Tuesday, July 21, 2020
Dudley Murphy | St. Louis Blues
a rock in the sea
by Douglas Messerli
Dudley Murphy (writer and director), performed by Bessie Smith St. Louis Blues / 1929
Dudley Murphy’s 1929 two-reeler is the only film in which the great blues singer, Bessie Smith appeared, a early cinema certainly worth watching for its brief 16-minute duration. In 2006 this short work was included in The National Film Registry.
How the film came about is open to question, some arguing that its composer W. C. Handy and Kenneth G. Adams created a scenario for the musical which they then submitted to RKO, an amalgam company made up of the FBO studio and the Keith-Albee-Orpheum chain of vaudeville theaters. Murphy, who worked previously for FBO, would have a natural choice for the director.
Yet Murphy himself argued in his memoir that he had acquired the rights to Handy’s work and then convinced the composer to create a special arrangement just for Smith.
In a sense it doesn’t truly matter since the work Murphy and Smith together created took film musical theater in entirely new directions from the Vitaphone originals of 1926. The early films were simply face-on sound recordings by noted performers, but here, for one of the first times—as critic Daniel Egan explains it—“Microphones were more sensitive, cameramen returned to tracking and crane shots, and editors could insert closeups and reaction shots without disturbing the soundtrack. Writers and directors became more adventurous as well.”
Basically, this film is a dramatization of Handy’s long song, centered on the blues-like heart of the work, with Smith fresh off of her 1925 hit of the same song with its famous central lyrics, “My man’s got a heart like a rock in the sea,” surrounded by the passages in the habanera rhythm—providing it with what Jelly Roll Morton described as a “Spanish tinge.”
The tango-like rhythm is played in the introduction and the bridge in which, after being double-timed by her boyfriend (dancer Jimmy Mordecai) as he has ruthlessly taken up with another woman (Isabel Washington), while Smith, suffering for her boyfriend’s sleights makes her way to the local bar, where she stands drinking a beer where the patrons, performed by the Hall Johnson Choir, James P. Johnson at piano, and Thomas Morris and Joe Smith on cornet.
After repeating the lyrics at the heart of the song, the choristers sing and dance up a storm before Jimmy the Pimp arrives, seemingly to apologize to Smith for his bad behavior, romancing her with a slow dance which gives him the opportunity to grab her garter and steel her money before turning to the patrons and grandly tapping out a dance as he parades off.
Whether Handy’s work is a traditional blues song or not— T-Bone Walker commented about the piece, "You can't dress up the blues... I'm not saying that 'Saint Louis Blues' isn't fine music you understand. But it just isn't blues"—its combination of jagged syncopation and spiritual-derived songs made it the perfect song for Ethel Waters, the first woman to sing it in public; Waters, in turn, declared she learned the song from Charles Anderson, a popular female impersonator, who performed the song as early as 1914, the year Handy issued it.
Yet, as she did with many a song, Bessie Smith made it all her own, breaking off the ends of syllables as if her heart were battling with the alcohol she was drinking to drown the lyrics somewhere down in her deep sea of a stomach.
Director Murphy quickly became known in his career for his high experimentation, first directing The Soul of the Cypress (1921), about the Orpheus myth before turning to Danse Macabre (1922), featuring Adolph Bolm, Olin Howland, and Ruth Page. Also, before St. Louis Blues, he paired with the French artist Fernand Léger for Ballet mécanique (1924), and later directed Black and Tan (1929, with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra), and Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1933, starring Paul Robeson), another National Film Registry choice.
At the end of his life, from 1940 through the 1960s, Murphy owned and ran the Malibu hotel, Holiday House, designed by the great architect Richard Neutra.
Los Angeles, July 21, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2020).