up the band and destroy Jigger’s life and career.

Blues in the Night (1941) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Richard Whorf, Betty Field

The fact that Blues in the Night had been conceived as a play makes sense because the film has a classic three act structure but it also has so many characters and plot twists to juggle that it feels closer to a TV mini-series compressed into a breathlessly paced 88-minute feature. Litvak manages to dispense with detailed character arcs and storyline threads, opting instead for montage sequences to depict the passage of time or using brief expositional dialogue to address a subplot. For example, Character gets pregnant and is temporarily replaced by Kay as the group singer. Only later do we learn from a band member’s offhand comment that Character’s baby, named after Jigger, has died.

Jack Carson plays Leo Powell, an egocentric trumpet player with a roving eye for the ladies, even though he is married in Blues in the Night (1941).

Viewers expecting fully fleshed out characterizations and some degree of authenticity within the jazz music world milieu will be disappointed. Instead, Litvak abandons any sense of realism for a streamlined form of stylization which transforms Blues in the Night into a black and white comic book of extreme highs and lows. One thing you’ll notice right away is how most of the cast is directed to deliver their lines in the rapid, rat-a-tat rhythm Howard Hawks had perfected in the screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940).

The boys in the band wind up in jail after a nightclub brawl in Blues in the Night (1941) starring (left to right) Elia Kazan, Richard Whorf, Billy Halop and Peter Whitney.

The only problem is that His Girl Friday featured the brilliant comic dialogue of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (from their play The Front Page) with contributions from screenwriter Charles Lederer while the script of Blues in the Night sounds more like a parody of second rate pulp fiction novels with lines like “I’d slap you in the mouth if I thought it would do any good” or “Comes night, you start to thinkin’ and the miseries get ya.” The dialogue comes thick and fast like a blizzard of spitballs and becomes almost hypnotic with its relentless rhythm.

A publicity still from Blues in the Night (1941), a genre film from Warner Bros. that is part musical, part melodrama and part noir.

Initially the Warner Bros. production was planned for James Cagney, then Dennis Morgan and finally John Garfield, who would have been perfect in the role of Jigger. In the end it was Richard Whorf who won the role. His acting career was relatively brief – he specialized in light entertainments like Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) and Champagne for Caesar (1950) – and he was better known as a director, especially in television where he picked up some Emmy nominations for sitcoms like The Beverly Hillbillies.

Betty Field plays Kay, a deadly femme fatale who creates problems for everyone in the 1941 musical drama, Blues in the Night (1941).

Much more compelling than Whorf are the other cast members including Betty Field as a poisonous harpy who makes Ann Savage’s Vera, the terrifying hitchhiker of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) look almost appealing. But the real wild card in the deck is Elia Kazan in his final stab at an acting career. His aspiring law student/band manager Nickie comes on like an amphetamine hophead, ready to jump out of his own skin. It’s an overly frenetic performance compared to his work on his previous film City for Conquest (1940), which was directed by Anatole Litvak and attracted favorable reviews from some critics for Kazan’s more realistic portrayal of an ex-con racketeer.  

Elia Kazan (second from left) and James Cagney (center) are featured in the 1940 melodrama, City for Conquest, directed by Anatole Litvak.

If nothing else City for Conquest convinced Kazan of his future career path as stated in A Life, his autobiography: “I sure as hell can direct better than Anatole Litvak.” Kazan’s confident attitude was confirmed by working with Litvak yet again on Blues in the Night: “Warners had bought a play I’d owned for a while, then given up on. It was about a jazz band and the conflicts among its members. I hadn’t been able to get up the money for a production, so the author and I decided to sell it. Litvak, who knew nothing about this kind of music, was going to direct it. I suppose he was looking for another “real American” subject to shake off the label “European director.” He’d offered me the part of the clarinet player, but I hadn’t been anxious to work with him again, so had delayed my response.” He eventually took the role but would later make disparaging remarks about the film.

A typical noir-like shot from the 1941 musical melodrama Blues in the Night.

When Blues in the Night premiered in 1941, The New York Times reviewer wrote, “Anatole Litvak has directed the musical sequences, which happily are many, in showmanly fashion, employing montage shots most effectively to maintain fast tempi. But when he gets into the story of the ups and downs of his vagabond musical quintet, Mr. Litvak loses control. However, there probably wasn’t much he could do anyway with the melodramatic material the script writers asked him to juggle about for an hour and a half.”

Baritone singer William Gillespie introduces the title song from his jail cell in Blues in the Night (1941).

Regardless of the film’s uneven qualities, Blues in the Night is well worth seeing for numerous reasons, especially for the music sequences. For one thing, the title song is considered a landmark of sorts in American pop music for the way it fused Southern regional dialects with New Orleans style jazz. The song is first heard in the film being sung by a black prisoner in jail (baritone singer William Gillespie) and later in brief renditions by Priscilla Lane and Betty Field. Just about every famous American singer/musician you can think of has performed the song at some point in their career: Cab Calloway, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Artie Shaw, Doris Day, Bobby Bland, Tony Bennett, etc.

A scene from the 1941 Warner Bros. musical melodrama Blues in the Night 91941) starring Priscilla Lane and Jack Carson (both at center).

It is no surprise Blues in the Night was Oscar nominated for Best Song but it had plenty of stiff competition that year. Among the other entries were “Chattanooga Cho Choo” from Sun Valley Serenade, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” from Buck Privates, “Baby Mine” from Dumbo and “The Last Time I Saw Paris” from Lady Be Good, which won the Academy Award for Best Song.

Jimmie Lunceford (center) and his dance band are featured in 1941’s Blues in the Night.

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Other musical highlights from Blues in the Night includes a tasty vignette showcasing Jimmy Lunceford and his Band with a trombonist solo by Trummy Young. Jack Carson’s trumpet playing is ghosted by Snooky Young, also a member of Jimmy Lunceford’s outfit, and Richard Whorf’s piano playing is dubbed by the great Stan Wrightsman, who toured with Artie Shaw and other bands. Wrightsman can also be heard in musical segments in other films such as Young Man with a Horn and Picnic.

Mabel Todd performs a novelty number with Will Osborne’s Orchestra in Blues in the Night (1941).

Blues in the Night also provides a rare glimpse of comedic singer Mabel Todd performing “Says Who? Says You, Says I” with Will Osborne’s Orchestra in a goofball style reminiscent of Martha Raye’s broad vaudeville routines.

The stunning black and white cinematography of Blues in the Night (1941) is by Ernest Haller.

A special mention has to be made of Ernest Haller’s moody black and white cinematography which makes Blues in the Night look more like a noir than a musical drama. The most astonishing sequence is a sanatorium freak-out by Jigger as he experiences the effects of alcohol detox. Shot from tilted angles and unusual camera placements, Jigger’s hallucinations reveal surrealistic wonders like Betty Field’s Kay appearing as every musician in a vast orchestra, piano keys that turn into gooey dough in Jigger’s hands, and finally Jigger scampering around as an organ grinder’s monkey!

Jigger’s delirious nightmare features his band buddies as taunting accusers in Blues in the Night (1941).

Blues in the Night was released by the Warner Archive on DVD in July 2008 and the disc is accompanied by several extra features that make it a must-own for classic film buffs. The Oscar-winning short Jammin’ the Blues featuring Lester Young, Jo Jones, George “Red” Calllender, Illinois Jacquet and others is here and so is Melody Master: Jimmie Lunceford and his Dance Orchestra, a 1936 short with the Three Brown Jacks and vocalist Myra Johnson performing tunes like “Jazznocracy.”

Lester Young is featured in the Oscar winning short subject Jammin’ the Blues (1944).

The other supplements include three Porky the Pig cartoons – Kitty Cornered (1946) co-starring Sylvester the Cat, My Favorite Duck (1942) with guest star Daffy Duck and Swooner Crooner (1944), directed by Frank Tashlin – all featuring comic connections to Blues in the Night. There is also an audio outtake from the film.

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