Thursday, December 10, 2015

Black and Tan

US 1929. PC: RKO Radio Pictures. D+SC: Dudley Murphy. DP: Dal Clawson - 1,2:1 - b&w. AD: Ernst Fegté. ED: Russell G. Shields. M: Duke Ellington: "Black and Tan Fantasy", "Black Beauty", "The Duke Steps Out", "Cotton Club Stomp"; Jimmy McHugh: "Hot Feet", perf. Duke Ellington and the Duke Ellington  Orchestra / The Cotton Club Orchestra. S: Carl Dreher - mono (RCA Photophone System). P supv: Richard C. Currier. By arrangement with: Irving Mills. Studio: RCA Gramercy Studios, Astoria, Queens, New York City. Feat: Duke Ellington, The Cotton Club Orchestra, Fredi Washington.
    Duke Ellington (piano, band leader) and The Cotton Club Orchestra at the strength of 12 players including Barney Bigard (clarinet), Wellman Braud (bass), Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton (trombone), Arthur Whetsol (trumpet), Hall Johnson (choir leader).
    A KAVI first generation 35 mm print (a 1952 print from the nitrate) - 520 m / 19 min
    Viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (History of the Cinema: early sound, Jazz Age, African-American / Harlem Renaissance), 10 Dec 2015

Duke Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy" is a funeral march.

Upon that basis Dudley Murphy created his legendary musical short film giving both Duke Ellington and Fredi Washington their screen debuts.

Duke Ellington pounds the march rhythm on his piano. Arthur Whetsol (tbc) starts to play the theme tune on his trumpet, creating his personal sound con sordino. We have here fantastic visual documentation from the birth years of the unique, mesmerizing jungle sound of Ellington's Cotton Club Orchestra.

Comedy intrudes: two bumbling repossession men come to take away Duke's piano, but Duke's girlfriend Fredi Washington manages the situation with a bank note and some strong drink: "there was no one at home". Fredi has landed them all a gig at a night club. Duke is concerned for Fredi's weak heart.

We see a fantastic succession of music and dance numbers at the night club: "Black Beauty", "The Duke Steps Out", "Cotton Club Stomp", and "Hot Feet".

Meanwhile, Fredi is getting weaker. She sees everything in a prismatic view, in caleidoscopic shots. Woman is an object of spectacle here but even more importantly a subject (she saved them all) and an object of identification and empathy. We feel her pain and agony. Fredi dances her jazz age number, and collapses, experiencing a heart attack. For a while Duke keeps playing as the show must go on but then he orders his band to stop.

The finale is at Fredi's deathbed. As Fredi is dying she asks the band to play "Black and Tan Fantasy". Duke starts to pound the march rhythm, Arthur Whetsol (tbc) plays his magical trumpet solo, there is a choir singing the melody, and Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton (tbc) creates a trombone solo.

This is a special interpretation of the "Black and Tan Fantasy" composition created for this film. As Fredi dies Duke's face gets blurred and fades away.

When my mother died last spring, "Black and Tan Fantasy" was one of the main tunes playing in my mind. It is a funeral march with a sense of a passion of life.

Dudley Murphy combines footage of a straight performance record and ideas of special visualization (including shadows and silhouettes) very well.

A good, often brilliant print.

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