“A Zoot Suit” is a far more important song than the jaunty melody and hip lyrics might suggest. True, the tune is always played as an up-tempo, whimsical, almost trivial investigation of a clothing style from the 1940s. Behind the lyrics, however, is something far more important.
The zoot suit, an exaggerated fashion style, was a statement of independence on the part of Hispanics, African Americans, and eventually Whites. (Think of the baseball cap with the reverse-worn brim that flies in the tradition of how the cap “should be worn.”) While author Andrea Kelly sees the zoot suit as a symbol of upward mobility, that is a small part of the story. The clothing style must also be seen as a sign of minority youth rebellion. The “zoot suit” pushed back at both the “majority culture,” as well as the values of older and, to the extent that it existed, middle-class Hispanics and Blacks. All of these tensions would eventually erupt in 1943 in the Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots.
But in this Soundie, and all recorded versions of the tune, that tension is completely missing. Ray Gilbert and Bob O’Brien, the writers of the song, present lyrics that are light-hearted and lacking in any politics or signifying whatsoever. Quite simply, those lyrics must be taken at face value as the stunning Dorothy Dandridge and her comic foil, Paul White, each purchase this sartorial embellishment for their Sunday date.
The music is played off-screen by Ted Fio Rito and his Orchestra, a sweet band that could swing when necessary. They do so here, in a manner that allows Dandridge and White to swing effortlessly. The band is driven by drummer Frank Flynn, with a strong tenor sax solo by Joe Masek. But for most viewers, it was probably the electrifying image and talent of Dorothy Dandridge that made this Soundie so special. Produced just two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Soundies viewers, regardless of color or gender, would have happily invested their dimes in a film as entertaining and uplifting as this one!