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Kino on Video presents
The Best of Jazz & Blues, Volume 1: Hollywood Rhythm (1929-1941)

- Cab Calloway

Review By: Dale Dobson   
Published: January 10, 2001

Stars: Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington
Other Stars: Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday
Director: Fred Waller, Dick Currier, Leslie Roush, Ray Cozene, et al.

Manufacturer: L&M
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (pre-code adult themes, alcohol)
Run Time: 01h:50m:24s
Release Date: February 15, 2001
UPC: 738329019723
Genre: music

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- BC+C D+

DVD Review

Kino Video's The Best of Jazz & Blues, Volume 1: Hollywood Rhythm collects eleven "mini-musicals" produced by Paramount and other studios from 1929 through 1941, originally presented as short subjects preceding the feature attraction. Some are concerts, some are complete stories, and all feature musical performances by the greats of the day, including Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Jack Teagarden, Hoagy Carmichael and others. Many of the shorts were aimed at African-American audiences (though they probably played to broader audiences, at least in the North) and the pre-code content is often surprisingly mature and/or risqué. The shorts include:

A Rhapsody in Black and Blue (1932), with Louis Armstrong

A hen-pecked husband daydreams while mopping, imagining himself a King enjoying a command performance by Louis Armstrong. Armstrong performs I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You and Shine, while wearing a leopardskin costume in a throne room filled with soapsuds. The framing story has an odd Amos-and-Andy-meets-the-Lockhorns feel, but everyone seems to be having a good time.

A Bundle of Blues (1933), with Duke Ellington and Ivie Anderson

A concert piece, with a simple story vignette as Ivie Anderson sings Stormy Weather; Duke Ellington's Orchestra performs Rockin' in Rhythm and Bugle Call Rag, the latter with dancing by Bessie Dudley and Florence Hill. Low-budget, but stylish enough and the performances are great.

Cab Calloway's Hi-de-Ho (1933)

This is a great little piece, with Cab Calloway advising a train porter to buy his wife a Homefire Radio to "bring the radio stars into your home" and keep her occupied during his long trips away from home. The train porter returns early from a trip to Chicago to find Calloway in his wife's arms—when he pulls a gun on the singer, Calloway emerges from the bedroom with his full orchestra in tow. A simple, risqué joke that plays well onscreen, with nice work from Calloway as actor and as musician on Harlem Camp Meeting, Zaz-Zuh-Zaz, The Lady With the Fan (complete with fan dancers) and I Love a Parade.

Ain't Misbehavin' (1941), with Fats Waller

Fats Waller plays his classic signature tune Ain't Misbehavin' with verve and vigor in this simple, one-camera performance short.

Symphony in Black (1935), with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra

The most musically ambitious piece, this short features all five parts of Ellington's symphony, illustrated with vignettes and concert footage; excellent music, realized onscreen with sincerity and style.

Jitterbug Party (1934), with Cab Calloway

Another fun, dance-oriented Calloway short, with the singer taking his friends from a club to an after-hours Jitterbug Party, performing Hotcha Razz-Ma-Jazz, Long About Midnight, and Jitterbug.

St. Louis Blues (1929), with Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith's one and only filmed performance—she acts stiffly but sings beautifully in this melodramatic, exploitative tale. Bessie has a live-in boyfriend sharing her flophouse room—when she finds him in flagrante delicto with another woman, she beats her rival up in a surprising sequence. Her boyfriend then pushes her down, steals her money, and laughs in her face; Bessie turns to alcohol and sings St. Louis Blues in a saloon, where her ex-boyfriend shows up again, dances with her, steals her money and laughs in her face once again. No wonder the poor woman never found herself at home in the medium!

Hoagy Carmichael (1939), also with Jack Teagarden and his Orchestra

Composer Hoagy Carmichael joins Jack Teagarden, nervously but competently singing Washboard Blues, with Teagarden's orchestra and singer Meredith Blake handling a number of Carmichael's other songs including I'm Wrong, Lazybones, Small Fry, Rockin' Chair and Carmichael's standard (even then) Stardust.

Ol' King Cotton (1930), with George Dewey Washington

Baritone Washington sings On the 'Sippi Shore and Ol' King Cotton in this racially stereotyped tale of a lazy Southern man who goes North to look for work at his mother's urging, then pines for the easy, shiftless days back home. Good music, but the jokes and characterizations are far from progressive.

Black and Tan Fantasy (1929), with Duke Ellington, Fredi Washington and Arthur Whetsol

A downbeat early "talkie" mini-musical about struggling composer Duke Ellington and his dancer friend Fredi Washington, whose weak heart threatens her career at the Cotton Club. Ellington compositions include Duke Steps Out, Black Beauty and Cotton Club Stomp, with the title tune heard during the opening and closing credits.

Those Blues (1932), with Vincent Lopez

Vincent Lopez and his Orchestra perform Those Blues, in uninspired but musically competent fashion. One of the weaker shorts on this disc, with starched-shirt vocalists smiling desperately at the camera.

These shorts are valuable historical records, capturing a variety of jazz and blues at the height of their popularity in all-singing, all-dancing celluloid glory. While the tone, style and quality vary from film to film, and some of the portrayals of African-American characters haven't aged well, Kino's disc is a worthwhile collection of rarely-seen performances and classic pop compositions.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Kino Video's DVD is presented in 1.33:1 full-frame, preserving the shorts' original pre-television theatrical aspect ratio. A few of the shorts are slightly windowboxed, but most will lose a little bit of edge content on standard televisions due to overscan. The source prints are in mixed condition—all the films suffer from dirt flecks, occasional splices, scratches and other damage to some degree. In general, the Paramount-produced shorts are better preserved than the three offerings from now-defunct studios, which tend to be grainier and darker; St. Louis Blues is in particularly poor shape, fuzzy and badly worn. The films have been converted to 30-frames-per-second video using 3:2 pulldown, and there's some red/blue color aliasing on fine details during the first few minutes of the disc. Detail is otherwise passable, contrast is nicely managed (allowing for the source material's poor black level) and the image quality is good given the films' neglect over the years.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Hollywood Rhythm is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic, decoded to the center speaker by ProLogic systems. The films' optical soundtracks have suffered some deterioration over the years which, coupled with the recording technology of the time, produces a great deal of hiss, pop and crackle to modern ears. Again, the Paramount shorts are in better shape, without the constant hiss that plagues the lower-budget entries. Frequency and dynamic range are generally limited, though there is some low-end activity in tunes with strong bass parts. These are analog film soundtracks, often recorded live, and all things considered they sound pretty good—but don't expect them to sound as good as analog audio recordings from the same era. Some audio restoration effort might have been worthwhile here, considering the collection's musical focus.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 46 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 37 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Bonus Track: Jazz a la Cuba
Extras Review: Given the nature of this compilation and the age of its materials, it's not surprising that there are no real "extras" here. A "bonus short" is included, featuring Don Aspiazu and His Famous Cuban Orchestra in Jazz a la Cuba, but this five-minute piece is similar to the other films and is only a "bonus" as compared to this title's release on other formats. Some biographical information on these barrier-busting performers would have been nice to see; as it is, the disc features nicely designed jukebox-themed full-motion menus, nothing more.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

The Best of Jazz & Blues, Volume 1: Hollywood Rhythm is a superb historical collection, featuring rare performances by many musical greats of the 1930's. Kino Video's DVD presents the dated materials reasonably well, and this is a great trip back in pop-culture time. Recommended.


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