New vintage videos released
Watching Minnie the Moocher & Many, Many More is a bit like going through the family scrapbook with Grandpa. Whole pages are missing, the pictures are faded, and the old man tends to ramble a lot. Minnie‘s clumsy pastiche of film clips, depicting black entertainers of the ’30s and ’40s, is held together — tenuously at best — by 80-year-old Cab Calloway’s recollections of Harlem nightclubs. That is, he recites their names (among them, the Savoy Ballroom, Small’s Paradise, and Club Hotcha) and mentions the great black performers who played there. The clips don’t always show these artists. Though it’s always good to see Calloway, Fats Waller, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, and Billy Eckstine, this is all a jumble. Whatever vague sense the film arouses of what Harlem was like isn’t sustained.
Meanwhile, Calloway supplies brief anecdotes that, like the clips, create errant sparks. But, as with the rest of the video, they don’t add up to much.
Like Minnie, Ladies Sing the Blues is also a pastiche — in this case, of performances by great women blues singers from Bessie Smith to Peggy Lee. It’s far more satisfying, however, because of the the way it establishes historical continuity and the stylistic distinctions between each artist. It also delivers more substantial performances, including Billie Holiday’s riveting, understated rendition of ”Fine and Mellow,” and Bessie Smith’s commanding presence during ”St. Louis Woman.”
But the real enlightenment in Ladies comes in discovering less well known singers such as Ida Cox, Sister Rosetta Tharp, and Connie Boswell and in seeing familiar faces in offbeat settings (Ethel Waters singing ”Darkies Never Dream”; a fresh young Lena Horne doing”Unlucky Woman” with the Teddy Wilson orchestra).
Don’t expect exhaustive critical or historical analysis here, just a grand parade of American miracles.