Friday, September 23, 2011
Sepia Cinderella (Herald Pictures, 1947)
by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
On Wednesday night Charles and I stayed in and we managed to squeeze in two movies, opening with a surprisingly good race film called Sepia Cinderella Charles had just downloaded from archive.org. It was the second in a series of race movies produced by Jack Goldberg and Arthur Leonard, and directed by Leonard, and while it was nowhere near as good as the first — Boy! What a Girl, which had the audacity of its Transgender plot line going for it — it was still good light entertainment even though its plot devices had been used in thousands of white movies before it. It also has that rarity in race movies, a performer who eventually crossed over and achieved stardom in white showbiz: Billy Daniels, who though he didn’t become a crossover superstar the way his contemporaries Nat “King” Cole and Billy Eckstine did, eventually did achieve a significant white following (which makes it ironic that his two co-stars actually outsing him during the film!). The plot starts with Daniels as aspiring singer/songwriter/bandleader Bob Jordan, who’s working on a song (actually a rather lame ballad) called “Cinderella,” only he’s stuck for a finish until the film’s heroine, his girlfriend Barbara (Sheila Guyse), suggests one. Within the space of a montage (of huge piles of records and sheet music mounting up and jukeboxes in operation, much the way it was done in the 1941 Busby Berkeley movie Lady Be Good), the song is a nationwide hit and it lands him the job of bandleader at the prestigious Swan Club, whose proprietress Vivian (Tondaleyo) changes its name to the “Cinderella Club” in honor of Bob’s hit song. Naturally, she’s mainly interested in Bob’s body; even though she’s technically engaged to the club’s manager, Ralph Williams (Jack Carter), she’s got a way of stepping out on him with other guys, then disposing of them when she’s no longer interested and returning to Ralph on the rebound.
Through all of this Bob has been living with Barbara and several other people, including the comic-relief characters — phony swami Great Joseph (Emory Richardson) and a couple of his stooges — in a boardinghouse run by Mama Keyes (Hilda Offley Thompson), who’s either Barbara’s grandmother or great-aunt, it’s not quite clear, though it is clear that she’s a two-generations-older relative who got custody of Barbara when both her parents died. Needless to say, Bob follows down the well-worn primrose path of other similarly bewitched performers in white musicals, going out places with Vivian, staying out all night, drinking too much and ultimately missing performances at the club. Ralph lays down the law to Vivian to break up with Bob personally and professionally and get back the band that used to play at the club, led by Barney Ray (Ruble Blakey), who quite frankly (at least to me) seemed to have a much better voice than Bob’s. Indeed, of the three leads — Sheila Guyse also gets to sing, and she had a really nice voice and I suspect what held her back from stardom was she sounded too white for a Black singer in 1947 — Billy Daniels, ultimately the biggest star, seemed to have the weakest and least interesting voice.
Eventually the club’s press agent (a nicely turned comic-relief performance by Fred Gordon) arranges for Bob, who’s learned his lesson, to reappear at the Cinderella Club as Barney’s vocalist — and he rigs up a publicity stunt where each female guest who wants to participate will bring a slipper, Bob will pick one, and its owner will win $100 — and, if she can carry the tune of “Cinderella” in a duet with Bob and sing all its lyrics, she’ll also be rewarded with a week’s engagement at the club. Thanks to a clue screenwriter Vincent Valentini planted early on — in which Barbara had told Bob, “All my slippers have taps on them” — Bob picks the one with taps, it’s Barbara’s, they’re reunited in both love and song, and at the fadeout Barbara looks straight at the camera and, in a nice metafictional bit that’s the cleverest part of Valentini’s script, says, “Only in the movies could it work out this way.” Though it isn’t much as a movie, the plot is a retread of devices used before in hundreds of movies with white casts, and the production values are pretty cheap (though not as dirt-cheap as some of the tackier race movies were; technically this is comparable to a good “B” from a third-tier studio like Monogram), Sepia Cinderella is actually pretty good: the leads are personable, they sing well and they deliver their lines well enough that this isn’t one of those race movies in which you wonder throughout the running time, “Where were all the Black people who could act?”
What’s more, as with the previous Goldberg-Leonard production, there’s a white guest star — Freddie Bartholomew, now a virtually forgotten young adult with a moustache that makes him look like David Niven and a disarming manner as he runs through a few groaningly ancient old jokes (he’s fun to watch but this sort of thing was not going to propel him into a comeback) — and a whole lot of Black musical performers, including John Kirby with at least three other people from his “Greatest Little Band in the Land,” his infectious small swing combo from the late 1930’s: trumpeter Charlie Shavers, clarinetist Buster Bailey and pianist Billy Kyle — and drummer Sid Catlett (replacing Kirby’s original one, O’Neil Spencer, who had died in 1944). Kirby’s two infectious numbers are by far the best parts of the show, but plenty of the rest of it is entertaining as well — including two songs, “Long-Legged Lizzie” (a genuinely funny novelty) and “Is It Right?” by ex-Ink Spot Deek Watson, who’d gone out on his own and organized a similarly named group called the Black Dots (and on the intro to “Is It Right?” they really do sound like the Ink Spots, though through most of their performances here — and in Boy! What a Girl, in which they also appeared — they sound as much or more like the Mills Brothers, with a real feeling for jazz). Sepia Cinderella doesn’t have the sheer audacity of Boy! What a Girl going for it, but it’s a genuinely professional piece of filmmaking and fun to watch.