Blues, smoke, and shadows: jazz in “musical” noir films

Guest post by Sheri Chinen Biesen

The Society For Cinema & Media Studies hosts Sheri Chinen Biesen for presentation on this topic at the 2015 SCMS annual conference.

Jazz music flourished in “musical” noir films, which were distinctive for showing smoke, shadows, and bluesy nightclub performers. The music recalled Harlem’s Cotton Club, where, according to Aljean Harmetzs obituary for Lena Horne,  the “customers were white, barely dressed dancers were light-skinned blacks, Duke Ellington was the star of the show, and the proprietors were gangsters.” Musical noir featuring jazz performances in murky cabaret joints evoked Jazz Age speakeasies and illicit affairs, challenging Hollywood censorship. Low-lit lounges, the enthralling minor key sounds of musicians, and blue film scores suggested censorable activity in after hours nightspots. Some especially notable examples of musical noir films featuring jazz and set in smoky, atmospheric nightclubs include Blues in the Night (1941), Jammin’ the Blues (1944, with Lester Young), Phantom Lady (1944), To Have and Have Not (1944, with Hoagy Carmichael), Gilda (1946), The Man I Love (1947), New Orleans (1947, with Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday), Young Man With A Horn (1950, with Harry James), Sweet Smell of Success (1957, with Chico Hamilton), Elevator to the Gallows (1957, with Miles Davis score), Paris Blues (1961, with Duke Ellington score), and A Man Called Adam (1966, with Benny Carter score).

Harold Arlen, known for playing music infused with “the wail of the blues” and writing music for Harlem’s Cotton Club, composed jazz for Blues in the Night, which involves a musician who goes insane after tangling with a femme fatale singer. Warner Bros. wanted Duke Ellington for the film, but cast Jimmie Lunceford’s big band instead. In the film, Lester Young leads a jazz noir jam session. Meanwhile, censors believed that another film, Phantom Lady, implied that musicians jamming in a sexual jazz “jive” sequence were drug addicts. Hoagy Carmichael plays jazz in To Have and Have Not as Lauren Bacall sings and seductively entices men at the bar. In Gilda, Rita Hayworth sings the bluesy “Put the Blame on Mame,” dances, tosses her hair, and performs a striptease in a jazz nightclub. She peals off her gloves, inviting viewers to unzip her strapless gown—before she is yanked off stage and violently slapped by misogynist beau Glenn Ford. Jazz music conveyed the blues amid smoke and shadows in musical noir Blues in the Night, Jammin’ the Blues, To Have and Have Not, Gilda, The Man I Love and Young Man With A Horn, where femme fatale Bacall grabs a jazz musician’s hair in a torrid embrace as taglines clamor: “Put down your trumpet, jazzman–I’m in the mood for love!” Ellington’s somber blue tones in Paris Blues and Davis’ haunting jazz score in Elevator to the Gallows (Lift to the Scaffold/Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) evoke loneliness as a doomed femme fatale wanders late-night streets aimlessly searching for her illicit lover (who killed her husband for her). In A Man Called Adam, the titular character destroys himself performing to Benny Carter’s score as Nat Adderly plays. As postwar Hollywood shifted to color films, Arlen penned the moody after hours torch song “The Man That Got Away” for noir musical A Star Is Born (1954). In that film, director George Cukor reimagined the blues, smoke, and shadows of jazz musical noir in brooding color.

This piece grows out of research for my book, Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films, in which I examine the connection between jazz music, film noir, and Hollywood jazz musicals in noir musical cinema. I will be presenting a talk at the 2015 Society for Cinema & Media Studies Conference in Montreal based on this research.

Sheri Chinen Biesen is associate professor of film history at Rowan University and the author of Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir and Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films.

*(Note: Quote from Aljean Harmetz, “Lena Horne,” New York Times, 9 May 2010, A1.)

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