Thursday, October 10, 2013

Movie Review: Blues in the Night

Blues in the Night (1941)
directed by Anatole Litvak, starring Richard Whorf, Jack Carson, Betty Field, Priscilla Lane

Note: Review requested by W.B. Kelso, of the fabulous blog 3B Theater: Micro-Brewed Reviews

Jigger Pine (Richard Whorf) is a world-class pianist with only one dream in his heart. To start his own jazz band (or "unit" as he calls it). A group of guys that play the same, live the same, and think the same. All of them on a mission to find the music of the streets and give it back to the people. His friend, reluctant lawyer/aspiring clarinetist Nickie (Elia Kazan) believes in his vision and they recruit two of their friends: Pete the bassist (Peter Whitney) and Peppi the drummer (Billy Halop). It isn't long before their enthusiasm wins over more people, too. Scheming trumpeter Leo (Jack Carson) and his sweet, optimistic wife Character (Priscilla Lane). The quintet begin their ragged life on the road, hitching rides on boxcars and playing to whatever audience they can find.

It's a hard but happy life until one faithful day when they run across ex-con Del Davis (Lloyd Nolan). One careless act of generosity on their parts is enough to win the gangster's loyalty and he brings them to his roadhouse, the aptly-named jungle. The former members of Davis' gang, his old partner Sam (Howard Da Silva), his old flame Kay (Betty Field), and Kay's crippled ex-lover Brad (Wallace Ford), are running the joint and none of them are too happy that Davis has decided to adopt this group of stray musicians. It isn't long before Kay, still angling to win back Davis, takes up with Leo. When Leo gets wise, she sinks her hooks into Jigger. Her toxic demands turn Jigger from a confident musician into a hollow-eyed wreck, willing to tear down everything else to make her happy. Even if it means turning his back on the band and the music he loves.

Blues in the Night is a movie that seems specially ordered for a night of insomniac channel-surfing, the kind of movie you watch through bleary, dazzled eyes at 3:00 A.M. and then forget about until the next morning, when you try to summarize it to your friends. All goes normally at first ("There's these guys that want to start a jazz band"). But before long you start to stumble over the details ("So the baby's dead and the pianist goes on some insane acid trip on account of the gangster's ex-girlfriend and he starts hallucinating that he's an organ grinder's monkey, but the band convinces him to come back, but then the ex-girlfriend returns to plot more evil until her crippled sidekick decides to put a stop to her.."). And then you start to think, "Wait, what the hell was I watching?"

But Blues in the Night is more than the sum of its delirious plot points. It's an amazingly appealing genre mash-up, a film that starts out like any other light musical comedy of Hollywood's golden age and spirals into a proto-noir of backstabbing dames, mental breakdowns, and vengeful gangsters. Despite the descent into darkness, though, the movie remains innocent at the core, allowing its group of music-minded misfits to walk through Hell and emerge unscathed. I have a weakness for movies that can skip through multiple genres. Maybe it's because as movies get bigger, they also get safer. Scene after scene of well-made, polished sameness. Did Blues in the Night seem as messy to the theater audiences of 1941 as it does now? Probably. But I doubt those audiences could have predicted how exhilarating watching that kind of mess could be, seventy years later.

I can pinpoint the exact scene where I fell for this movie. We catch up with our band of musicians as they steal a ride on a boxcar. After raising each other's spirits with a round of "Hang on to Your Lids, Kids," our gang welcomes a fellow traveler aboard. Only this traveler is no ordinary bum; he's a hardened criminal, who immediately pulls a gun and demands money. They hand over all they have and the train travels on, into the night. The gangster, Del Davis huddles by himself in the corner while the gang falls asleep, clutching their instruments. When the train pulls into the station, a railway man opens the car and beams the flashlight into the faces of our heroes. Instead of getting mad, he greets them as old friends. "Last time I saw you was three months ago...still riding the boxcars?" He promises not to kick them off, leaving them with a warning not to play so loud. When he's gone, the gang promptly settles back down to sleep but Davis won't let them. 

"You could have turned me in," he snaps. 

"Why should we? We've been broke and hungry, too," says Jigger, the band leader. 

The band members lie back down, curled up together like kittens or a bunch of kids at a sleepover. They are total innocents, completely unafraid or resentful. A smile breaks out over Davis' face and you can see the lost humanity slowly return to his eyes. When this hardened gangster decides to take care of them, it plays out not just as some ridiculous plot twist, but a sweet fantasy. Nobody survives on luck and music alone but sometimes, it's nice to pretend we could.

Director Anatole Litvak doesn't give you any time to question the plot of Blue in the Night. He keeps it moving at a frantic pace; you can almost hear him snapping his fingers in the background of each scene, ordering each actor to pick up the tempo. These jazz musicians talk faster than Wall Street stockbrokers, trading quips and comments and insults at such a rate that one scene can shuffle through six different moods. I like the speed, though. It reminds me of His Girl Friday and Stage Door, other movies about people doing what they love, no matter what it costs them. If you love something so much you couldn't imagine doing anything else, then why wouldn't your brain zip along at the speed of twenty ideas per minute?

While Litvak's direction is smooth and confident throughout, the movie really turns on the heat with the montage sequences (credited to Don Siegel). The first one is a sharp evocation of what life on the road means for a penniless jazz band. We race through images of the band members playing, of maps, and outstretched thumbs and speeding cars. I especially like the way the film uses angles, swiping across the screen with a character's instrument when it cuts into the next scene, as if to show music itself as a physical force, propelling these people onward.

But the second montage is the crowning glory of the film, its most perfect, bizarre moment. Jigger Pine falls off the deep end after the femme fatale Kay leaves him. He can't even remember how to play the songs he wrote. Suddenly, after a disastrous reunion with his friends, Jigger falls unconscious and dives headfirst into a surreal hallucination. He sees his bandmates. Then they turn into the five fingers of a hand. He sees Kay, repeated over and over, until she becomes an entire orchestra, each of them playing a separate instrument. Giant hands wave in his face. He shrinks down into an organ grinder's monkey while his bandmates taunt him. And then, in an image that feels like it should have been storyboarded by Salvador Dali, Jigger finds himself at the piano, ready to play, only for the keys to melt into white goo, trapping his fingers completely. The imagery is so stark and arresting that the movie doesn't even try to follow up on it in any logical way. Jigger just wakes up from this crazy dream and that's it, he's ready to be cured. I'm sort of wondering if Kay herself is supposed to be a metaphor for drug or alcohol addiction, because it really does play out more like Ray Milland coming off the DTs in The Lost Weekend than anything else.

Richard Whorf plays the film's protagonist, Jigger Pine, as a man of almost unreal goodness and conviction. He's always smiling, always supportive. Litvak keeps Whorf as the focus of nearly every group shot, letting the other band members cluster around him like eager acolytes. Because the movie holds Jigger up to such a high standard, I found myself almost rooting for the femme fatale Kay to drag him off his mountaintop. And drag him she does, right into the mental ward. Whorf has a relaxed, friendly presence onscreen and he handles Jigger's descent into desperation without histrionics (except that loopy hallucination scene). The script doesn't give him much chance to add character depth. Jigger's downfall happens as simply and easily as if someone had just flipped a light switch. 

I'm really beginning to wonder what quirk of fate and casting kept landing dimpled, all-American Betty Field in the role of irresistible, untrustworthy female. Every time I see her, she's playing some kind of tramp, from low (Mae in Of Mice and Men) to high (Daisy in The Great Gatsby). Maybe it was that insinuating nasal whine she could put into her voice. Or maybe it was the go-for-broke energy she displays here as conniving Kay. Field's femme fatale is a jangling bunch of nerves and tinsel, a two-bit, no-talent floozy who chews through men like they were strips of gum. I've ripped into Field before on this blog, but she's much improved here, clearly relishing Kay's barbed-wire ambition more than Daisy's aristocratic charms. However, Field relishes it rather too much, playing up Kay's whiny, nagging side so much that it's difficult to understand how she ever manages to enslave men. Personally, I'd be hopping a boxcar just to escape the woman's awful vowel sounds. And when she calls down vengeance upon Jigger and Del and all the men who haven't given her what she wants, Field goes right for the rafters in a way that's madly enjoyable and downright silly. I mean, she doesn't shout, "And then I will build my race of atomic supermen!" but she comes close.

As Field's good-girl foil, Priscilla Lane manages the trick of being the squarest jazz musician ever seen, until Martin Milner stole her spot in Sweet Smell of Success. Okay, so that's rough on Lane. She does have a nice voice and if her sweet, blonde singer seems like she'd be more comfortable baking an apple pie than hitching it on boxcars, well, at least she provides the audience with a pleasant break from Field's nastiness. The script does add a bizarre touch by giving her character the name, "Character." Really? Maybe Ethel Waters could pull that off but Priscilla Lane?

 Blues in the Night benefits from a wealth of wonderful supporting actors. There's Jack Carson, playing a heel as only Jack Carson could. It's a typical Carson role, the guy who knows he's laying traps for suckers but is honestly hurt and confused that these suckers would expect any more or less of him. There's also Elia Kazan, turning in another enjoyable, fast-talking performance after City for Conquest. Seriously, guys, I never would have pegged Kazan as any kind of acting talent, but that's twice now I've found him pretty good. Lloyd Nolan, as the gangster Del Davis, manages to convey the perfect amount of affability and menace. 

But by far and away, my favorite supporting performer was Wallace Ford, who plays Brad, Kay's ex-lover and fumbling sidekick. At first, Brad seems like nothing more than a pathetic crony, a shuffling Igor too stupid to free himself from Kay and Davis. But in one key dialogue with Jigger, Ford slowly reveals the tragedy behind the man. Once he felt sorry for Kay. And then he fell in love with her, breaking his own body in a rodeo just to impress her. "I wasn't much good for anything after that except hanging around her." As Ford talks, you see Brad stand straight and tall for the first time, his voice free of self-pity, revealing a depth of experience that turns him from a cringing crony into a fallen hero.

Blues in the Night is a movie I'd be very happy to stumble across again. It's weird, it's sweet, it's got good Arlen and Mercer tunes, and it's entirely unique. I don't think I'd ever want to own it, though. It really belongs to that realm of happenstance movies. Too mixed-up for respectability, too cute for sophistication, and too enjoyable to resist.

Favorite Quote:

"You see, I'm a student of jazz. I know the anatomy of swing, not only musically but theoretically. I've heard everything from Le Jazz Hot to Downbeat. You'll find out for yourself. As the Latin say, res ipsa loquitur. On the side, I'm a student of the law."

Favorite Scene:

As I mentioned before, that crazy montage scene. Can't say it enough.

Final Six Words:

Exhilarating riff turns into fever dream


  1. You nailed it. "Blues in the Night" is a crazy, mixed-up bag of tricks and all of them work.

  2. Enjoyed your take, this is a favorite of mine even though it wasn't one of my three choices. Glad you mentioned the swiftness of the film, even the songs were done in a fast tempo. The film contains some really great music and the one song I noticed the quickness on was This Time the Dream's On Me. A beautiful ballad usually sung in a slow and yes dreamy way Priscilla powers through it at a lively clip, an interesting interpretation and suited to the movie but somewhat diminishing the power of the tune.

    I think the hardness that Betty Field brings to the role was meant to suggest the dangers and allure of the forbidden that Jigger had avoided up to that point because of his friends protection. She's somewhat soft and yielding at first to lay the trap and then cheap and strident once she has her hooks in to show the ugliness underneath. Since we know little of Jigger's past life you can assume that Character is his ideal and the kind of woman he is used to dealing with, unlikely since they are riding the rails but since Kay grounds him down so thoroughly it would seem to be the case.

    Priscilla, who I think I mentioned is a personal favorite of mine, is a bit wholesome to have been living on the road for as much time as it seems the band has. However she is a sort of den mother for them and they all are slavishly devoted and protective of her, even the temporarily distracted Carson, so perhaps that's how she has not hardened as much as one would expect. Also if the part had been played by a tougher actress the difference between the two women would not have been as pronounced and Hollywood loves that madonna/whore contrast.

    That second montage is definitely a Bugs Bunny on acid moment and the best part of the film but I find the whole picture eminently watchable.

    Looking forward to the next two reviews both to find out which were selected and your take on them.

    1. I think it says something for Blues in the Night that I was able to ramble on and on and yet not even get around to talking about the music. You're right, I did wonder why a song like "This Time The Dream's On Me" got such an upbeat, peppy rendition. It does keep the energy flowing, but the "miseries" of jazz are kept firmly at bay.

      I was a bit snippy on Priscilla Lane and to be honest, I do find her an appealing presence in the film. Looks-wise, she knocks Field into the shade. I'm also a little intrigued that she ends up paired not with the hero Richard Whorf, but with jerky Jack Carson. And yet the film sometimes seems to hint at unresolved feelings between Character and Jigger. I like your idea that she's functioning as the Wendy in a group of Peter Pans.

  3. "Wait, what the hell was I watching?" -- Hah! Exactly.

    I believe I had about the same reaction the first time through. "What the hell was that?" I said. But this wasn't a condemnation, but rather an excited call to cue it up and watch it again. RIGHT NOW!

    What a strange and wonderful bugaboo of a movie. It really does have the manic sensibilities, pace and timing of an old Looney Tune or Merrie Melody. I hadn't even heard of it until stumbling upon the newspaper ads earlier this year, which led to the trailer on YouTube, which led to an immediate purchase on Amazon, which led to me falling ass over teakettle in love with BLUES IN THE NIGHT. I already had a firmly entrenched Bro' Crush on Jack Carson and he is such a loveable turd in this. "Oh, Leo, if you gotta crack in the nose comin' to ya, take it." Love Kazan's phone play with his mom. Love the music. Love the characters. Love the energy. Love those insane montages. Just love the movie.

    Thank you for this wonderful review, you've done the impossible by defining the nigh undefinable. And thank you for joining the effort to give this thing a much deserved signal boost.

    And for those interested, here are the ads I was referring too for Blues in the Night.

    1. Hot Harmony & a Gay Adventure all for 22 cents, 11 if you're a kid, tax included! I can't imagine what it would be if they had a bargain hour. Those are great posters, thanks for sharing.

    2. I must admit, I was very happy that your movie was one of the ones picked from the hat, because your enthusiasm for this one was so infectious. Also really glad that I got to drink the Kool-Aid and see why this one is such a favorite, when I'd never even heard of it before. Jack Carson is great in this and I love the way he manages to ever so slightly reform while still managing to keep his adorable selfishness. Thanks for the link to the ads!

  4. Is the song "Blues in the Night" from this movie, then? Or played/sung in it? I've loved that song for ages, so just wondering. It sounds like a great random movie for when you can't decide what you're in the mood for.

    1. Yep, the song was written for the movie. The Wikipedia page for it gives a nice bit background information on the song. Apparently when Arlen and Mercer introduced the song to a group of their friends, Mickey Rooney called it, "the greatest thing I've ever heard." And then Judy Garland and Margaret Whiting went over to the piano to compete over who could learn it the fastest. Isn't that a lovely picture?

  5. This sounds like quite a film, and one I must see!

    Besides, I'll watch anything with Jack Carson in it. :)

    1. That's a good rule to have :). Glad you dropped by.