Saturday, 13 February 2016

I Left My Heart in New Orleans

When Orson Welles was at RKO, he started work on a Louis Armstrong biopic that would star Armstorng as himself. The brainstorm for this was an episode of The Orson Welles Almanac that had presented Kid Ory, Mutt Carey, Bud Scott and Zutty Singleton; as well as a scrapped segment for It's All True that was supposed to highlight jazz history. 

As is the trend in every Orson Welles related story ever, everything fell down the stairs and caught fire. But the idea lingered on long after Welles himself moved on, and went through a few incarnations – including 1942’s Syncopation, where the Armstrong story was mostly retained; but instead of Satchmo playing himself, Todd Duncan played him.

Then, a few years later in 1947, there was New Orleans.

Nobody in their right mind can say that New Orleans is a good film. It basically knocks off everything from 1936’s San Francisco, makes it worse, and fails to see how a deadly earthquake and a red light district closure are different.

San Francisco is a period piece about a jaunty nightclub owner played by Clark Gable whose life becomes entwined with that of a classically trained singer, played by Jeanette MacDonald, when she learns to sing in a more popular and controversial style.

New Orleans is a period piece about a jaunty nightclub owner played by Arturo de Córdova whose life becomes entwined with that of a classically trained singer, played by Dorothy Patrick, when she learns to sing jazz – a more popular and controversial style.

“Okay, so they remade it with a different city. What’s the big deal?” You ask. First of all, don’t interrupt. Second of all, this film is not supposed to be a remake, we’re not supposed to notice the glaringly obvious similarities. In fact, the original concept – as hinted above with all the Orson Welles stuff – had nothing to do with a ten year old MGM film at all.

It was, in the beginning, the story of two jazz artists who leave the South in order to take over the New York nightclub scene with their revolutionary music. They would be played by Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, in her first major film role. (Holiday had appeared in a short film back in 1935 called Symphony in Black.)

Armstrong was popular, and he was bankable. This would be his tenth film, and he was considered a reliable and relatively inoffensive screen presence. Holiday was beloved in many circles, but her mainstream appeal hadn’t been tested. Plus, you know, they were black and it was the 1940’s. Worried that they wouldn’t be able to get distribution in Southern theaters, changes to the script were made by what I like to think of as “cowardly executives.”

The Armstrong and Holiday parts were reduced and reduced until the whole thing was about boring white people in love. (In my opinion, there are far too many films about boring white people in love. Promise me you’ll never write one, dear readers. Promise me that if a magic genie appears and offers to make any story you want into a beautiful motion picture, you do not pick a story about boring white people in love.) Armstrong became Sam from Casablanca, dutiful club musician helping the Córdova character navigate his moral quandaries and love life. And Billie Holiday’s character was turned into Dorothy Patrick’s maid.


Interesting to note that Billie Holiday herself had defiantly refused to ever take a job in service or hospitality in her life. But the exposure, pay and opportunity of a Hollywood film is not easy to turn down. “I’ll be playing a maid,” Holiday said of the role, “but she’s really a cute maid.”

Her disdain for her dialogue shows in a kind of delightful way, as everything she says to Patrick’s character is dripping with flat sarcasm. It’s not a very agile performance, but she’s undeniably charming. A little like Marilyn Monroe in All About Eve. Where Holiday truly shines, unsurprisingly, is in the musical numbers. Unfortunately, everything she sings is appropriated by Patrick as part of the plot and leaves a modern audience with some serious discomfort.

New Orleans is interesting in terms of what it should have been, and apart from the music offers little worth watching. That being said, it’s a must-see for any Billie Holiday fans, and a good example of how pandering to an imaginary audience can ruin a story.

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