Blues in the Night (1941)

Blues in the Night (1941) is possibly the most fun of all film noir. 

Fun and noir are not the most common of screen-fellows, but this fast-moving wise-cracking funny and feeling love adventure into music, has more packed into its hour and a half than many of its slower contemporaries.

The jazz keeps it hot and the noir keeps it cool. 

It's Blues in the Night, and it's romantic, funny and acted well by a fab forties fraternity of fellow ensemble actors.

For a film noir to pack such class comedy into its dark heart is a thrill, and one of the things that makes Blues in the Night a unique creation; it is a musical noir, and it is also an ensemble and comedy character piece. 

Which of course has poverty, murder, ill-feted romance, theft, an explosive car crash, and big city dreams smashed into pieces in dirty dark rustic roadhouses.

Magic and mayhem combine in a fantasy which does not seek to portray the origins of the blues crossing over to white audiences and musicians, in order to become a greater sum of its original parts, and a commercial entity, ripe for further transformation into rock n roll in the early 1950s.

The immediate roots of rock and roll lay in this exact style of music, what was to become in the 1940s known as rhythm and blues, then called "race music". This was appropriated in combination with either boogie-woogie and shouting gospel or with country music of the 1940s and 1950s. 

In this noir style we see new music before it underwent re-branding as African-American rhythm and blues for a white market, or a new hybrid of black and white forms.

There are several stars to this show. 

First in the door is Richard Whorf as Jigger Pine, the talented jazz genius, whose torment drives the motors of all this crazy fun.

Priscilla Lane is Ginger "Character" Powell, the band's singer; Lloyd Nolan plays Del Davis, a gangster and racketeer, while Betty Field plays Kay Grant, Del's scheming former girlfriend.  Jack Carson plays Leo Powell, Character's loud-mouthed, conceited husband who plays trumpet for the band; and perhaps most exciting of all for noir cineastes is Elia Kazan as Nickie Haroyen, the band's clarinettist, who has given up law school for music. See also, Wallace Ford as Brad Ames, a crippled former guitar player who is hopelessly in love with Kay

Finally, look out for Howard Da Silva who plays Sam Paryas, an opportunistic member of Del's gang, whose ambiguous role finally tips the drama into death and mayhem.

It is as noted, an ensemble performance, and full of fantasy and an urgent kind of crazy hope for the future, despite a chaotic present that seems to ride wildly from scene to scene.

The journey of Jigger Pine
Blues in the Night (1941)

Some of the greatest fun scenes in Blues in the Night, take place in boxcars. Given the band are travelling the country in filthy empty train cars, but travelling through train yards, sleeping on sacking and the other filth of the iron roadways of The States; occasionally I found myself worrying about hygiene, especially with glossy hair rot maintain, clean white shirts; and one of the band being pregnant.

The story is the myth of the blues, and the crossover, and appropriation of black music. While playing in a bar in St. Louis, jazz pianist Jigger Pine meets aspiring clarinettist Nickie Haroyen, who tries to convince him to put together a jazz band. 

After a drunk patron starts a fight, Nickie and Jigger, along with Jigger's drummer and bassist, are thrown in jail. They overhear a prisoner singing a blues song and are inspired to set out for New Orleans, where they hope to learn how to perfect an authentic bluesy sound. 

There they meet fast-talking trumpeter Leo and his wife, Character, who is a talented singer. Together, the quintet rides the rails, honing their technique in dive bars across the country.

After Kay leaves him, Jigger descends into alcoholism. His friends find him and try to coax him into playing with them again. He tells them he is busy composing and has many big plans but, as he tries to demonstrate some of his music, he collapses with a mental breakdown. 

Everybody sticks by him, helping to nurse him back to health, though they are hiding the fact that Character's baby has died. They all return to The Jungle where Jigger plays again and rediscovers happiness.

The madness of Jigger Pine in Blues in the Night (1941)

The character of Jigger is a fascinating creation, an artist driven to madness and psychiatric incarceration, falling in love with the worst woman possible, and powered a desire to pioneer into the wilds of African American music. 

Jigger's literally insane desire to play black music creates some of the best scenes in a film which is heavy on great powerful thrilling jazz. 

The musical fantasy in Blues in the Night (1941) is suggestive of surrealism, alcoholism, dream noir as found in expressionistic cinema, and the enjoyment of technical montage. The scenes are worthy of the greatest of dream noir films, and with musical accompaniment, take on a new magic. Almost the magic of the proto-version of the modern pop video?

That is hard to say. But as mad as they are creative, spooky and suggestive, Blues in the Night carries with its other weight, reels of fun dream noir.

Telling a story of madness, ecstasy and jazz, in dream noir, in Blues in the Night (1941)

Fun dream film noir and jazz in Blues in the Night (1941)

Fun dream film noir and jazz in Blues in the Night (1941)

Then there's a scene in the jail during which the theft of the blues from the black man, by the white man, is carefully, amusingly and dramatically re-enacted. As the band bash it out, and one of its key players has a consumptive fainting fit, the occupants of the other cells begin to sing. 

It's the real misery, ain't it boys, says the prospective band leader to the boys. There with the white prisoners artfully segregated in one cell, surrounded by several cells of African American prisoners. The whites run off with the music and commence by having a gay old time in some railroad cars, travelling as authentically as they can on their new found jazz. The happiness lasts a good old while and the tunes roll out for Jigger and band.

Boxcar sessions in Blues in the Night (1941)

Back in the jail, on the origins of this music we are told the following:

Prisoner #1 : We all got the miseries in here. All of us. Don't make no difference what you in fer. Don't make no difference where the jail is. Comes night, you start to thinkin' and the miseries get ya.

Prisoner #2 : It sho' does. That's why we all here.

Prisoner #3 in Cell : Why sho 'nuff, man.


Baritone Singer in Jail Cell : [singing]  My mama done told me when I was in knee-pants, my mama done told me, Son, A woman will sweet-talk and give you the big eye, but when that sweet talkin's done, a woman's a two-face, a worrisome thing, leave you to sing the Blues in the Night...

The world of African American music was separate one from the American mainstream in 1941. The character of Jigger Pine is in fact a genuine pioneer, and the film noir element of Blues in the Night spells this out. 

Jigger's reward is not exactly social rejection, because as we know the music was going to cross over, but what he does get is adventure. He also faces penury and alcoholism, because the journey he is making is too heavy for him. It is fascinating to see him make the crossover in film, a solid decade and some years before Elvis was said to do the same.

The idea for Blues in the Night began when Elia Kazan optioned an unproduced play by Edwin Gilbert called Hot Nocturne and began retooling it for Broadway. He eventually sold the rights to Warner Bros. who gave the script to Robert Rossen to complete. 

After initially retitling it New Orleans Blues, the studio named it after its principal musical number "Blues in the Night", which later became a popular hit. 

Kazan agreed to give up his screenwriting credit and appeared as a clarinettist in the film. He later remarked that after acting in the film he became convinced he could "direct better than Anatole Litzvak". James Cagney and Dennis Morgan were the studio's first two choices to play the gangster Del Davis, but the role was eventually given to Lloyd Nolan. John Garfield was cast in the role of pianist Jigger Pine who was eventually played by Richard Whorf.

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