Since we are both dedicated fans of the Big Bands of the Thirties and Forties, we take pleasure in introducing our new series of blogs about the best of the lot (and there is a lot to choose from) and how they interacted with classic movies.
We’ll kick things off next week.
In the meantime, keep in mind that in the 1930’s and 1940’s Big Band Leaders were the Rock Stars of the day. And naturally they made the transition from live performing and hit record sales on to the Big Screen.
Some actually donned speaking parts in big pictures. Others put in cameos, usually as themselves. They needed little identification among movie goers. And, often, they generated box office by simply appearing in the picture.
It’s important to realize just how much the popular music of the day intersected with its popular movies, in ways that are impossible to duplicate in the fragmented music scene of today. The output from our Big Band heroes was not confined to soundtracks. The Bands and their leaders became integral parts of pictures, in many cases the overriding reason why many movies were made in the first place.
Before we get to our specific Big Band heroes, we pause to introduce a movie from Mickey Rooney to demonstrate just how much pop music informed mass movie entertainment. Which Rooney movie can we be talking about?
Try 1951’s The Strip, an MGM programmer with film noir ambitions that has the Mick as a musician (a drummer, as he was in 1940’s Strike Up The Band) who gets mixed up with racketeers involved in the niteries along the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. As one critic put it, he portrays a sincere little guy who is victimized by life.
But what does this have to do with our main topic — how Big Bands and popular music and musical figures dominated many classic and not-so-classic pictures (such as The Strip)? The answer is that we suggest you forget the ridiculous script of this movie, and enjoy its sheer, utter musicality.
The Mick is joined in the cast by winsome Sally Forrest, who performs athletic dance routines; singers Vic Damone and Monica Lewis; and William Demarest as the philosophical night club owner who hires the picture’s principal feature attraction — Louis Armstrong.
Trumpeter Armstrong wasn’t precisely a big band leader, but besides being a towering jazz figure on his instrument he was a popular figure in Hollywood. Before he died in 1971, he racked up nearly 35 movies credits — as actor-cum-musician. He is heard via nearly 300 soundtrack credits.
In The Strip, he genially plays himself leading a small band of superb musicians — Barney Bigard on clarinet, Earl “Fatha” Hines on piano and Jack Teagarden on trombone.The Mick’s acting overall is godawful in this picture, but he makes a credible stab at appearing to keeping up with the group on the drums.
The movie’s central contribution to American pop music history is its introduction via repeated onscreen renditions of A Kiss To Build A Dream On, a charming classic tune coauthored by Bert Kalmer, Harry Ruby and the redoubtable Oscar Hammerstein II. The tune was nominated for a best original song Oscar, but lost out at the Academy Awards ceremony to Here Comes The Groom by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer.
Although the The Strip is conceptually a mess of a picture, it emerges a highly entertaining faux noir — solely because it is so musical.