“Oh What A Tangled Web We Weave”:
Three Black Cast Films From The 1940’s
Mistaken Identity, Murder With Music and Bob Howard’s House Party: three black cast films from the second half of the 1940s that share the same production personnel, elements of plot and even some musical performances. This article attempts to untangle some of the questions that have confused researchers and viewers over the years, and to correct many of the errors that have found their way into print. The three films are not masterpieces by any stretch of the imagination – at times the direction, acting and writing is close to inept – but the trio provides a fascinating glimpse into the production of films for the African-American audience during this period, as well as sharing some exciting musical performances.
Throughout this article, it is important to keep the production chronology straight. All three films are credited to Century Productions, and they were produced during a roughly fifteen month period. Mistaken Identity was the first of the three, produced ca. mid 1946-early 1947. Murder With Music was produced ca. late 1947-early 1948. Bob Howard’s House Party utilized footage shot for the second feature.
For the sake of completeness, it must be noted that Century Theatrical Productions, a variation of the Century Productions name, produced the feature Junction 88 in 1947. This film features Bob Howard and the Noble Sissle orchestra. It also shares most of the production personnel with the three films under consideration here. The bandstand setting of the Sissle orchestra is the same as in Murder With Music and Bob Howard’s House Party, and while only six musicians appear on screen, the recording band sounds much larger. It appears that producer/director George Quigley recorded more music than necessary for Murder With Music – or perhaps it was intentional – and he used this soundtrack material in not only Bob Howard’s House Party, but also Junction 88. The use of a smaller sideline band was probably an economy measure on producer D. J. Mastrony’s part. Noble Sissle and Bob Howard’s performances aside, Junction 88 is sufficiently different from the three films under discussion here, and it warrants an article of its own sometime in the future.
Very little is known about Century Productions and the filmmakers who put this trio of films together. Along with Junction 88, these are the only black cast films produced and released by Century Productions. Co-producer/co-director George P. Quigley can be associated with only one other film making effort: Super Sleuth (Consolidated National Films, distributed by Toddy Pictures, 1944).
Arthur Leonard, Quigley’s production associate on Mistaken Identity, is a familiar name to students of black cast film. He served as a director as early as 1939 (Straight To Heaven, Domino Productions & Million Dollar Productions) and The Devil’s Daughter (Lenwal Productions & Sack Amusement). In the late 1940s he co-produced and directed two well-known race features for Herald Productions, both made in 1946 and released the following year: Sepia Cinderella and Boy! What A Girl!
Only one of the remaining members of the production team seems to have made a mark in film production, or to have moved beyond this trio of films. Cinematographer George Webber was the veteran of the production team, having shot scores of film shorts, both silent and sound, for Paramount, Educational and others. His career extended into the early 1950s, with his camerawork employed on a variety of early television programs.
The following are the credits for Mistaken Identity, along with comments regarding their relevance to the remaining two films: producer: George P. Quigley and Arthur Leonard; director: George P. Quigley and Arthur Leonard.
Note that while Leonard is not mentioned in the opening credits for Murder With Music, the reuse of footage from the first film suggests that credit would have been appropriate, whether or not Leonard shot any of the new material. It is not known if Leonard was involved with Bob Howard’s House Party in any way.
Screenplay: Victor Vargas and Norman Borisoff, based on a story by George Freedland; the new footage in Murder With Music was written by Augustus (Gus) Smith. The writer of Bob Howard’s House Party is unknown.
Photography: George Webber was responsible for the photography for Mistaken Identity, with John Visconti taking over the camera for the new footage in the second and third film.
Sound recording: Robert Rosien served as director of sound recording for all three films.
Editor: Mavis Lyons edited the first feature; the editor of the second feature, and the short subject, is unknown.
Musical director: A “musical director” is not noted for any of the films. For the Mistaken Identity, Skippy Williams is credited with “original music.” For the second feature, individual song titles are listed as by either Skippy Williams, or the team of Sidney Easton and Gus Smith. The short subject credits “original music by Sidney Easton.” Authorship of the individual songs are detailed later in the article.
For the record, the following information about Century Productions was published in Film Daily (1945-46 supplement):
Century Productions, Inc.
(Producer of industrial, educational and theatrical subjects in 16 mm. and 35 mm., and slide films)
12 E. 44th St., New York 17, N. Y., Murray Hill 2-7087
President George P. Quigley
Vice-President John Q. Quigley
Secretary Pegge A. Thomases
Producer George P. Quigley
Narrator Albert Grobe
Music Rudolph Goehr
Art Department Karl Milroy Editor Mavis Lyons
Public Relations Pegge A. Thomases
Sales Representative Ronald Gilbert
Research Kathryn Linden
The detailed corporate personnel listing make clear that Century Productions was far more involved in the East Coast film production world that the four black cast films suggest, although no other specific releases have been identified to this point in time.
Since the focus of this article is the music performance, it might seem unnecessary to discuss the plots in detail, and you are cordially invited to skip this section and move onto the music. I have decided, however, to spend some time here, since it is important to know the plot of the first film in order to understand how the material was reused in the second and third production.
Mistaken Identity opens with the Skippy Williams Quintet auditioning in a night club. (The specifics of the music and dance is discussed later in this article.) The credits role over the initial performance, a unique occurrence in a black cast film. After the credits are completed, nightclub singer Lola (played by Nellie Hill) walks over and kisses the band’s pianist, Louis (Ernest “Pinky” Williams). Three men observe this encounter: the nightclub manager Bill Smith (Ken Renard), an escaped convict, Mike (Bill Dillard), and Hal Ford (George Oliver), a reporter. None of the three looks happy. As the second number starts, someone throws a knife at Louis, who is still sitting at the piano bench, hitting him in the back and killing him.
Hal Smith runs to the phone and calls his editor, unnamed, played by Bob Brown. Hal then starts relaying what is essentially a story within the story.
The previous evening Hal had taken Lola home. As Hal began to make advances, Lola diverted him by tuning in a musical number, I’m A Cute Little Bangi From Ubangi, on the television! Mike, the escaped convict, arrives at Lola’s apartment, and Hal wisely hides in the closet. Mike is not pleased to see a picture of Louis, the piano player, and he think Louis might have been in the apartment earlier in the evening. Mike and Lola leave, planning to go to the apartment of nightclub manager Bill Smith, Lola’s employer, to get a suit of clothing for Mike.
The scene switches to Bill Smith’s office where a great deal of time is spent with the secretary (Marjorie Oliver), who is attempting work a crossword puzzle, but is constantly interrupted by the phone. We learn that Bill Smith and his wife Mary (Ruth Cobbs) are at a masquerade party. (While the masquerade party does not affect the plot much at all, it is the setting for the short subject, Bob Howard’s House Party.)
Hal then tells the editor that he broke into Bill Smith’s house. While he was investigating, Mr. and Mrs. Smith return home from the masquerade party. They are drunk and do not see Hal, who hides behind a chair. Mr. Smith climbs out of the window after their cat, and is arrested. His wife Mary follows him, and is arrested, too. Both are taken to jail.
As Hal is getting ready to leave, Mike and Lola arrive. However, they do not have keys to the apartment. A policeman, Jerry O’Hare (Andrew Maize), mistakes them for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, climbs in the window and lets them in. While Jerry plays the piano, and Lola sings a song from her nightclub routine, guests arrive from the masquerade party, having been invited back by Bill Smith. They are greeted at the door by Mike, who brandishes a gun, and are locked in the bedroom. What happens next is not known, but presumably Mike and Lola leave, Mike wearing one of Bill Smith’s suits, with Jerry and Hal following soon.
Meanwhile, Bill Smith is released from jail. The scene shifts back to the nightclub, and a 2:00 rehearsal. Mrs. Smith, also sprung from jail, arrives at the club and sees Lola flirting with Bill. Amidst musical performances from the Skippy Williams combo, the dance team of Alston and Young, and vocalist Lola, events move quickly: Hal arrives on the scene, Mike is introduced to Bill Smith … and all of the cast is finally in place. We return to the musical performances that open the picture, and the murder is repeated.
As incredible as it may seem, nightclub owner Bill Smith declares that, as a former detective, nobody may be leave the scene of the crime, and that he will solve to murder. Hal runs to the phone to call in the story to the editor, but it was all a ruse: Smith somehow determines that Hal was the murderer. Bill and Mary are reunited, Lola has her job (but her boyfriend is dead), and Heaven knows what happens to Mike the escaped convict.
Murder With Music reuses much of the plot of the first film, although it jettisons a great deal of footage in order to introduce a new story frame, as well as a great deal of new music. Bob Howard is now the editor of the paper. Ted (Milton J. Williams) approaches him for a job, presumably working the newspaper’s “crime beat.” Howard decides to tell Ted a story he had recently heard.
We now move to Lola’s apartment, where the action described above – Hal “putting the make” on Lola, and the musical performance on the television – begins the action of the story within the story. The plot progresses as in the first film until the midway point. We are back with Bob Howard in the newspaper office, and he informs Ted that while Hal was hiding in Bill’s apartment, he (Bob Howard) was at the masquerade party. This leads to the new musical performances featuring Noble Sissle and his Orchestra, dancers Johnson and Johnson, and Howard himself. The action bounces between the events at Bill Smith’s apartment, as described above, and the music at the masquerade party.
Finally we reach the club rehearsal, and what was seen at the beginning and end of the first feature. Skippy Williams’ band has a number to itself, and then the follow up fragment, during which the murder is committed. The film progresses with the murder, investigation, and solution to the crime presented in the final 5 minutes of the film.
Bob Howard’s House Party thankfully requires little description. It is essentially more footage from the masquerade party. Here there are four musical performances, all described below, essentially material filmed at the same time as Murder With Music, but used instead within this separate one reel (ten minute) film release.
Save for the musical performers, none of the cast members in any of the films became particularly well known in either black cast or major studio motion pictures. For most of the performers, this appears to be their only screen appearance. The musical performers aside –- they are all discussed below –- the most familiar names are probably Bill Dillard and Bob Howard.
In the two feature films, Bill Dillard plays the escaped convict, Mike. Bill Dillard is, of course, best known to jazz fans as a trumpet player whose sixty year career included work in the bands of King Oliver, Clarence Williams, Benny Carter, Teddy Hill and others. Interestingly enough, Dillard was the trumpet player on two small group recording sessions with Bob Howard in July 1935. Dillard also appears in at least three other black cast films; in 1957 he played the King of Babylon in a television production of The Green Pastures. Dillard also had a quite extensive Broadway career, appearing in such stage presentations as Carmen Jones (1943-45) and Beggar’s Holiday (1946-47), the latter with music by Duke Ellington.
Born Howard Joyner on June 20, 1906, Bob Howard was a popular entertainer whose career lasted close to three decades. Howard does not appear in Mistaken Identity, but is featured in the new footage filmed for Murder With Music and (quite obviously) Bob Howard’s House Party.
Howard began his entertainment career as the piano playing member of the vaudeville team Joyner and Hopkins; Howard played piano and sang, while Morris Hopkins was the duo’s dancer. Howard made a remarkable number of recordings during 1931-38, twenty-six session in all. With the popularity of Fats Waller duly noted by record producer Jack Kapp, Howard was signed by Decca as Waller’s competition. His singing voice varied according to material and mood, ranging from tenor to baritone, from robust interpretations to coy meanderings.
In 1943 Howard appeared on Broadway in Early To Bed. The following year he starred in a series of four Soundies, all fine examples of his instrumental and singing talent. He worked in radio from 1938 to 1975, with his own programs on WEAF, WCBS and WHN. Howard was the first black performer to have his own television series, with his 15-minute show on CBS airing from July 1948 to December 1951. In addition to the three films under discussion, Howard’s film credits also include two other black cast films, Stars On Parade (All-American News, 1946) and Junction 88 (Century Theatrical Productions, 1947) .
Bob Howard continued performing at various nightclubs and restaurants until his death on December 3rd 1986. The only other performer in our trio of films who carved out an extensive film career was Ken Renard. Killer Diller (All-American News, 1948) was his only other black cast film appearance, and he then moved on to mainstream motion pictures and television for a career that lasted until 1982. Although he appeared in some well-known films, including Something Of Value (MGM 1957) and True Grit (Paramount, 1969), most of his work was in television, and he appeared in such series as Perry Mason, Thrilled, Checkmate, The Outer Limits and Bonanza.
Nellie Hill, the female lead in the feature, was a popular nightclub performer and recording artist who never became a star, but who was highly respected within the black music community. Hill had a successful career than spanned more than a decade. In addition to this feature, her only starring role, Hill appeared in a handful of Soundies and in the 1948 black cast feature Killer Diller (All American News); in this film she once again portrays a character named “Lola.” Earlier in the 1940s Hill had spent at least a year and a half in France, and she was recorded frequently by Pathe. After film appearances, in 1949 and 1950, she recorded with Ben Smith for Abbey Records. Hill appeared regularly in nightclubs throughout the 1950s, sharing the stage with such well-known performers as Nipsy Russell, Willie Bryant, and even The Three Stooges.
The complete cast listing for Mistaken Identity is as follows: Nellie Hill (Lola, the nightclub singer); George Oliver (Hal Ford, the reporter); Bill Dillard (Mike, the escaped convict); Ken Ranard (Bill Smith); Ruth Cobbs (Mary Smith); Andrew Maize (Jerry O’Hare, the cop); Bob Brown (the newspaper editor); Pinky Williams (Louis, the piano player); Marjorie Oliver (the secretary).
For Murder With Music two additional actors are added: Bob Howard (the editor); Milton J. Williams (Ted the reporter).
Most production paperwork for these films has long since vanished, been destroyed, or just stored and forgotten. Lacking any other evidence, earlier writers have dated Mistaken Identity and Murder With Music as early as 1939 and 1941. Obviously, both dates are far from accurate.
While exact production or release dates cannot be assigned for any of the films, a starting point for dating Mistaken Identity has always been there, hidden in plain sight within the film. During the scene in which the secretary works on her crossword puzzle and chats on the phone, two film posters can be seen on the wall behind her. Both are for black cast films produced by All-American News. Big Timers, the earlier of the two, dates from 1945; the second poster is harder to discern, but it turns out to be Stars On Parade from 1946.
It is entire reasonable to assume that each poster was designed and printed shortly before the release of the film, and that the film was produced during the six months prior to the release. The application for a screening license for Big Timers, filed with the New York state censorship board, is dated November 8, 1945. An application was filed for Stars On Parade on April 29, 1946. This would indicate that Mistaken Identity was produced after this point in time. Baring any further evidence, it seems fair to say that Mistaken Identity was produced sometime ca. summer-fall 1946 through early 1947. One would assume that upon completion, the producers of the film would have applied for a release license with New York State. This is not the case, meaning that the film was either unreleased at the time, was released without a license, or was distributed in locations other than the state of New York. If released, the film would have been view by the public ca. mid to late 1947.
Murder With Musicand Bob Howard’s House Party are equally hard to date, although process of elimination allows us to get a fairly close feel in terms of production.
Various online and printed resources note that Noble Sissle toured Great Britain during World War II as a member of a USO troupe. (Some of these sources suggests that Eubie Blake did the same, and the two may have reunited for this patriotic activity, perhaps presenting a revised version of their hit Broadway musical Shuffle Along.) None of the sources note whether or not Noble Sissle toured with his orchestra.
The intrepid Howard Rye has researched the arrivals and departures of jazz musicians in Great Britain during the 1930s and 1940s. He reports that Noble Sissle departed Great Britain from Havre on the U.S.S.S. Zanesville Victory for New York City, arriving on April 27, 1946. While it is possible that the footage with Noble Sissle was filmed earler, that is, before Sissle’s European tour, this is unlikely. It makes more sense to assign production of the second feature to the period after Sissle returned from Europe. The application for distribution in New York was filed by Sack Enterprises in on July 13, 1948. Therefore, production of the new footage (all of the performances that include Noble Sissle and his Orchestra, plus the “framing material” that features Bob Howard), was was probably completed sometime in late 1947 or early 1948. This new footage would have been integrated with that from Mistaken Identity in the first half of 1948, with the release of the film, at least in New York, happening in July of that year.
All of the footage for Bob Howard’s House Party would have been shot at the same time as that for Murder With Music. It appears that the production of the short was not an afterthought, but rather something planned at the time of shooting. In any case, Sack Amusement filed for release in New York on December 7, 1948, and the short subject would have been assembled in the months prior to its release.
Mistaken Identity – filmed and recorded in New York City sometime ca. summer or fall 1946 – early 1947; released ca. mid 1947
Murder With Music and Bob Howard’s House Party – filmed and recorded in New York City ca. late 1947 or early 1948; released, respectively, ca. July 1948 and ca. December 1948
The Musical Performers
Skippy Williams Quintet
The Skippy Williams Quintet is featured in both Mistaken Identity and Murder With Music. While the music used in each film is identical, Williams is given credit (“original music”) only in the first of the two releases.
Lord has understandably confused Elbert “Skippy” Williams and Elmer “Tone” Williams, both of whom coincidentally appear in Murder With Music. According to Chilton, Skippy Williams had played in the Chicago-based Eddie Cole’s band (1936- 39), spent time with Count Basie (1939) and later Edgar Hayes, Earl Bostic, Lucky Millinder, Duke Ellington, for a few months in May 1943.
Williams formed a combo some six years before his feature film debut, as noted in Down Beat, July 1, 1941:
Skippy Williams Forms New Unit
New York – Skippy Williams, tenor saxist, took a Negro jump unit into the Red Barn nitery, the Bronx, June 23, for an indef engagement. Bob Warren, drummer is the brother of Earl Warren, Basie alto saxist.
Others in the group are Shad Collins, trumpet; Abe Baker, bass; Howard Johnson, clary and alto; Clyde Hart, piano.
Both feature films include identical performances by the quintet, and the sideline band – that is, the band that we see on screen – has been identified as follows: Elbert “Skippy” Williams, tenor sax and leader; Jesse Drakes, trumpet; Ernest “Pinky” Williams, piano; probably Jack Jarvis, string bass; possibly Hal Austin, drums.
Jesse Drakes, in an interview with Lewis Porter shortly before his (Drake’s) death, confirmed his presence on screen, but was adamant that he did not record the soundtrack. Porter reports, “Yes, Drakes said that is him on trumpet. He was asked to wear makeup, so the mustache is painted on. He said that it’s not him playing on the soundtrack, that he did the visual only.” About the bassist Drakes reported, “Looks like I saw him yesterday. I can see him that clearly. I just can’t call his name. He was not a guy who hung out much with other musicians. We toured together for a couple of weeks around that time; we played parishes in New Orleans. I’m sorry, but I can’t remember his name.” And finally the drummer: Drakes recalls that Hal Austin made the film. “It does look a little like Austin,” he claimed, “but because of the makeup I am not sure.”
We can assume that Skippy Williams indeed recorded the soundtrack with a quintet. The participation of Andrew Maize as Jerry the Cop, who plays piano behind Nellie Hill in Bill Smith’s apartment, suggests that he is the soundtrack pianist in the combo as well. (It is certainly not sideline pianist “Pinky” Williams, who was a reed player.) Although he could be merely acting as a sideline pianist, a musician named Andre Maize plays piano on a 1946 recording date led, perhaps not coincidentally, by Ernest “Pinky” Williams. We can assume that Maize recorded the soundtrack for both his solo accompaniment, and with the Williams combo as well. He does not appear on screen with the Williams band because that role had been given to Skippy’s brother.
Beyond this, nothing is known about the Williams’ recording quintet.
The best known of the musical performers in this trio of films is Noble Sissle. Sissle was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on July 10, 1989. As a young singer he performed in church choirs and glee clubs. He joined the New York 369th Infantry Regiment in 1918, working and eventually recording with James Reese Europe. After Reese’s murder in 1919, Sissle, along with an old friend, Eubie Blake, took over the band.
Sissle and Blake soon began performing together, at first as “The Dixie Duo.” Using songs that they had written earlier, along with new compositions, they wrote and starred in SHUFFLE ALONG, a 1921 Broadway hit that was one of the earliest examples of African-American music and performance on Broadway. Sissle and Blake continued to appear on the vaudeville stage throughout the decade.
Sissle began leading and recording with a band of his own as early as 1921. He can be heard on dozens of recording made both in the United States and Great Britain. Most jazz fans are familiar with Noble Sissle’s film appearance in the 1932 Warner Bros. Vitaphone short That’s The Spirit, one of the best of the early black cast musical shorts. The Sissle recordings from the late 1930s featuring Sidney Bechet are among the most loved recordings from the period.
Beginning in 1938, Sissle began an association with impresario Billy Rose, and Noble Sissle and his Orchestra would appear at Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe in Manhattan, with time away for the U.S.O. tour and other engagements, until 1952. His band was working at the club when the footage was produced for this film, and is so billed in the short subject: Nobel [sic] Sissle and his Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe orchestra.
The personnel of the orchestra has only been partially established, although we know most of the soloists’ names. The relationship between recording and sideline band is unknown, although the presence of trombonist “Butch” Burrill and tenor sax “Tone” Williams can be identified aurally. Since we cannot pinpoint the date of production, however, some questions remain. As jazz film col lector Theo Zwicky notes, “Noble Sissle was a stickler for the blending of the instruments; it is not far-fetched to think that he may have used longtime side- kicks for the film work, to make things sound smoother. This might explain the presence of Russell Smith, who was with Calloway, and perhaps Wendell Culley, who was with Hamp.”
The main problem with the band personnel seems center on the trumpet section. Most sources and collectors have agreed on the following:
trumpets, left-to-right: probably Russell “Pops” Smith, possibly Wendell Culley, unidentified
Although the trumpet to the left indeed looks like Russell “Pops” Smith, a musician who had been associated with Sissle since 1919, Smith was playing with Cab Calloway at this point in time. It is quite possible that Smith was not a part of the performing orchestra, but was called in by his old friend for “a day’s pay for a day’s work.” Wendell Culley has been suggested as the middle trumpet player, although his identification is quite tentative; Ira Gitler, for example, questions this identification. It is possible that the trumpet player to the right is Demas Deam or Clarence Wheeler.
trombone: Chester “Butch” Burrill
reeds, left-to-right: Elmer “Tone” Williams, tenor sax; George James, Eugene “Gene” Mikell, alto saxes; Gilbert “Gil” White, tenor sax
rhythm section: possibly Harry Brooks, piano; possibly Jimmy Jones, string bass; Wilbert Kirk,drums
Alston And Young
The team of Alston and Young, one a dancer, and the other primarily singer and piano player, appear in both iterations of the feature film. This is their only screen appearance and nothing is known about them, save for their names.
Johnson And Johnson
The dance team of Johnson and Johnson, one male and the other female, appear only in Murder With Music, in footage added for this feature, and in the short subject Bob Howard’s House Party. Nothing is known of the act, and these two films are their only know screen appearances.
Sydney Easton And The Crescent Four
While nothing is known of The Crescent Four – they may well have been known by another name – Sidney Easton was quite active in black entertainment. He was a minor songwriter and recording artist; he appears on two Victor recording sessions, along with Elizabeth Smith and Martha Copeland, in 1926 and 1927). While he made one Broadway appearance, he is best known as a performer in black cast films. The 1932 short subject Rhapsody In Black and Blue is, of course, a feature for Louis Armstrong. Easton, however, is present in the story’s framing device, playing the husband to Fanny Belle DeKnight’s wife. Later appearance include such genre features as Paradise in Harlem (Jubilee Pictures, 1939), Sunday Sinners (Goldberg Productions, 1940), Killer Diller and Boarding House Blues (both All-American News, 1948).
None of the dancers in the production number I’m A Cute Little Bangi from Ubangi has been identified.
I’m a Cute Little Bangi From Ubangi
This song, played on the “television” in Lola’s apartment, has always seemed out of place in the film, and its source has always been questioned. Some have suggested that it is a visual dance presentation, with a soundtrack provided by an expanded “Skippy” Williams big band. However, this is incorrect, as we shall soon see.
During the period 1940-46, more than 50 organizations provided film material to be issued as Soundies. Some companies (R.C.M. Productions, Minoco Productions, Filmcraft) had very direct ties to the Mills Novelty Company (the owner of the entire Soundies operation) and Soundies Distributing Corporation of America (a subsidiary that actually distributed the films). Other companies either produced shorts on a film-by-film (or series-by-series) basis, or licensed material that had been produced earlier for other purposes.
L.O.L. Production was involved in providing films during the recording ban (summer 1942 and 1943), and was ultimately responsible for 39 shorts produced during 5 extended production sessions. The company was headed by Samuel Oliphant and Arthur Leonard. Leonard was, of course, the co-producer and co-director of Mistaken Identity. The quality of the L.O.L. Soundies, both in terms of picture, sound, and talent, was perhaps the lowest of any Soundies production unit. Some artists (Borrah Minevitch, Sam Manning, Kay Penton, Henny Youngman, Wynn Murray) were fairly well known; at least, we recognize their names today. Others (Terry Lawlor, Rita Montoya, Jack Spoons, Cross and Dunn, etc.) were active on the New York City entertainment scene at the time, but are virtually unknown today.
Beginning with a March 31/April 1-2, 1943 session (the fourth of five), L.O.L. increasingly turned to songwriter / singer / performer and personality Henry Nemo for both his songwriting skills, and on-screen musical assistance and direction. Nemo was well-known for his songwriting abilities and he provided lyrics for Ellington compositions that were shared in the 1937 Cotton Club Parade. In addition, Nemo wrote two great standards, ’Tis Autumn and Don’t Take You Love From Me, both a part of the “Great American Songbook.” In 1985 Henry Nemo joined jazz historian Kirk Silsbee and me for an evening of film, and he recalled:
“I was in New York City at that time , doing whatever jobs came my way. People knew me, and they came to me because I had done so much work with Duke back at the Cotton Club. I could turn out a good tune and good lyrics in short order, and a lot of what I did didn’t get published or recorded. I really don’t remember much about these films, and less about the other things that you’ve told me about. I recall that we did these things in two days, one for recording, one for filming, and they were done – bam bam bam – fast and furious. I don’t recall that we recorded at the same place that we filmed, and I think it was in the city [Manhattan], not outside [in one of the other boroughs]. Shit, man, I can’t recall hardly anything from back then. Let’s see another film!”
During the last L.O.L. session (late April / early May 1943), L.O.L. produced a Soundie, written by Nemo, titled Plenty Of King. The short was basically a jungle-style dance routine accompanied by an off-screen orchestra. Problems arouse, however, with L.O.L.’s decision to cast a large white actor, appearing in blackface, as the king. Word of this casting decision reached Harlem residents who were involved in the entertainment industry, and this information eventually reached Soundies executive William Forest Crouch. Crouch had a high regard, and incredible respect, for black performers. He was appalled with this short, and refused to release it. Another black cast Soundie, Good Nite All (featuring Johnny Taylor) was substituted for Plenty Of King. (L.O.L. was never paid for the rejected Soundie, and after an extended legal proceeding, the New York State Supreme Court found in William Crouch’s favor.)
With the production of Murder With Music in progress, and with presumably the need arising for an additional music performance, it was decided (probably by Arthur Leonard) that the unused L.O.L. Soundie Plenty Of King could be “inserted” as the television piece, I’m A Cute Little Bangi From Ubangi. Production information is as follows for this one performance: filmed and recorded late April – early May (probably ca. April 23), 1943; recorded and photographed at Fox-Movietone Studios, New York City; song composed by Henry Nemo, recording orchestra unknown; all sideline performers unknown
The composer credits, where known, are taken from the actual films. The assignment of the songs/performances by Skippy Williams was done many years ago by David Chertok, and repeated by Klaus Stratemann. The original source of this information is unknown.
(1) unidentified title, possibly Jam Session (Skippy Williams) – Skippy Williams Quintet (behind opening credits)
(2) unidentified title (fragment) – Skippy Williams Quintet
(3)I’m A Cute Little Banji from Ubangi (probably Henry Nemo) (partial) – unidentified female vocal and dance + 6-8 unidentified female dancers, accompanied by unidentified orchestra off screen [initial release, of L.O.L. Production’s Soundie Plenty Of King]
(4) unidentified title (2 fragments) – Andrew Maize, piano
(5) Can’t Help It (Skippy Williams) – Nellie Hill, vocal, accompanied by Andrew Maize, piano
(6) unidentified blues (partial) – Alston and Young (piano and vocal), accompanied by Skippy Williams Quintet (one of the two replaces sideline pianist “Pinky” Williams, and presumably plays piano on soundtrack)
(7) That’s The Cheese You Gotta Squeeze – Alston and Young, vocal and dance, accompanied by Skippy Williams Quintet (one of the two replaces sideline pianist “Pinky” Williams, and presumably plays piano on soundtrack)
(8) Can’t Help It (Skippy Williams) – Nellie Hill, vocal, accompanied by Skippy Williams and his Orchestra
(9) unidentified title, possibly Jam Session (Skippy Williams) – Skippy Williams Quintet (repeat of #1 above)
(10) unidentified title (fragment) – Skippy Williams Quintet (repeat of #2 above)
Murder With Music
(1) Super Duper – Noble Sissle and his Orchestra (behind opening credits, band off screen) (soloists: unidentified trumpet; Chester Burrill, trombone; probably Gene Mikell, alto sax; Gil White, tenor sax; probably Jimmy Jones, string bass)
(2) I’m A Cute Little Banji from Ubangi (possibly Henry Nemo) – unidentified female vocal and dance + 6-8 unidentified female dancers, accompanied by unidentified orchestra off screen [initial release, of L.O.L. Production’s Soundie Plenty Of King]
(3) unidentified title, probably Running Around (Sidney Easton, Augustus Smith) – Noble Sissle and his Orchestra (soloists: unidentified trumpet; Butch Burrill, trombone; George James, alto sax; Elmer Williams, tenor sax; unidentified piano)
(4) Hello Happiness (Sidney Easton, Augustus Smith) – Noble Sissle and his Orchestra (Noble Sissle, vocal)
(5) unidentified title, probably Geeshee (Sidney Easton, Augustus Smith) – Johnson and Johnson, dance, accompanied by Noble Sissle and his Orchestra (soloists: unidentified trumpet; Butch Burrill, trombone; unidentified alto sax; Elmer Williams, tenor sax; Jimmy Jones, string bass; Wilbert Kirk, drums)
(6) Too Late Baby (Sidney Easton, Augustus Smith) – Bob Howard, vocal, accompanied by Noble Sissle and his Orchestra (soloists: unidentified piano; Elmer “Tone” Williams, tenor sax)
(7) unidentified title (2 fragments) – probably Andrew Maize, piano
(8) Can’t Help It (Skippy Williams) – Nellie Hill, vocal, accompanied by Andrew Maize, piano
(9) unidentified blues (partial) – Alston and Young (piano and vocal), accompanied by Skippy Williams Quintet (one of the two replaces pianist “Pinky” Williams)
(10) That’s The Cheese You Gotta Squeeze – Alston and Young, vocal and dance, accompanied by Skippy Williams Quintet (one of the two replaces pianist “Pinky” Williams)
(11) Can’t Help It (Skippy Williams) – Nellie Hill, vocal, accompanied by Skippy Williams and his Orchestra
(12) unidentified title, possibly Jam Session (Skippy Williams) – Skippy Williams Quintet
(13) unidentified title (fragment) – Skippy Williams Quintet
Bob Howard’s House Party
(1) Too Late Blues (behind opening credits, into beginning of film) – Bob Howard, piano and vocal (2) Super Duper– Noble Sissle and his Orchestra (soloists: one or possibly two unidentified trumpets; Chester Burrill, trombone, Gene Mikell, alto sax; Gil White, tenor sax; Elmer Williams, tenor saxes; possibly Jimmy Jones, string bass; Wilbert Kirk, drums) (3) unidentified title – Johnson and Johnson, dance, accompanied by Noble Sissle and his Orchestra + Bob Howard, whistling (soloists: unidentified trumpet; Gene Mikell, alto sax; Gil White tenor sax; unidentified piano) (4) We Are All Adams Children After All – Sydney Easton + Crescent Four, vocal, accompanied by Noble Sissle and his Orchestra
By 1947, black cast films were nearing the end of their popularity, and their ability to repay an investment. Sepia Cinderella and Boy! What a Girl! (both Herald Pictures, 1947) Killer Diller and Boarding House Blues(both All-American News, 1948), and Miracle In Harlem (Herald Pictures, 1948) were to follow the three films under consideration. These later features almost seem like productions from the Hollywood majors, compared to Mistaken Identity and Murder With Music. So, why so much time and energy devoted to these films?
For students of film, there is some interest generated by the construction of the plot, and the actual filmmaking, which was certainly affected by a limited budget, and actors with limited experience. The musical performances, however, demands greater attention. Bob Howard was a very popular perfomer, and if his approach to singing seems somewhat generic today, it is wonderful to be able to watch him on screen. Nellie Hill was a talented vocalist who appears on record; now we get to see and hear her on screen as well, and she certainly does not disappoint.
Noble Sissle’s Diamond Horseshoe Orchestra was on the scene in New York City for almost a decade. While the jazz performances here are somewhat tame, they are certainly of interest, and the soloists were capable musicians. The dance routines, performers named but unknown beyond that, showcase “second tier” artists who would have been active on the scene, but totally unknown if it were not for these films. The dance performances by Johnson and Johnson are especially strong. Skippy Williams’ band provides swinging mid-1940s small group jazz, and it is a shame that we do not know the full personnel of the group.
These three films are not the most important black cast films from the period, and their history is more convoluted than most. The music and dance, if not breaking any new ground, is strong, and well worth the attention of anyone interested in jazz of the 1940s.