Review: The Birth of the Blues (1941)

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The Birth of the Blues should perhaps be called The Birth of Jazz, or perhaps even more appropriately, The Birth of Jazz According to Hollywood.  If you want to know just why this film from 1941 is problematic in 2019, just check out the last sixty seconds, where the audience is informed that Louis Armstrong learned jazz from an all-white, middle-class jazz band.  Armstrong appears (for two seconds, literally) in a montage of the great jazz musicians of the age, of which only he and Duke Ellington are African American.  The really great jazz musicians of the early 1940s were apparently Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Paul Whiteman, and George Gershwin.

The films charts the rise to fame of a group of jazz musicians headed by Bing Crosby.  It is a loose re-telling of the story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose claim to fame were that they were the first group to record jazz, back in 1917.  This claim to fame is pretty much glossed over in the film, which seems a little odd considering it should perhaps be the climax of it.  Instead, the film concentrates on how the group popularised jazz in New Orleans polite society and how they worked to take their new music to the rest of America.

It’s hard to know whether to be completely offended by the whole endeavour, or to allow yourself to be charmed by the effortless performances by Bing Crosby and Mary Martin.  But for every good performance, the film presents us with a racial stereotype or a rewriting of history.  Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, but this movie seems to be more problematic than most from the period, if only due to its endless endeavour to whitewash history.  There are the occasional moments when the film tells us that African Americans might just have had something to do with the beginnings of jazz – in the rather cute prologue (see below) and where Eddie “Rochester” Anderson teaches Mary Martin how to jazz up a Tin Pan Alley number – but they are few and far between.

Musically speaking, many of the songs are Tin Pan Alley numbers rather that jazz as such, but Bing Crosby and Mary Martin sing beautifully and work very well together on screen.  However, the best number in the film is a wonderfully staged and arranged St. Louis Blues, sung by Ruby Elzy and a chorus. Unfortunately the sequence from the film is not on YouTube, but a performance from a radio appearance from the time is, although it is not as good:

The current DVD of the film runs around eight minutes shorter than the given run time on the internet, and so it may be possible that it is slightly edited for whatever reason.  Picture and sound are very good.  The film was released in the UK on DVD as a double bill with Blue Skies.