Our jukebox short today can only be described as bizarre, and I honestly cannot recall another Soundie with imagery quite as surrealistic as what we see in St. James Infirmary. (My apology for the print quality. My “A” print is in deep storage and I had to rely on a secondary copy of the film for this transfer.)
In January 1942, Stan Kenton and his Orchestra was an “up-and-coming” attraction, still lacking in widespread, nationwide name recognition. They were popular on the West Coast but, at the time this soundtrack was recorded, had yet to play in New York City. That producer Sam Coslow would use a majority of the band’s soundtracks as backgrounds for “song stories” is not surprising.
The Soundie St. James Infirmary was originally to have been called “Nightmare of a Jerk,” certainly more fitting than the using the song title. The film stars diminutive comic Jerry Bergen, who has a nightmare after eating a late-night lobster dinner. Bergen was well-known on the radio and vaudeville stage, and would later become a fixture on early television. His co-star is Julianne Merritt, was a Los Angeles showgirl and nightclub dancer.
Neil McGuire, a master of low-cost special effects, was the associate producer for this film, and one might assume that he conceived of the “visions” that we see on screen.
Stan Kenton and his Orchestra provides the soundtrack to our song-story – the band does not appear on screen – and we hear solos from Kenton on piano, Chico Alvarez on trumpet, probably Jack Ordean on alto sax, and Howard Rumsey on string bass. Kenton provided the arrangement for “St. James Infirmary,” which was re-titled “Gambler’s Blues” when recorded the next month for Decca.
Tastes will vary, of course, but this visual approach to the music works for me. In some ways, the Soundie looks forward to MTV where there was not always any relationship between music and image. Now, please pass me the lobster dinner.