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Birth of the Blues

Birth of the Blues(1941)

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The following written prologue appears in the onscreen credits of the film: "Dedicated to the musical pioneers of Memphis and New Orleans who favored the 'hot' over the 'sweet'-those early jazz men who took American music out of the rut and put it 'in the groove'." A photographic montage closing the film features Ted Lewis, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch review mistakenly stated that W. C. Handy appears in the montage. A scene from Paramount's 1925 release The Golden Princess, starring Betty Bronson and Neil Hamilton, is featured in this film (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.2171). According to information in Life magazine, the film is loosely based on the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, "one of the first white bands to play in respectable quarters," and the band that young "Jeff" encounters as a boy is loosely based on the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band, a black group that played along Basin Street in New Orleans. Director Victor Schertzinger died approximately two weeks before the film was released, on 26 October 1941.
       The following information derives from the Paramount Collection at the AMPAS Library: The film finished four days ahead of schedule and came in $15,000 under budget at a final cost of $857,283; Douglas Gardner and Harry Harvey, Jr. tested for the part of "Jeff" as a young boy. The contractual agreement attached to the main title billing shows that Paramount had the right to bill actor Eddie Anderson as "Rochester," the name of the character for which he was renowned, but could not address him as such in the film. This film marked trombonist Jack Teagarden's feature film debut. Bassist Harry Barris previously played with Bing Crosby in his Rhythm Boys group. Hollywood Reporter news items indicate that Constance Moore, Lillian Cornell and Virginia Dale were teamed to star in the film; Eddie Bracken was initially signed for a comedy role; Ben Holmes was signed to work on the script; Mark Sandrich was originally enlisted to produce and direct; and Monta Bell took over producing when producer A. M. Botsford left Paramount studios.
       The MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library reveal the following information: The initial plot synopsis, dated March 21, 1941, includes the death of the character "Louey," who is killed by a gunshot wound. (In the film he survives a blow to the head). One day later, PCA director Joseph I. Breen reported to Paramount, "While the basic story is satisfactory...the present script cannot be approved for the reason that it contains many unacceptable scenes of the 'red light district' of New Orleans, prostitutes, unacceptable dialogue and the business of two murderers escaping all punishment." Paramount subsequently submitted a revised script and Breen added some other suggestions regarding specific scenes in the script: "We regard it as unnecessary for the proper telling of this story that the colored man, who is thrown out of the saloon, be shown drunk. This...should be omitted"; "Care must be exercised as to the costuming and the dancing of these Negroes if the scenes are to be approved by us"; "It is very questionable as to how the people of the South will react to these scenes showing a white boy playing with the Negro band"; "Any suggestion that the colored girl is acting 'flirtatiously' toward Jeff, a white man, should be avoided. Her speech 'Anything in Memphis that Chattanooga ain't got?' must be read without sexual suggestiveness." Some later suggestions as the script was developed are as follows: "Phoebe's use of the word 'panties' May be deleted by some political censor boards." "The business of Phoebe putting panties on the dolly should be handled carefully."
       John Seitz was listed as photographer in the first Hollywood Reporter production chart listing for this film, but the extent of his contribution to the final film has not been determined. According to the press book, trumpet player "Pokey" Carriere coached Brian Donlevy for this film. A trailer advertising the film featured band leaders Freddy Martin, John Scott Trotter, Ray Noble and Bob Crosby. The Paramount press department cooked up a "feud" between the cities of Memphis and New Orleans to determine which city was the true originator of "the blues" and thus would rightfully premiere the film, resulting in a double premiere in both Memphis and New Orleans. Robert Emmett Dolan was nominated for an Academy Award for Music (Scoring of a Musical Picture) for this film.
       In 1942, a Hollywood Reporter news item reported that the British music publishing house of Campbell, Connelly and Co., Ltd., was suing Paramount over the rights to W. C. Handy's song "Memphis Blues." According to the news item, Paramount obtained rights to the song from the owners, listed as Mercer and Morris, despite the fact that Campbell, Connelly and Co. previously bought the rights. The outcome of the lawsuit has not been determined.