Music | 1920 | Sound | B/W
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Bessie Smith blues singer performs in Dudley Murphy's St Louis Blues made in 1929. Fletcher Henderson Band with Hall Johnson.
The film opens with jazz music and an image of clouds. A circular stamp-like motif, almost like a seal of approval moves towards the camera from a distance. There is some type that states:' Mark of Merit Attractions' and 'Sack' in bold in the centre of the motif. The motif disappears and the credits begin, 'Alfred N. Sack presents Bessie Smith in St Louis Blues.' Credits continue while loud 1920s jazz music plays in the background. The credits fade and thick accents can be heard, the screen remains black for a couple of seconds.
The story begins and the first image we see is a shabby room, quite dimly lit, black men sit on a wooden floor and on chairs, there is a man sitting at the bottom of some stairs to the right of the room. Most of the men wear hats and waist coats, one wears a boater hat, they are all talking and arguing over a game that they are playing, gambling. One man gets increasingly angry and stands up, pushing another man's head, they continue playing until a large man walks down the stairs carrying a broom. He seems annoyed and tells one of the players that he is the janitor and that he needs to keep the place clean for the 'white man', his voice is raised, a man gives him some money to keep him quiet. Janitor walks away and the men continue to gamble, the janitor walks up the stairs past three people sitting on the steps.
Crowded room, dimly lit and probably in the same building as the previous scene. A smart and charismatic man walks into the room, his name is Jimmy, there is a white handkerchief in his top pocket, he talks a lot and wants to join in the gambling game, he puts down some money, the game takes place on the floor. A white woman falls into the room, puts an arm around Jimmy who greets her momentarily, excitedly gets back into the game. Close-up of Jimmy with the woman, standing side by side, she is possibly a prostitute, floral dress, bare arms and bobbed dark hair, the man puts his hat on, he wants to 'make some money.' Voices with thick American accents discuss the game while man bends down in disagreement, another woman is lying in near darkness on the right. Close-up of Jimmy shaking the dice. Prostitute provocatively takes the dice and rubs them against her thigh. Camera pans out to reveal the crowded room, people are sitting on the floor. Camera returns to Jimmy shaking the dice. He then picks up a pile of money, he has won the game. Camera pans back while he walks out of the room with prostitute, the other players are annoyed, they call him back. They enter a bedroom, he stands boasting about his win while the woman sits drinking some spirits on a bed, she asks what Jimmy would do if 'Bessie walked in.' Close-up of Jimmy and the woman hugging and dancing, Jimmy is very insincere.
Close-up of gamblers from the first room, man in a boater hat looks miffed and turns to slap another man. Besse enters, she is wearing a 1920s style hat and hoop earrings, she asks what the matter is. The men ignore her, muttering and sitting down to gamble again. Bessie moves towards the bedroom anxiously and anticipating trouble, worried expression, clenched hands. Bessie has her hands on her hips while Jimmy stands nonchalantly against a wall, the prostitute tries to leave the bedroom, Bessie stops her and pushes her on a bed, Jimmy stands about looking almost amused. Woman runs out, Bessie shouts at Jimmy. Janitor reappears. Bessie shouts at the janitor to mind his own business and pushes him out of the room. Camera outside room, the door opens and the janitor falls out.
Camera is now inside the room, Bessie and Jimmy are alone, he sits on a bed, Bessie exhaustedly turns to face him, she props herself up against the door and pleads with Jimmy not to leave her. Jimmy gets up and yawns! She continues to plead, but he looks indifferent and pushes her to the floor. Close-up of Bessie on the floor. Camera follows Jimmy, he puts on his jacket and vainly rearranges his hair and hat in a mirror that is out of shot. He picks up a suitcase, Bessie calls to him, still on the floor, Jimmy laughs his way out of the room shaking Bessie's hands away from his leg.
Bessie sits up, pulls a bottle of spirits from the bed and starts to sing, 'ma man…'. Close-up of Bessie knocking back a glass of alcohol, singing 'ma man's got a heart like a rock…,' image of Bessie fades.
Bessie standing in profile by a bar, she sings the same song and holds a glass of beer in her hands, a waiter stands behind the bar, cigarette in mouth, wearing a white shirt, looks angrily at her from behind the bar. Close-up of people sitting watching a band that comes into view. Camera pans past them, music begins, musicians holding instruments and trumpets to their lips ready to play, Bessie begins to sing, her voice booms powerfully, she is out of sight. Choir sings, camera speeds past the musicians and onlookers to a table of choral singers, the camera continues to move, eventually focusing on Bessie by the bar. She sways as she sings, eyes closed, head bows and rises, she stands predominantly in profile, looking away from the dance floor.
Camera pans out to reveal the whole room, probably a jazz club, people sit at tables, waiters walk around, women in 1920s dress walk down the entrance steps, people seem to ignore Bessie's singing. Camera abruptly focuses on Bessie by the bar, the music has picked up pace, a waiter dances past Bessie holding a silver tray. The camera moves between people having fun and Bessie who is alone. She leans her head against her hand, singing. Close-up of the jazz band. People dancing, music is lively. Waiter passes by Bessie spinning his silver tray to the music. Dance floor, lots of people dancing, the waiter walks through the couples spinning his tray, a trumpeter is standing up and playing, seated onlookers clap, very animated. Bessie stares into space, oblivious.
Jimmy enters the club, he stands on some steps grinning and looking at everyone dancing. Close-up of him staggering with excitement down the steps. Camera pans back and Jimmy is lost in the crowd. Close-up of Jimmy greeting people in a frenzy, very confident and popular. Camera follows him making his entrance, he is performing and showing off, he takes off his hat and sweeps past the camera out of sight. Camera focuses on Jimmy dancing energetically. View of his legs and feet, he is tap dancing, hat on head, the crowd clap behind him. The music stops and Jimmy bows, grinning. Bessie is standing at the bar, he has not seen her. Jimmy turns and notices her, adopts a mocking pose with his hands on his hips, walks towards her. He shouts to her, they dance, both smiling, the music starts again but it is slow. Camera pans out and we see the dance floor again with lots of people and the band. Close-up of Jimmy and Bessie.
Camera pans out as music becomes more lively, everyone is dancing. Camera returns to Jimmy and Bessie, he picks something out of Bessie's stockings, possibly money and puts it in his pocket. Music stops and Jimmy spins Bessie into the bar dismissively. Close-up of Jimmy holding money, waving it in jest towards Bessie. He lifts his hat slightly, laughing and pointing at Bessie as he leaves the club.
Close-up of Bessie standing by the bar, her head resting on her hand as before, choir sings. The waiter behind the bar now looks at Bessie with concern and pity. Another waiter dances past Bessie spinning his silver tray. She bows her head and looks towards the camera, the waiter behind the bar says something to her, she doesn't turn around, she rolls her eyes and starts to sing. Camera focuses on the club and tables of people. Close-up of Bessie with pained expression, she sings 'ma man's got a heart like a rock in the sea…,' her image fades, the singing continues. 'The End' appears in white type and the music stops.
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