Rare - Bessie Smith's only movie, in its entirety. It's a short from 1929 based around her hit St Louis Blues and features Louis Armstrong and a full orchestral arrangement, with chorus, created by W C Handy and Rosamond Johnson. Equally striking is the way it's made. The director, Dudley Murphy, doesn't sentimentalize.
Bessie Smith and Jimmy Mordecai are playing themselves, in the context of the song. Jimmy was a famous tap dancer who worked with the Cotton Club but later fell on hard times and fell off the radar. In the film, he's wearing an expensive sharp suit and hat - way classier than anyone else. A star! other men are pretty ordinary, one's a janitor, another a semi midget. A "yellow girl" (often a vamp in Blues mythology) steals money from some gamblers and passes it to Johnny. The moment Bessie walks in (at 4.22) the whole mood darkens. She's one powerful lady! But for Jimmy. she's abject . "I give you suits, I give you clothes", she says, imploringly. "Ah, women get out of my face" Hre says as he knocks her to the floor. He steps on her, he kicks her as he walks out the door. It's brutal and very physical.
Then the song starts (7.23) "Feeling tomorrow, like I do today, got to pack my bags, make my getaway". At first she's seated at a bar, getting drunk, singing without accompaniment. Then the band materializes, and the other customers in the bar sing the chorus, and the smart customers go about their business. Bessie's oblivious, though.
"St Louis woman wears a diamond ring, she leads that man around by her apron strings. If it weren't for powder and store-bought hair, that man I love he wouldn't go nowhere". Her voice takes on the harsh timbre of a saxophone - extremely expressive. Listen to the staccatpo in the chorus, beating her like a whip. The band plays on, the people dance, waiters twirl empty trays like showmen. In walks Johnny, strutting his stuff, doing a dance sequence – Mordecai was good!) He spots Bessie alone at the bar. They embrace. The band plays the tune, this time like a smootchy dance number. Jimmy puts his hands up Bessie's dress, feeling up her thigh. But he's stealing the cash strapped under her suspenders. He walks out: Bessie hardly notices. Perhaps she's dreaming ? She's not too drunk to sing.
Band and chorus dissolve into distortions, as if conflicting music is happening at once, textures going awry. "My man's got a heart like a rock cast in the sea, or he wouldn't have gone so far from me".