powered by AFI
W.C. Handy has been called "The Father of the Blues", although he modestly said that he merely transcribed the music and made it available to a wide audience. Nevertheless, his music defined the blues, the best known being "St. Louis Blues", which was used as the title of the film biography Paramount Studios made of his life in 1958. The cast of St. Louis Blues reads like a list of some of the best African-American talent of the mid 20th Century: Nat King Cole, Eartha Kitt, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, Ruby Dee, Juano Hernandez, and Pearl Bailey. There is also a future star in the cast: the young boy who plays W.C. Handy as a child would grow up to make a name for himself ten years later when he played with The Beatles: Billy Preston.
Starring as W.C. Handy was the great Nat King Cole, whose velvet voice and piano prowess had taken him to the top of the musical charts for two decades. Not a natural actor and being a shy man in his private life, Cole worked hard to create a credible portrayal, but it must have been difficult for him to concentrate on his role. At the time that St. Louis Blues was in production (October 7th to November 1st, 1957) Cole was under a lot of pressure doing his fair share of multi-tasking: nightclub singer, film actor, and star of his own television show which had been very popular with viewers, but was in danger of being pulled by the network because they could not find a sponsor. Ad agencies at the time were not enthusiastic about programs starring African-Americans, or as Cole famously declared, "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."
Cole wasn't the only cast member who was doing double-duty during filming. Pearl Bailey remembered in her autobiography, "I played Nat's auntie, and we often laughed about that. I was working at the Flamingo Hotel in Vegas for Mr. Parvin and for three weeks I commuted. I'd do the show, leave in a car at 1:30 am, arrive at the studio in time to dress at 8 a.m., finish at 3 p.m., catch a plane (which most of the time was late), arrive in Vegas to bathe and get ready for two shows at eight-thirty and midnight. This went on for the entire picture."
Despite his personal problems, St. Louis Blues was a work of love for Nat King Cole. After Paramount had offered him the role, he drove to Yonkers, N.Y. for W.C. Handy's 83rd birthday party and spoke with him about making the film. Handy approved of the casting; at a dinner given in his honor in November 1957, he called Cole's portrayal of him, "forever a monument to my race." Ironically, St. Louis Blues had its world premiere in St. Louis (as a fundraiser for needy children) on April 10, 1958, only days after Handy's death on March 28th at the age of 84. To coincide with the premiere, April 10th was declared "Handy Day" by the mayor and featured a day-long celebration.
The film was a disappointment at the box office. Critics particularly singled out Cole's performance as "thin and anemic and much too suave and courteous, Cole seemed out of place and it was apparent that he lacked the strength and range to carry the picture." Regardless of what the critics may have thought, St. Louis Blues is well worth watching for the pleasure of seeing such superb musicians as Cole, Fitzgerald, Kitt, Bailey, Jackson, and Preston in their prime.
Producer: Robert Smith
Director: Allen Reisner
Screenplay: Ted Sherdeman, Robert Smith
Cinematography: Haskell B. Boggs
Film Editing: Eda Warren
Art Direction: Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira
Music: Martha Koenig, Nelson Riddle, Spencer Williams
Cast: Nat King Cole (W.C. Handy), Eartha Kitt (Gogo Germaine), Cab Calloway (Blade), Ella Fitzgerald (Singer), Mahalia Jackson (Bessie May), Ruby Dee (Elizabeth).
by Lorraine LoBianco