A Few Historical Remarks on Boogie-Woogie Dream
by Konrad Nowakowski
Konrad Nowakowski is on the cutting edge of boogie woogie research. By day, a judge in the Austrian legal system, he prepares his boogie woogie research with the precision of a legal brief. This article originally appeared in the liner notes of the CD, Pete Johnson - Radio Broadcasts, Film Soundtracks, Alternate Takes - 1939-1947 (Document, DOCD-1009).
This article is reprinted with the permission Konrad Nowakowski.
The earliest reference I have found to the film appeared in Down Beat of October 1, 1941. According to an article in that issue "Unlucky Woman" had been "featured by Helena in the short film 'Boogie Woogie Blues' [sic] which she made recently for B.W. Shorts with Teddy Wilson's ork plus the Ammons-Johnson duo of boogie woogie pianists." Horne and Ammons-Johnson had shared the bill at Cafe Society Downtown since April, but at first the orchestra had been Red Allen's. Teddy Wilson and his band, at Cafe Society Uptown since June, replaced Allen for a while in August, and then followed him on the regular Downtown bill on September 16. That same day, the Wilson band with Horne recorded two sides for Columbia. The film must have been shot around that time.
The subject of the Down Beat article was NBC's Strictly from Dixie show, on which Horne was featured with Henry Levine. According to Down Beat, she had started on a series of "Southern style blues and ballads" there, in order "to add local color to the show", and Down Beat pointed out that the writer of this material had "never been farther South than Brooklyn." They could have said similar things about Lena, of the Brooklyn Hornes, who remembers the first addition of blues songs to her repertoire as "very shrewd show business" on the part of Barney Josephson, her employer at Cafe Society. Josephson's private opinion was that it was "almost satire" to hear Lena sing the blues. The first of her "Southern style" songs on the NBC radio show, according to Down Beat, were "Mound Bayou" and "Unlucky Woman." Helen Humes recorded both titles later, as did Linda Keene with Henry Levine and his Strictly from Dixie Band ("Mound Bayou") and with Joe Marsala ("Unlucky Woman").
On October 11, the New York Amsterdam News, a black weekly, reported: "Boogie Woogie Filmed. The first musical short with the originators of boogie woogie music -- Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson -- Helena Horne, Teddy Wilson and his band, Russell Morrison, Karl Farkas and Virginia Peine [sic], has just been completed and is being readied for distribution. 'Boogie Woogie Dream,' a two-reeler, brings these genuine boogie woogie musicians to the screen for the first time. Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons, who played boogie woogie long before it became a national institution, are the country's outstanding exponents of this form of hot jazz, while beautiful Helena Horne, of whom few people had heard two years ago, is being hailed by critics as one of the finest blues singers in the business. In this Teddy Wilson and his band make their first movie appearance as an ensemble. 'Boogie Woogie Dream' was produced by Mark Marvin who was associated with the Steinbeck-Kline 'Forgotten Village,' and was directed by Hans Burger, co-director of 'Crisis' and shorts produced on the east coast. Photography is by Larry Williams, Karl Farkas, author of 'Wonderbar' and other Broadway musicals, wrote the script. The producing outfit was B.W. Film Shorts, Inc."
Producer, director and script writer of the Dream had more in common than the Amsterdam News article revealed. If Marvin had been production manager of Herbert Kline's Mexican film Forgotten Village, and if Hans (Hanus) Burger had co-directed Crisis, the anti-Nazi documentary on the fate of Czechoslovakia in 1938, it could have been added that Herbert Kline made this film with Burger. Kline was a well-known left-wing writer who, among other things, had written a revolutionary play John Henry -- Bad Nigger in 1933. During the Spanish civil war he was a war correspondent with New Masses, the communist newspaper which helped to start the boogie wave in New York in 1938. Burger, associate producer of Kline's Crisis in addition to co-directing it, was a declared communist who had fled to his home town Prague when the Nazis invaded Austria, where he had been working as a theatrical director. He followed Kline on the latter's return to the USA in 1939. Farkas, the script writer of Dream, who also acted the part of the waiter in the opening scene, was one of Austria's most prominent cabaret writers and performers before the Nazi occupation. He had originally fled to Czechoslovakia like Burger, but did not make it to the USA before 1941. After the war he came back to Austria where he was an extremely popular cabaret and TV star until his death in 1971. Burger left the USA for political reasons in 1950, returning to Prague once more. He died in Germany in 1991.
Mark Marvin, producer of Boogie-Woogie Dream, was Herbert Kline's older brother, and an important influence on him. They grew up in Davenport, Iowa, where Marvin was a childhood friend of Bix Beiderbecke before his parents sent him to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. After his return, he was one of those who encouraged the career of Richard Wright, the famous black writer who was a clerk at the Chicago Post Office at that time. By the end of the 1930s, Marvin was in New York, deeply involved with the left-wing theatre groups around Strasberg and Kazan, and editing a theatrical magazine. He was in the Army Signal Corps in New York when Blanche Marvin got to know him in 1943. At that time, she remembers, they practically "lived at Cafe Society." Blanche herself sang duets with Cafe Society star Josh White, which she mentioned on her 1940s casting card as an actress. In 1946 Marvin and black actor Canada Lee produced On Whitman Avenue with a mixed cast on Broadway, a serious play about a black family moving into a white neighborhood. It was heavily acclaimed by Eleanor Roosevelt who can be seen between Marvin and Lee in photographs. In 1950, the Marvins turned their back on the USA, settling in London. Mark resumed theatrical work in New York in the later 1950s and died there in 1958.
Of those who just acted in the Dream Virginia Pine had played the beauty operator in Fugitive Lady (1934), a secretary in The Whole Town's Talking (1935), and a glamour girl in The Women (1939). Dream photographer Larry Williams was a veteran who had worked for Paramount Pictures in the early 1930s. His last films before Dream had been classics of the Yiddish cinema, Tevye (1939) and Overture to Glory (1940). Editor Leonard Weiss seems to have had a different background: he had edited a voodoo horror film, Obeah, in 1935, and one of Oscar Micheaux' all-black films, Lying Lips, in 1939.
According to the Amsterdam News article, Dream should have hit the cinemas soon thereafter, but it took Marvin some time to finish it and to sell it to a distributor. What he eventually made was an outright sale to the Goldberg brothers who released the film in 1944 and who, quite in contrast to the truth, are called its producers in a number of reference works on film history.
There is more confusion in these books regarding the Goldberg brothers themselves: most authors agree that Jack Goldberg was the important one but they cannot make up their minds if the other one's name was Bert or Dave. Regarding the Goldberg company which released (or, allegedly, produced) the film, most authors say it was "Hollywood Productions" (I also saw "Harly Wood Prod." in one big volume). A completely different company of that name made Bronze Buckaroo in the late 1930s("a typical Goldberg production," as one author promptly claims). In a 1944 review of Dream, quoted below, the company's name was given as "Hollywood Pictures Corp." (cf. Sampson, pp. 445, 575 and 578, in contrast to p. 222).
Jack and Bert Goldberg were vaudeville veterans who had staged road shows with Clara Smith, Mamie Smith and the likes in the 1920s. I found references to both of them in black newspapers of that period. When they went into the talking picture business in the 1930s and 1940s, they concentrated on producing films with all-black casts for black audiences, becoming the best-known example of this kind of white entrepreneurship in the history of "independent" film. In 1944, Jack Goldberg made a controversial documentary on the position of the "Negro" in American society, We've Come a Long, Long Way. He released this under the banner of a company which he called "The Negro Marches On," at 630 9th Ave in New York City. The "Hollywood" company which released Boogie-Woogie Dream had the same office address. Regarding a "Dave" Goldberg, I cannot prove his existence. He may have entered the business in the 1940s.
On July 7, 1944 (not July 6, as I have seen quoted), The Film Daily ran this article under "Reviews of New Films": "'Boogie Woogie Dream.' Hollywood Pictures Corp. 12 mins. Jive-ly -- Lena Horne fans and swing enthusiasts will get a kick out of this one. Evidently made before Lena Horne received the grooming and polish which she displays in her more recent films, one can easily recognize her personality and the basis for which she is receiving featured spots in top musicals. Ammons and Johnson, paragons in the art of the boogie rhythm, beat out a piano duet that will have the jitterbugs ready to rip the leatherette off their seas [sic]. Teddy Wilson and his band enter into a dream sequence wherein Horne wishes that she had a bright [sic] new evening gown and could sing a song in the cafe where she works as a dish washer."
This review refers to the fact that by 1944 Lena Horne was a movie star, thanks to films like Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky which she had made after Dream but which reached the cinemas earlier. Dream could not be of importance now for her career. Ammons and Johnson, meanwhile, had failed in their attempt to get a foothold in the movies. When they had worked their way west in 1943, reports had said that they were "heading for Hollywood" in order to be "immortalized in celluloid," and advertisements for their Milwaukee engagement in February 1944 claim that they came "direct from making a picture in Hollywood," having "just completed their part in 'Sweet and Low Down' at 20th Century Fox." There is no such part in that film and Berle Adams, manager of the two pianists at that time cannot remember that he ever so much as worked on a certain picture deal for them. Dream remained their only appearance on the screen.
In August 1944 Boogie-Woogie Dream was featured at the Apollo in a show headlined by Cootie Williams and Ella Fitzgerald. It was advertised, without reference to its title, as "on the screen: Lena Horne" with "Ammons & Johnson" and "Teddy Wilson and Band" added in small letters.
By September, Official Films had begun to offer 16 mm copies of the film for home screening. It is this version of the film which survives. On commercial video copies, at jazz film festivals, and when the film is shown on TV, we always see the Official Films logo first, before a cross-fade leads us to (the rest of) the original credits. For a long time I thought that Official Films had bought the film in the late 1940s, when they acquired the Soundies backlog. The reverse of an original advertisement, which I had only seen framed before, revealed that they obtained it even before the Soundies excerpts were copyrighted.
Down Beat of October 15, 1944, reported: "New York -- Television Motion Pictures Company here is holding trade previews of 20 three-minute musical shorts, produced for television use. The sound-pics feature Lena Horne, Ammons and Johnson and Teddy Wilson's band among other stars." Television Motion Pictures was one of Jack Goldberg's many enterprises, and the report shows that excerpts had been made by then, not only for or by the Soundies Distributing Corporation of America.
In December 1944, Lena Horne's two vocals and the title piece of the Dream were copyrighted as Soundies (December 11: Soundie #19208 UNLUCKY WOMAN; December 30: Soundie #21M1 MY NEW GOWN; December 31: Soundie #20008 BOOGIE WOOGIE DREAM). The Library of Congress, which has no other copyright entries on the film, provided copies of the three Soundies copyright letters. The longest and most interesting one reads like this:
Register of Copyright December 30, 1944
Library of Congress
Regarding MY NEW GOWN, Soundies No. 2544-1-4 -- this is a second-rate cafe setting and all of the players are colored. The picture opens with a close-up of a piano player as the camera pans to where Lena Horne is standing at a table wiping glasses. Comedy is added by the painter who is also using the table as a work bench. Miss Horne sings -- then the painter sits at the other piano. Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, the two pianists, play as Miss Horn [sic] finishes the song and stands at center stage swaying to the rhythm of the music. The scene changes to a first-class night club showing all players in formal attire. Miss Horn [sic] is favored during the montage sequences that follow. During these sequences members of the band are shown, customers in the cafe and the background of the set. The picture fades with a clear close-up of Miss Horne.
Yours very truly,
SOUNDIES DISTRIBUTING CORPORATION
OF AMERICA, INC.
Production Record Department
Michael Pfau in Paris owns three excerpts on 16mm film, titled LENA HORNE Sings "UNLUCKY WOMAN" Teddy Wilson at the piano, LENA HORNE Steps out in her "BRAND NEW EVENING GOWN" with Amons [sic] and Johnson, and AMMONS & JOHNSON in "BOOGIE WOOGIE". All three are Sack Amusement Enterprises shorts, not Soundies. The "Gown" excerpt is composed of the short "Gown" vocal, followed by the untitled piano duet as in the complete film, and by the band instrumental in C, apparently like the "Gown" Soundie. Alfred Sack, a Texan, was as dominant a distributor of black films as the Goldbergs normally were as producers of such films. He cooperated with them in many ways.
Selling the film to the Goldbergs meant selling it primarily for use in theatres with black or mixed audiences. In New York and Chicago at least two such theatres showed the film in 1945: The Metropolitan on 47th and South Parkway in Chicago, where the film was featured as "rhythm-mad, scintillating extra attraction" with an Errol Flynn movie in April, and the Orient on 125th and Lenox in Harlem, where it was shown with John Wayne and Russell Hayden movies in December. Bob Seeley thinks that he saw the film at the Paradise in Detroit, which functioned in a similar way to the Apollo in Harlem.
Many people believe that the film was shot at Cafe Society Downtown, and that it shows the mural paintings for which that place was famous. I stopped thinking so quite a while ago, and the photographs in this booklet will settle that dispute. Regarding the production studios where the film was made, I first thought it could have been the Filmcraft studios in the Bronx, where some (but it is not known which)of the Television Motion Pictures shorts had been filmed, according to Goldberg. Blanche Marvin, however, thinks that it was done at the Astoria studios in Long Island City, where Mark made instructional films for the Army during his time in the Signal Corps. These studios had been used for the production of shorts, inserts and independent films before the Army had taken them over.
In his memoirs, Burger gives a romantic but unconvincing description of how he met Billie Holiday at a party in Harlem, complete with white gardenia, absent look, and "Strange Fruit," and how she wanted him to tell her about the political events in Prague in 1938. By the time he had "raised the money for the film," Burger goes on without further details, Billie was not available, and so -- he says -- Lena Horne got the part. In the end, according to Burger, he was "not too happy" with the film, because he found it "sentimental" when it was finished, and Burger adds that "he" would not have made it that way a year later. It seems that he wants to indicate that this was a director's movie, but I do not think this is true.
Burger knew the surviving version of Dream when he wrote his memoirs (German TV, where he was working had even synchronized it). The important aspect of what he says is that he does not claim that the film was altered after its completion. In that case, the particularly crude cutting must have been an original feature, as are some visible results of poor directing.
In calling the film "sentimental," Burger must have been referring to its dramatic solution, and I am not sure that he saw the additional skin color problem which some spectators see today. If they want to show their concern for black artists they complain about Horne's and Ammons-Johnson's roles as dishwasher, paper hanger and piano tuner and call the "Weathercoop" finale paternalistic. It may be tempting to see "Hollywood" at its worst in these aspects of the film, regardless of the fact that Horne and Ammons-Johnson seem to enjoy themselves as actors, glass-wiping, paper-hanging and piano-tuning included, and that the dream sequence, which shows them as sophisticated nightclub performers, lasts through most of the film. But one should be careful about too hasty comparisons and judgements. First, there is Teddy Wilson, playing himself not "only" in the dream, and representing Afro-American jazz perhaps as elegant and aristocratic as ever it was shown on the screen. We do not see blacks in the very small audience which leaves the club at the beginning, and they did not cast Afro-Americans as Mr. Weathercoop and his companion; but the sharp social discrepancy which is emphasized in the film refers to musical, not racial differences. In dealing with that discrepancy, the film recreates -- on a metaphorical level -- one of the main achievements of Cafe Society, which was to lift blues (as represented by Horne in the film) and boogie woogie to the same level of social acceptance in the entertainment world as the swing stylings of Teddy Wilson and the likes. That blues and boogie woogie deserved this is the clear and loud message of the film.
Many thanks to Anthony Barnett, Blanche Marvin, David Meeker, Helmut Weihsmann and the friendly staff of British Film Institute, Library of Congress and Österreichisches Filmmuseum.
Additional sources (in the order of their use in this text): Hoffmann, Jazz Advertised 1910-1967; Selchow, Profoundly Blue; Horne/Schickel, Lena; Hoffmann, Jazz Reviewed 1910-1967; Alexander, Film on the Left; Markus, Das große Karl Farkas Buch; Burger, Der Frühling war es wert; The Internet Movie Database; Noble, The Negro In Films; Sampson, Blacks in Black And White, 2nd Ed.(main source on that subject); Klotman, Frame By Frame; numerous other works on black cinema; Page, Boogie Woogie Stomp; Page,telephone interview with Berle Adams, January, 1998; Terenzio/MacGillivray/Okuda, The Soundies Distributing Corporation of America; New York Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadacasting homepage.