A musical film noir? And in 1941 already? A white band playing blues? Well, partly.
“Jigger” Pine (Richard Whorf) is playing honky-tonk piano in a dive. His buddy clarinetist Nicky Haroyen (Elia Kazan, in his final screen performance as an actor) keeps after him to start his own band. But Jigger doesn’t want to do this unless it is a small “unit” that thinks as one man (i.e., him) and plays “real” music. He punches a customer out for wanting him to play “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, starts a brawl, and he and his buddies wind up in jail where they hear the stuff they are after — the blues sung by one of the black inmates. (Well, blues as imagined by Tin Pan Alley). After they get out, they meet up with braggart trumpeter Leo Powell (Jack Carson) and his wife vocalist “Character” Powell (Priscilla Lane) and the “unit” is complete.
The band starts out at the bottom of the rung, hopping box cars looking for gigs. Escaped convict Del Davis (Lloyd Nolan) holds them up for their last $5 then takes a liking to the group and their music. He gets them a gig at a roadhouse run by his “friend” Sam where his ex-girlfriend Kay (Betty Field) and her accompanist rummy cripple Brad (Wallace Ford) perform. The band is a big hit.
The tale soon turns much darker. Turns out Sam and Kay set up Del as the fall guy from a job they pulled and Del is out for revenge. Kay still has a yen for Del and uses the married Leo to make him jealous. When Jigger puts a stop to this she turns her attention to him. Jigger falls for this no-good dame and soon she breaks up the band and almost destroys Jigger’s musical career, mind, and life.
So clearly this movie is all over the place. The tone varies from light and comedic to pitch black. The band is the squarest jive-talking “unit” on record. Some of the resolutions come out of nowhere Still, the noir parts are beautifully shot and pack a punch. There is a madness montage (directed by newcomer Don Siegel) that is years ahead of its time. I have never really seen anything like it. Recommended for those interested in the roots of film noir.
Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer were nominated for an Academy Award for their song “Blues in the Night”. What a year for great Original Song nominees 1941 was!