Complex Ramifications: Musical Short Films of the 1930s-1940s & African-American Jazz Musicians
This paper examines how the early short film genre resulted in the increased distribution of jazz music to wider audiences and the complex ramifications this had for black performers. Representing some of the earliest incorporation of sound into visual films, short films frequently featured black artists in leading roles. Musical shorts such as Vitaphone shorts and Soundies films helped to facilitate the spread of African-American jazz music to white audiences by providing visual representations of jazz performers alongside an aural introduction to jazz music. However, this exposure was often accompanied by problematic depictions and misrepresenta-tions of African-American performers and culture; although positive film representations of black artists existed, frequent perpetuation of racial stereotypes abounded. While some performers benefitted from increased professional exposure via the short film medium, others found themselves limited professionally due to many short films’ perpetuation of stereotypes and racial assumptions.
By 1927, technological advancements had forever changed the film industry by enabling the integration of sound with moving pictures. This made possible feature-length films as well as short films including the Vitaphone shorts of the 1920s and the Soundies of the 1930s and 1940s.[i] Most feature-length movies that included appearances by black artists featured these performances as unimportant musical inserts that were inconsequential to the story line. These disposable scenes could be easily removed before the films were shown in the Southern states; the quick facility of such alterations resulted in a scarcity of leading roles for African-Americans in feature-length films.[ii] In contrast, Vitaphone shorts and Soundies frequently featured black musicians, dancers, and entertainers, enabling these performers to gain prominence among wider audiences. These short films represent some of the earliest incorporation of sound into visual films, which helped to facilitate the spread of African-American jazz music to white audiences. The ubiquitous availability and popularity of the films carried great implications for American culture, particularly through depictions of African-American culture to white audiences.
However, the portrayal of African-American culture by these films was usually informed only by white assumptions rooted in stereotypes, consequently sparking scrutiny by many critics and scholars in response to the films’ frequently problematic depictions and misrepresentations of African Americans.[iii] While musical shorts certainly provided audiences with some positive portrayals of black performers as competent, skilled musicians, they also often perpetuated stereotypes through problematic depictions of African-Americans. Some of these misrepresentations relied upon blatantly racist content, while others relied upon subtler elements, including less overt racial associations and themes of victimization. These depictions illustrate the complexity of racial assumptions and their perpetuation via the short film medium, which simultaneously influenced white perceptions of blackness as well as the success of the films’ various featured artists. Thus, the development of the short film genre played a vital role in the expansion of the jazz genre to wider audiences, but not without complex ramifications that simultaneously amplified the careers of some black artists while limiting the careers of others, often due to the films’ perpetuation of prevalent stereotypes and white notions of blackness.
The production of Vitaphone shorts began a decade before the genesis of Soundies films. Both types of short films helped to increase the distribution of African-American performances to wider audiences, albeit with varying degrees of influence. First introduced in 1926, Vitaphone films included the first talking pictures as well as animated short films, but the Vitaphone medium had become obsolete by 1931. Soundies took off during the war years, reaching far more viewers than their Vitaphone predecessors.[iv] Precursors to today’s music videos, Soundies were viewed via a coin-operated film jukebox called a Panoram.[v] Panorams became ubiquitous throughout the 1940s, and were often found in diners, bars, bus terminals, roadhouses, factories, and even ferries.[vi] Starkly set and costumed, the musical performances found in Soundies contain little to no surrounding narrative, unlike those found in feature-length films.[vii] These short films could be produced and distributed cheaply and quickly while also providing new territory for black performers to take on starring roles.[viii]
African-American performances reached unprecedentedly wide audiences because the Panoram did not allow viewers to select individual performances for viewing; rather, viewers could only watch whichever short was playing at that moment. Therefore, Panoram producers frequently included a wide range of musical genres on each reel in order to attract as many customers as possible, often including an African-American number as the final film.[ix] Because many black musicians had never been filmed before, Soundies played an important role in introducing visual representations of these performers to viewers, alongside an aural introduction to jazz music.[x] Soundies’ content and popularity demonstrate a changing cultural landscape, displaying trends in popular music, dance, and entertainment during the 1930s and 1940s.
Short films often catered to class-based assumptions of white audiences, impacting the amount of success achieved by the films’ featured black artists. Hollywood producers tended to seek out black performers with whom white audiences were already familiar, striving to create “positive” representations of African-Americans.[xi] Therefore, the films did not provide opportunities for new black artists to begin their careers. Instead, they enabled already well-established musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith to reach even wider audiences. Louis Armstrong, a widely popular trumpeter, singer, and composer, was one of few African Americans to regularly appear in Hollywood films, including four Soundies and several feature-length movies; Armstrong’s film appearances helped jazz to gain respect as a legitimate musical genre.[xii] A 1929 film of Bessie Smith performing “St. Louis Blues” is one of the most well-known musical shorts of the century, demonstrating the impact of sound and film technology on the distribution and popularization of blues and early jazz styles. The film also provides a glimpse into popular portrayals of African-American culture to the largely white audiences of the period.[xiii]
Even big-name figures such as Armstrong and Smith, who were well-known among white audiences, were not immune to the films’ often problematic portrayals of African-American performers. Though some music scholars laud the musical shorts of the 1930s and 1940s for their portrayals of black musicians and the film genre’s role in their professional success, others repudiate the claim that the shorts consistently provided an accurate depiction of African-American culture and jazz music. Thomas Cripps proposes that white males became arbiters and filters of black music performance:
Because it rested so much on improvisation and the heat of the moment, rather than scripting or scoring, jazz-on-film allowed the fullest black expression. Even then blacks who conformed to white models and easily took direction survived. Stepin Fetchit would get more work than Bessie Smith; Louis Armstrong more than Duke Ellington; Bill Robinson more than Charles Gilpin (original emphasis).[xiv]
The assertion that the success enjoyed by these artists was largely due to their conformity to white audiences’ expectations suggests that the stars’ popularity was often reliant upon their adherence to the mold of blackness determined by white performers and producers.
Inconsistency abounds regarding how realistically African-American culture and artists are depicted in many musical shorts; one film may contain portrayals remaining faithful to the real-life persona of an artist, while other characters within the same film perpetuate stereotypes via racist tropes. For example, in the 1929 short Black and Tan Fantasy, Duke Ellington plays a fictional version of himself, maintaining his real-life persona as a competent, elegant musician and composer. This portrayal may be viewed as progressive, given the era’s racially divided atmosphere. However, in spite of this progressive element, racist undertones remain present throughout the film; Ellington’s true-to-life character is concurrently presented alongside stereotypical images of two lazy, illiterate, alcoholic black men depicted by the characters Connor and Lovejoy.[xv] The reinforcement of racially-charged stereotypes by these characters contrasts sharply with Ellington’s far more realistic, sophisticated portrayal, underscoring the blurred lines between progress and the perpetuation of stereotypes often found in musical shorts of the era. These derogatory portrayals are certainly to be regretted as an unfortunate example of the racism frequently found in early sound films. Even so, it is perhaps notable that the director of Black and Tan Fantasy, Dudley Murphy, was one of the first to offer leading roles to African-American performers, representing a small step toward social progress in spite of the film’s significant faults.[xvi]
Murphy also directed the 1929 short St. Louis Blues, which features popular blues singer Bessie Smith in a manner which differs substantially from Ellington’s starring role. Ellington’s true-to-life character possesses confidence and agency in Black and Tan Fantasy, while St. Louis Blues depicts a helpless woman quite unlike Smith’s real-life persona. Though publicly known for being independent and headstrong, the fictional representation of Smith is that of a victimized woman, humiliated by a lover who cheats on her and steals from her, leaving her to wallow in misery and loneliness. Some scholars suggest that a lack of musical autonomy left Smith and other black female performers susceptible to “humiliating portrayals of black womanhood.”[xvii] Scholar Peter Stanfield describes these superficial depictions thus:
Hollywood used blues songs stereotypically as soundtracks for displays of urban primitivism. In much the same fashion as was done with blackface minstrel recordings, the presentation of St. Louis Blues in Hollywood films reduced the song’s potential for meaning to that of an existential play with surfaces—a smearing of blackness on a world otherwise imagined as white.[xviii]
In spite of the discrepancies between Smith’s real-life and fictional personas, St. Louis Blues also represents a degree of social progress; black women scarcely received leading film roles at the time of production.13 However, this progressiveness does not detract from the significance of Smith’s arguably demeaning portrayal within the short, nor from the fact that black female performers faced a myriad of challenges and barriers to professional success. Even in starring roles, female performers were often portrayed as having significantly less agency and independence than their male counterparts, likely due to the intersectional oppression the women faced. Simultaneously facing barriers of both race and gender, many of these women may have felt forced to pursue professional success through particularly narrow avenues, accepting roles presenting unrealistic, even degrading, representations of themselves.
Many musical short films featuring black performers rely heavily upon problematic portrayals of African-American culture; Soundies in particular have faced a great deal of scrutiny for their frequent stereotypical representations of gender, race, and ethnicity.[xix] Most of the films’ content, rooted in common stereotypes and biases held by the white majority, points toward dominant cultural norms and misperceptions during the twentieth century, rather than depicting realistic experiences or characteristics of the minority population supposedly represented. One particularly glaring example of stereotyping and blatant racism occurs in a 1933 Vitaphone short featuring The Mills Blue Rhythm Band. While racist attitudes and assumptions are displayed throughout the film, the final scene is particularly notable for its racist content; one critic laments that the film is “marred by the racist images in the last number, and the demeaning dialogue in general.”[xx] After the characters have assembled at a party, the band begins to play “Blue Rhythm,” the final musical number of the film. In response to the up-tempo number, Hamtree Harrington’s character remarks, “Boy, don’t that remind you of the old days in the jungle?” Another man replies, “It sure do!” Following this uncomfortable exchange, the band and party guests transform into jungle attire during Joe Garland’s tenor saxophone solo. The guests continue dancing, ostensibly unfazed by the retrograde transformation into scantily clad African natives. Harrington’s suggestion that the black characters are wistful for a primitive jungle existence connotes a sense of otherness; rather than assuming American origins, the film implies that the characters feel more strongly connected to a primitive jungle heritage. The jungle transformation exoticizes the characters against the musical backdrop of swing music; this association of jazz music with primitivism reinforces stereotypes while ignoring the band members’ sophisticated musical abilities and professionalism. This regrettable conclusion to the film simultaneously depicts and perpetuates racist attitudes and assumptions; unfortunately, blatant racism was certainly not isolated to the Mills Blue Rhythm Band short alone.
A subtler perpetuation of racial stereotypes occurred through the appearance of particular instruments within short films; audiences of the day were familiar with racially-biased cultural associations surrounding certain instruments. A 1930 short called Ol’ King Cotton, starring vocalist George Dewey Washington, perpetuates stereotypes of the “Old South” through its pointed display of a banjo, a tenor guitar, and a harmonica. These are the only instruments shown in the film, although a full jazz orchestra is heard. These three instruments had previously been appropriated by minstrel shows, and audiences particularly associated the banjo with music of the country blues. Folklorist Harold Courlander once dubbed the harmonica “probably the most ubiquitous of Negro folk instruments,” indicating a strong association between the instrument and African-American culture. Given these associations, the inclusion of these three instruments is a clear and obvious cultural reference rooted in racial stereotypes regarding black musicians and their preferred instruments.
At the start of the film, Washington sings the folk blues number “Ol’ King Cotton” while slouching against a sycamore tree, flanked by one man playing banjo and another playing tenor guitar. The song evokes images of cotton-picking on a Southern plantation; later on, a boy plays harmonica as Washington reprises the tune in the back of a warehouse “in the North.” By this point in the film, the song carries connotations of nostalgia for home “down South,” musically underscored by the harmonica accompaniment. Though meant to give weight to the authenticity of Washington’s performance, the presence of these three instruments simply reinforces stereotypical associations between race and instrument types.[xxi] Rather than presenting a true picture of musical performance by a gifted musician, the pointed inclusion of this instrumentation serves only to confirm what white audiences would likely have already assumed.
Another example of the frequently limited scope of realistic cultural and artistic portrayals in short films is the impact of film appearances on country blues performer Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter. In 1933, Ledbetter was serving time at the Texas State Penitentiary at Angola when he was discovered by John A. Lomax, a folklorist working to record American folksong performances. Over the course of the following years, Ledbetter appeared in a few short films, courtesy of the recognition he had achieved through his participation in the Lomax recordings. A 1935 short produced for a film version of the CBS radio newscast “The March of Time” features a “deferential Leadbelly grateful for the opportunity to serve the ‘white boss.’” The short recounts the story of Ledbetter’s release from prison and his subsequent allegiance to the Lomaxes; Ledbetter’s character spends more time supplicating Lomax to take him on as his “man” than in musical performance. Dressed in prison garb, Ledbetter performs part of his well-known song “Goodnight Irene” for Lomax at the beginning of the film; the partial performance is followed by Lomax’s patronizing declaration that he “never heard so many good negro songs.” The same song plays at the film’s conclusion, backing narration lauding Lomax’s instrumental role in Ledbetter’s career. The limited performance element of the film is barely relevant to the plot, which emphasizes Ledbetter’s convict past rather than his musical accomplishments. He is portrayed as a violent, child-like prisoner owing his success to the clemency of John Lomax, rather than to his own musical abilities. The dominant tone of the era’s race relations is obvious through this film’s focus on Ledbetter as the effusively grateful “man” to the redeeming “white boss.”[xxii]
A 1944 short film featuring Ledbetter similarly reinforces racial stereotypes; dressed in field hand overalls, he is depicted as an “unsophisticated folksinger straight from the cottonfields.” He performs three songs, entitled “Grey Goose,” “Take This Hammer,” and “Pick a Bale of Cotton.” The performances’ lyrical content and rural settings evoke nostalgic images of the agrarian Old South. One critic points out that “viewing the film, one might well doubt that here was a musician who had spent the last ten years in the most sophisticated and multi-racial city in the United States, mixing with performers of a variety of musical forms.”[xxiii] These stereotypical images ignore the complex reality of African-American history and culture, romanticizing slavery while disregarding its far-reaching ramifications.
Some scholars express concerns that short films featuring black musicians “ran the risk of relegating black expression to only musical performance,” exposing white audiences to only a narrow, highly calculated depiction of African-American culture.[xxiv] This is evidenced by the one-dimensional musical persona achieved by Ledbetter and his difficulty achieving success with black audiences:
What these films reveal, in a far more explicit manner than his records ever could, is how the Lomaxes were responsible for limiting the singer’s musical development and locking him into the role of stereotypical rural minstrel.[xxv]
These film depictions restricted Ledbetter’s professional success, despite the initial exposure he received via the film genre; the films simultaneously aided in both the creation and the limitation of Ledbetter’s career and musical development.
The rise of the short film genre surely played a significant role in the increased distribution and popularity of African-American musical performances, but not without varied and complex ramifications. While some well-known performers, including Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, enjoyed considerably greater exposure and success due to the popularity of the musical shorts, stereotypical depictions of blackness limited the creative and musical reaches of other artists, such as Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and the Mills Blue Rhythm Band. Depictions of black artists in the short films of the 1930s and 1940s also offer insight into the period’s broader racial, social, and gender dynamics. Black women were less likely than men to receive leading roles in short films, but those who did enjoyed professional exposure and fame, though often alongside admittedly unrealistic representations of themselves. Many of the musical shorts contain problematic or even blatantly racist content, but the popularity of the films nevertheless helped to broaden audiences’ horizons, gradually facilitating change in American music and culture. The work of black musicians began to reach far wider audiences, laying a foundation for further musical and cultural transmission, expansion, and progress.
[i] TaKeshia Brooks, “Boogie Woogie Dreams: Early African-American Representations in Musical Short Films,” Conference Papers—International Communication Association (2006): 1.
[ii] Peter Wegele, “Duke Ellington, the film composer,” Soundtrack 6, no. 1/2 (2014): 84.
[iii] Andrea Kelley, “‘A Revolution in the Atmosphere’: The Dynamics of Site and Screen in 1940s Soundies,” Cinema Journal 54, no. 2 (2015): 77.
[iv] “History of Motion Pictures,” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia (2015).
[v] Michael Meckna, “Louis Armstrong in the Movies: 1931–1969,” Popular Music And Society 29, no. 3 (2006): 362.
[vi] Andrea Kelley, “‘A Revolution in the Atmosphere’: The Dynamics of Site and Screen in 1940s Soundies,” Cinema Journal 54, no. 2 (2015): 72.
[vii] Amy Herzog, “Discordant Visions: The Peculiar Musical Images of the Soundies Jukebox Film,” American Music, vol. 22, no. 1 (2004): 28.
[viii] TaKeshia Brooks, “Boogie Woogie Dreams: Early African-American Representations in Musical Short Films,” Conference Papers—International Communication Association (2006): 1.
[ix] Amy Herzog, “Discordant Visions: The Peculiar Musical Images of the Soundies Jukebox Film,” American Music, vol. 22, no. 1 (2004): 29-30.
[x] Ibid., 33.
[xi] TaKeshia Brooks, “Boogie Woogie Dreams: Early African-American Representations in Musical Short Films,” Conference Papers—International Communication Association (2006): 2.
[xii] Michael Meckna, “Louis Armstrong in the Movies: 1931–1969,” Popular Music And Society 29, no. 3 (2006): 359.
[xiii] Peter Stanfield, “An Excursion into the Lower Depths: Hollywood, Urban Primitivism, and ‘St. Louis Blues,’ 1929-1937,” Cinema Journal, vol. 40, no. 2 (2002): 86.
[xiv] TaKeshia Brooks, “Boogie Woogie Dreams: Early African-American Representations in Musical Short Films,” Conference Papers—International Communication Association (2006): 5-6.
[xv] Peter Wegele, “Duke Ellington, the film composer,” Soundtrack 6, no. 1/2 (2014): 86.
[xvi] Ibid., 84.
[xvii] TaKeshia Brooks, “Boogie Woogie Dreams: Early African-American Representations in Musical Short Films,” Conference Papers—International Communication Association (2006): 11.
[xviii] Peter Stanfield, “An Excursion into the Lower Depths: Hollywood, Urban Primitivism, and ‘St. Louis Blues,’ 1929-1937,” Cinema Journal, vol. 40, no. 2 (2002): 93.
[xix] Amy Herzog, “Discordant Visions: The Peculiar Musical Images of the Soundies Jukebox Film,” American Music, vol. 22, no. 1 (2004): 36.
[xx] Mark Cantor, “Celluloid improvisations: Mills Blue Rhythm Band,” The IAJRC Journal, vol. 46, no. 2 (2013): 37-39.
[xxi] Katherine Spring, “To Sustain Illusion is All That is Necessary: The Authenticity of Song Performance in Early American Sound Cinema,” Film History: An International Journal (2011): 291.
[xxii] Michael Paris, “Country Blues on the Screen: The Leadbelly Films,” Journal of American Studies, vol. 30, no. 1 (1996): 122.
[xxiii] Ibid., 123.
[xxiv] Takeisha Brooks, “Boogie Woogie Dreams: Early African-American Representations in Musical Short Films,” Conference Papers—International Communication Association (2006): 3.
[xxv]Michael Paris, “Country Blues on the Screen: The Leadbelly Films,” Journal of American Studies, vol. 30, no. 1 (1996): 119-125.
Taylor Perry is an Athens, GA, native, where she teaches piano and runs a photography business. She graduated from UGA in 2016 with degrees in Music and Human Development & Family Science. Her future plans include attending graduate school and pursuing a career in piano pedagogy. She is particularly interested in exploring how piano lessons can positively impact every student’s levels of self-efficacy and self-esteem, and hopes to contribute to relevant re-search in the pedagogical field.
Citation style: Chicago