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Blues in the Night

Blues in the Night(1941)

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teaser Blues in the Night (1941)

Among the films released by Warner Brothers in 1941, Blues in the Night was a bit of an anomaly. The story of some gifted itinerant jazz musicians and a female vocalist (Priscilla Lane) searching for their big break amidst an endless series of one-night stands, the movie is actually a pastiche of several movie genres. It's a musical; the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer score includes "This Time the Dream's on Me" and the haunting title song plus Jimmy Lunceford and his Band appear in one sequence. It's a drama; the various band members, all displaying different temperaments from the manic-depressive bandleader (Jack Carson) to the free spirited clarinettist (Elia Kazan), often clash while touring on the road. It's a film noir; an escaped convict joins the band and his relationship with femme fatale Kay Grant (Betty Field) spells doom for the group, paving the way for a tragic climax. Most importantly, however, Blues in the Night is unique for featuring two future directors in supporting roles. Elia Kazan, cast as the clarinet player Nicky, would, of course, go on to direct acclaimed films like A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and East of Eden (1955). Richard Whorf (in the role of Jigger), on the other hand, specialized in light entertainments like Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) and Champagne for Caesar (1950).

For Kazan, Blues in the Night would prove to be his final film as an actor. He had previously played the heavy in a James Cagney drama, City for Conquest (1940), directed by Anatole Litvak, and although he received good notices for his performance, his career soon took a different path. In his autobiography, A Life, Kazan recalled that "when City for Conquest opened, the review that generally passed as the industry's judgment on the movie and the people who'd made it appeared in the Hollywood Reporter. Arthur Kennedy and I, as newcomers, were praised, but a distinction was drawn. After predicting a great future for Arthur, the Reporter's critic had written: 'However, Elia Kazan, having equally as much ability, because of his looks will present a casting problem.' I had a different final judgment; it was: "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. The house in the country decided me. The job would bring us the money we needed, and it would give me a chance, alone in California, to clear my head."

Kazan would live to regret his decision for in his autobiography, he later wrote, "Acting," an old critic said, "is a lamp placed in the soul of man so we can see who we are and who we wish we are." Not that summer, not on the Litvak set. When Blues in the Night comes on the late-late show, I advise you to skip it....I decided that summer that I'd never act again. And I never did." Yet despite, Kazan's harsh opinion of the film, Blues in the Night is a consistently fascinating melodrama with a schizophrenic personality; it's jarring combination of soap opera and musical numbers is enhanced by occasional sharp dialogue by screenwriter Robert Rossen and moody black and white cinematography by the great Ernest Haller (an Oscar winner for Gone With the Wind, 1939). Then there's that unforgettable title song which was nominated for an Oscar and proved to be so successful that the film's title was changed from Hot Nocturne to Blues in the Night just prior to its theatrical release.

Producer: Henry Blanke
Director: Anatole Litvak
Screenplay: Edwin Gilbert, Robert Rossen
Art Direction: Max Parker
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Editing: Owen Marks
Music: Heinz Roemheld, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer
Cast: Priscilla Lane (Ginger Powell), Betty Field (Kay Grant), Richard Whorf (Jigger Pine), Lloyd Nolan (Del Davis), Jack Carson (Leo Powell), Wallace Ford (Brad Ames), Elia Kazan (Nickie Haroyan.
BW-88m.Closed captioning.

by Jeff Stafford

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