Saturday, September 14, 2019


It is sad that with the racism in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s that more African American actresses and actors were not allowed to make their mark on Hollywood. One such star that I think had the potential to make great films was Billie Holiday. She could have been the black Judy Garland. Like Garland, Billie had her share of pain and sorrow that could have transcribed to Hollywood nicely. However, throughout Billie's career, she was only in a few movies.

The first movie she appeared in was as an extra in The Emperor Jones from 1933. The Emperor Jones is a 1933 American pre-Code film adaptation of the Eugene O'Neill play of the same title, was made outside of the Hollywood studio system, financed with private money from neophyte wealthy producers, and directed by iconoclast Dudley Murphy, who had sought O'Neill's permission to film the play since its 1924 production in New York. He cast Paul Robeson in his first film role, Dudley Digges, Frank H. Wilson, and Fredi Washington. The screenplay was written by DuBose Heyward and filmed at Kaufman Astoria Studios with the beach scene shot at Jones beach Long Beach, New York. Robeson starred in the O'Neill play on stage, both in the United States and England, a role that had helped launch his career. Good luck spotting Billie in the film though.

Two years later, Billie appeared with Duke Ellington in Symphony In Black. The film is a nine-and-a-half minute musical short produced in 1935 that features Duke Ellington’s early extended piece, "A Rhapsody of Negro Life". The short was directed by Fred Waller and distributed by Paramount Pictures. Symphony in Black represents a landmark in musical, cultural, and entertainment history as well as significant progress in Ellington’s own biography. It is a member of the first generation of non-classically arranged orchestral scores and perhaps most importantly, one of the first films written by an African-American describing African-American life to reach wide distribution.

A decade would pass before Billie would make her biggest movie appearance in New Orleans (1947). New Orleans is a 1947 American musical romance film featuring Billie Holiday as a singing maid and Louis Armstrong as a bandleader; supporting players Holiday and Armstrong perform together and portray a couple becoming romantically involved. During one song, Armstrong's character introduces the members of his band, a virtual Who's Who of classic jazz greats, including trombonist Kid Ory, drummer Zutty Singleton, clarinetist Barney Bigard, guitar player Bud Scott, bassist George "Red" Callender, pianist Charlie Beal, and pianist Meade Lux Lewis. Also performing in the film is cornetist Mutt Carey and bandleader Woody Herman. The music, however, takes a back seat to a rather conventional plot. The movie stars Arturo de Córdova and Dorothy Patrick, features Marjorie Lord, and was directed by Arthur Lubin.

Billie's only other movie appearance was in another short called Sugar Chile in 1950. The film  presented five jazz numbers in a 15-minute running time. The film includes Billie Holiday performing "God Bless the Child" and "Now, Baby or Never", the Count Basie Sextet performing "One O'Clock Jump", and juvenile performer Frank "Sugar Chile" Robinson performing "Numbers Boogie" and "After School Boogie". The film was directed by Will Cowan and produced and released by Universal-International Pictures. 

More screen roles were becoming available to African American actresses in the 1950s, and some great actresses emerged like Dorothy Dandridge and Ruby Dee, but by the mid 1950s Billie's life was spiraling out of control, and she had a hard time remembering lyrics let alone lines of dialogue. The film career of Billie Holiday should have better, but luckily her voice did the acting for her during her career...

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