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thejazzmonger Cited in Ms. Magazine

Ms. Magazine, in its online edition of Feb. 23, 2012, offers an excellent article on the struggle of black actresses to find suitable roles in Hollywood films, from the very beginning to the present day.

The discussion is prompted by the current nominations of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscars, respectively. Should Davis or Spencer win, there will be much discussion of the fact that the first black person (of either sex) to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel. She won the  Academy Award in 1939 as Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind. The issue at hand is that McDaniel, Davis and Spencer are all cited for playing characters who are maids.
Author Janell Hobson writes about the struggles of the extraordinarily beautiful and talented Lena Horne to avoid being recast as an “exotic” (read “Latin”) instead of as a black woman. To her ultimate credit, Horne flatly refused and saw her film career wither.

Young Lena Horne

Beautiful, Supremely Talented - Lena Horne

Hobson discusses “Soundies,” musical performances by singers like Lena Horne and, especially, Big Bands such as the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Count Basie Orchestra.When Hobson mentions “Soundies” she does it as a link to our story of June, 2009. (Link here: thejazzmonger on “Soundies”)

It is very gratifying to have an eminent publication such as Ms. cite our work.

Turning to the current controversy about film roles, let me say that I think it is a mistake to criticize, or otherwise demean, the roles and excellent performances presented by both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. The story told in The Help, book and movie both, is a good one. Their two characters are strong, vividly-drawn and, without doubt, women who are far more than their occupations. We should not be seeking to eliminate the existence of maids in films that depict an earlier time. What we need are stories, scripts and films that give life to people and stories of women who are not maids.

American-made movies have always had a dearth of strong roles for women, all women, really, but for black women, in particular. For a short period in American film history, there was a coterie of dominant actresses (Joan Crawford, Betty Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner) who “carried” films. IT was their name and, often, their name only that was above the title. The entire film was the story of the character, a woman, being portrayed by one of these preeminent actresses.

Consider just a couple of films from these four giants of an earlier era:

Barbara Stanwyck: The Lady Eve  &  Double Indemnity

Betty Davis:  Now, Voyager  &  Dark Victory

Lana Turner:  The Postman Always Rings Twice  &  Imitation of Life

Joan Crawford:  Mildred Pierce  &  The Women

Isak Denisen aka Karen Blixen

Kren Blixen (aka Isak Denisen)

What happened? Why did great stories and meaty roles disappear, for the most part, from American films? Sure, Meryl Streep is nominated every three or four years, and wins about as often. But too often she is getting the Best Actress nomination for films like Postcards from the Edge, Music of the Heart or The Devil Wears Prada. It was all the way back in 1985, in Out of Africa, that we last saw her stretch in a role that carried the entire film. I f an actress of Meryl Streep’s talent and stature can’t find a truly outstanding role in more than 25 years, what hope does a raft of talented but relatively unknown actresses have?

The problem, my friends, is  the lack of books & scripts about women. Isak Denisen’s book, Out of Africa, was published in 1937. Denisen (real name Karen Blixen) was a marvelous story-teller with a unique and intriguing personal history on which to draw.

One has to think that there are good stories about women, and women’s lives, that are just being passed over by Hollywood brass in favor of cartoon boys, remakes about CIA operatives

and Vampires. Nowadays, when Hollywood does give us a film dominated by females, it’s just a group of women making a female installment (Bridesmaids) of The Hangover.

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“Soundies” – the Hollywood film shorts of Jazz & Big Band performers

I was asked recently about where someone could purchase “Soundies,” the short-subject films that Hollywood studios produced in the 1930’s, 1940’s and the early 50’s. Often, a Soundie would be produced and released as a promotional piece in advance of the release of a major film. Sometimes, a Soundie would be a stand-alone “short-subject” production. Or, it might be a musical number that was filmed to be part of a motion picture but edited out of the final print.

Short subjects, for those younger than 50, were the items like cartoons, documentaries, Movietone News, etc. that played in movie theaters before the first feature and between films at a double-feature. For you youngsters, it was common in the 1950’s to get TWO full-length movies and numerous short-subjects for your fifty-cent admission. I can’t explain it any better than you can see in this clip promoting a PBS documentary on Soundies that originally aired in February of 2007 and has re-run periodically since:

A DVD of this program is available on Amazon.com for $17.99:  Soundies: A Musical History

Big name orchestras led by the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Jack Teagarden and Tommy Dorsey appeared regularly in musical shorts like this Count Basie clip:

The first source I want to recommend is The Jazz Store. These guys put out a nice catalog and have a big, searchable website. They offer some really stunning boxed collections like the Ultimate Jazz Archive, a 168-CD compendium of more than 3,000 tracks. They have artwork, T-shirts and caps, concert posters and some really hard-to-find recordings. On the subject at hand, they have  compilation DVD’s recapping highlights from some great careers. My favorite is “The Incomparable Lena Horne.” In this career retrospective, we are treated to literally all of Lena’s movie scenes, some of which were never shown in the southern states. Regrettably, Lena’s scenes, even the musical performances, were always structured and filmed so that they could be excised from the final cut and a different version was distributed in about fifteen states. If all you have ever seen of the younger Lena is the famous clip of her singing Stormy Weather, you might want to check this out. It is also available for rent from NetFlix.

Another good source is Movies Unlimited. Scroll down and look on the left for “browse top genres” and select “Musicals.” It is worth it to get one of their giant catalogs. You will not believe all the stuff the offer, and they have some great specials and sales.

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Jazz Exhibit at Smithsonian Institution in D.C.

One of our readers, dcfan, volunteers at the Smithsonian and alerted us to an exhibit that will be open through June 28, 2009. Housed in the Albert H. Small Documents Galllery, 2nd Floor East, in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the exhibit features Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Here is what the Smithsonian says about the exhibit:

Two of the greatest jazz composers were Duke Ellington (1899-1974) and Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967). The exhibition examines two of their most ubiquitous pieces, “Caravan” (1936) composed by Ellington and Juan Tizol and “Take the ‘A’ Train” (1941) composed by Strayhorn, through documents from the Museum’s Archives Center and related audio and video recordings. The exhibition draws from the Museum’s large and internationally renowned Ellington collection…

The Ellington collection features photographs, sound recordings and oral histories. “The Smith” also has an interesting collection of musical instruments ranging from a 1700’s Harpsichord to one of Dizzy’s custom  “Silver-flair” trumpets. Take my advice, folks, when you visit our nation’s capital, allow a couple of days for “The Smith.” The exhibits and collections are wide-ranging, informative and , in some cases, quite surprising.

Can’t make the trip? Check out the web presentation at:  Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn – Jazz Composers

Thanks dcfan, for the heads-up!

Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn

Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn

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