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Sweet and Low-Down

Sweet and Low-Down(1944)

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teaser Sweet and Low-Down (1944)

Twentieth Century-Fox had box-office hits with Glenn Miller and his Orchestra in the films Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942) and wanted to continue capitalizing on the popularity of the Big Bands. However, 1944 was not 1941. Miller and his band were in the Army Air Force, entertaining the military and making propaganda broadcasts from Europe. Glenn Miller would disappear during a flight over the English Channel in December 1944. With Miller in Europe, Fox turned to one of his biggest rivals, Benny Goodman and his Orchestra to star, in the film Sweet and Low-Down (1944).

The film was a fictionalized version of life with Goodman, his band, and their manager while entertaining at military camps. When a kid steals Goodman's clarinet, the chase ends up in a poor neighborhood, where they hear the thief's brother, Johnny (James Cardwell), playing the trombone. Since it's a Hollywood movie, Benny offers Johnny a job with the band. Throughout the course of the film, Cardwell provides the romantic interest with one of Fox's biggest leading ladies, Linda Darnell, who plays a socialite. Veteran comedian Jack Oakie (playing a fictionalized version of Goodman's real-life manager, William "Popsie" Randolph) provides the laughs and Benny Goodman provides the music, such as I'm Making Believe, written by James V. Monaco and Mack Gordon. The song would be a hit for Ella Fitzgerald and nominated for an Oscar®.

Lynn Bari seems to have been typecast by Fox as a big band singer, playing the role in Sun Valley Serenade and Archie Mayo's Orchestra Wives. Ironically, her voice had been dubbed in those films by Pat Friday and once again, she was dubbed, this time by Lorraine Elliot in Sweet and Low-Down. Bari wasn't the only one dubbed in the film; James Cardwell's trombone playing was ghosted by Bill Harris. Also in the cast is Dickie Moore, best known as one of The Little Rascals, who was now a teenager and had appeared in several Fox films in the 1940s, such as Heaven Can Wait (1943). The singing group The Pied Pipers and the great jazz pianist Jess Stacy also appear, but without screen credit.

Directed by Archie Mayo with a screenplay by Richard English (based on a story by English and Edward Haldeman) and with an uncredited screenwriting contribution by Benny Goodman himself, Sweet and Low-Down went into production on the Fox lot on January 24, 1944 and was finished a scant two months later. During filming, cinematographer Lucien Ballard had to skip work for a day to make a doctor's appointment and Darnell's real-life husband, Peverell Marley, photographed her kissing scene with James Cardwell.

This was not the first time that Benny Goodman and Jack Oakie had worked together. Oakie had a radio show in the mid-1930s called The Oakie College (a.k.a. The Camel Caravan) and Goodman was the house band. The program also featured a 12-year-old singer named Judy Garland.

Sweet and Low-Down was simply an excuse to bring the big band fans into the cinema to hear Goodman, and the critics knew it. Bosley Crowther, writing for The New York Times, saw that Fox was recycling the old formula. "You might not expect a deathless drama about a trombone player in Benny Goodman's band--nor even a fictional fable of outstanding motion-picture class. But certainly you should be permitted to expect something fresher on this theme than the weak and weary romance developed in Sweet and Low-Down [...]However, such is the routine which you are requested to take in this plainly machine-made picture, produced by Twentieth Century-Fox. In addition, you are suffered to bear with the wooden acting of James Cardwell as the Cinderella-styled trombonist and the mugging of Jack Oakie as his pal. Lynn Bari and Linda Darnell are decorative as the girls, and Mr. Goodman and his orchestra do make smooth music now and then. But the manner of Mr. Goodman, when not playing, rather plainly indicates that he knows this is all a boring fiction and not worthy of the talents of his band."

Linda Darnell certainly thought the film was a waste of her talents. The studio persisted in putting her into "sweet young thing" roles when she was yearning to show off her dramatic ability. The Los Angeles Examiner noticed, with columnist Dorothy Manners writing, "Lynn [Bari] comes off best because she has more of a chance to shine. Linda just doesn't have enough to do - although she looks beautiful doing it."

Producer: William Le Baron
Director: Archie Mayo
Screenplay: Richard English (screenplay); Richard English, Edward Haldeman (story); Benny Goodman (contributor to story, uncredited)
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Direction: Maurice Ransford, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge (uncredited)
Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Cast: Benny Goodman and His Band (Themselves), Linda Darnell (Trudy Wilson), Jack Oakie (Popsy), Lynn Bari (Pat Stirling), James Cardwell (Johnny Birch), Allyn Joslyn (Lester Barnes), John Campbell (Dixie Zang), Roy Benson (Skeets McCormick), Dickie Moore (Military Cadet General 'Mogie' Cramichael).

by Lorraine LoBianco

Crowther, Bosley "Sweet and Lowdown: Tromboner" The New York Times 19 Oct 44
Davis, Ronald L. Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream
The Internet Movie Database
Randolph, Michael Popular Music Through the Camera Lens of William "Popsie" Randolph

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