TERRY GROSS, host:
Our music critic Lloyd Schwartz has been spending a lot of time recently watching short musical films from the '30s and '40s. These films were once shown in theaters, along with the feature. Now 63 of them are collected in a new series of DVDs from the vaults of Warner Brothers.
(Soundbite of music)
LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Music videos are not a recent phenomenon. They have an ancestor in short musical films that actually predate feature-length sound movies.
The Vitaphone Company, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, brought synchronized sound into film in 1926 by filming some famous classical musicians, with parallel recorded soundtracks. All through the 1930s and '40s, Vitaphone continued to release musical shorts, especially with swing and jazz bands.
Like newsreels, cartoons and coming attractions, these 10 or 20-minute shorts were shown with feature films. Warner has just released a set of 63 of these, and it's a wide-ranging collection, embracing musicians as different as nerdy, all-American Ozzie Nelson, bongo-pounding Cuban matinee idol Desi Arnaz, and the hilarious Borrah Minevitch and his Harmonica Rascals.
Some of the earliest stars of these musical shorts are major black entertainers. Bandleaders Cab Calloway and Eubie Blake, singers Ethel Waters and Nina Mae McKinney, and legendary tap dancer Bill Bojangles Robinson in their thrilling prime, appear alongside such child prodigies as the Nicholas Brothers and Sammy Davis, Jr.
Yet these dazzling performers are also the objects of pervasive racial stereotyping, an amused condescension that's painful to watch. Indirectly, these films are important reminders of how casually and automatically racist this country has been. But we also have to be grateful for the invaluable documentation of such memorable performances.
In "Rufus for President," eight-year-old Sammy Davis, Jr. is attacked by bullies and comes running to his mammy, Ethel Waters. She comforts him by telling him that he could be president, maybe even more ironic today than it was in 1933, when Sammy's successful presidential campaign is only a dream.
(Soundbite of movie, "Rufus for President")
(Soundbite of boy crying)
Ms. ETHEL WATERS (Actress, singer): (as Rufus' Mother) Oh, come inside. I sure will be glad when they rid the neighborhood of such as him. Don't you worry, honey. Ole Sinbad Johnson sure is going to be sorry when he find out what a great man you is.
Mr. SAMMY DAVIS (Actor, dancer, singer): (as Rufus Jones) Is I going to be a great man, Mammy?
Ms. WATERS: (as Rufus' Mother) You sure is. You going to be president.
Mr. DAVIS: (as Rufus Jones) Me?
Ms. WATERS: (as Rufus' Mother) Sure. They has kings your age. I don't see no reason why they can't have a president. Besides, the book says anybody born here can be a president.
Mr. DAVIS: (as Rufus Jones) Ain't that something?
SCHWARTZ: Most of these shorts are pretty generic. They often start with a bandleader - Louis Prima, Woody Herman, or the lesser-known Jimmie Lunceford or Larry Clinton - introducing a number. Then there'll be a song by, say, Helen Forrest or June Christy, and some exciting dancing. Eighteen-year-old Betty Hutton is billed as America's number one jitterbug.
There might even be a wisp of plot. Rita Rio, one of the two women bandleaders in this collection, is so crazy about swing, she's threatened with being committed to a mental institution, though when her doctor learns how much money she's making, he decides that he's the crazy one.
Since the jazz is hot, some of the films actually take place in hell. On the other hand, there's the cool pianist/bandleader Eddy Duchin - Tyrone Power played him in the 1956 tearjerker "The Eddy Duchin Story" - who is famous for appearing at the Central Park Casino, an elegant nightclub. In the Duchin short, he and his band and their entire audience are on roller skates, and he accompanies a phenomenal roller-skating specialty act.
The only director to have a significant career beyond these shorts is Jean Negulesco, who went on to direct the film-noir classic "Road House," the romantic "Three Coins in the Fountain," and the Marilyn Monroe Cinemascope comedy "How to Marry a Millionaire."
But some of the other directors - especially Roy Mack and Joseph Henabery - are also remarkably inventive. Here's clarinetist Artie Shaw in Arthur Schwartz's haunting "Alone Together," which opens Henabery's hallucinatory "Symphony of Swing."
(Soundbite of song, "Alone Together")
SCHWARTZ: There's one pure jazz film, "Jammin' the Blues," from 1944. It's the only film ever directed by the famous Life magazine photographer Gjon Mili, with great sax players Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet igniting the moody jam session.
(Soundbite of music)
SCHWARTZ: You probably wouldn't choose to watch more than two or three of these films at a time, but the whole six-DVD set makes one of the most entertaining history lessons I know - history of popular music, as well as American cultural history. Now I'm waiting for Warner to release the landmark 1926 classical shorts.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix. He teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed Warner's new six-DVD collection, "Big Bands, Jazz and Swing."
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