In New Orleans (dir. Arthur Lubin, 1947), ‘the help’ are also the stars. Sadly, the city’s racial segregation reduces that starshine. New Orleans’ Black ragtime musicians only had fleeting appearances in the film — mostly acting as tour guides for affluent white characters (and curious white audiences). It’s reminiscent of Dirty Dancing, Hairspray, [insert other stories whose revelations are that Black culture ain’t so bad].
Ambassadorial tones withstanding, I’ve watched this film for its sprinklings of Black joy and secrecy.
New Orleans is divided into haves and have nots, with Black characters having the least.
Haves: Mrs. Rutledge Smith (Irene Rich) is a New England society-woman who’s taken an interest in New Orleans (while wanting nothing to do with its jazz culture). She’s dismayed when her daughter, Miralee Smith (Dorothy Patrick) — a ‘well-bred’ opera singer — takes to the ragtime scene, but over time she’s also won over by the vigor of live jazz. The film’s dramatic finale shows Miralee performing a ragtime number for shocked opera patrons, beaming in her mother’s support. With the exception of a vague nod to the spirit of New Orleans, none of the Black musicians who originated jazz are present for their mainstream debut.
Have-Nots: Throughout the film, Louis Armstrong (as himself) and Billie Holiday (as Endie) are only on-screen when they’re interacting with white characters. Taken down a peg from their real-life acclaim, Armstrong and Holiday’s characters are both working-class — one a cabaret trumpet-player, and the other a singing housemaid. Both characters are kindly and accommodating, never crossing the lines of their social positions.
Louis and Endie are in love with each other, but the only interactions between them are their musical performances. (Whereas the romance between Miralee and Nick, played by Arturo de Còrdova, has a lion’s share of screentime.)
“Where does such music come from?”
— Miralee Smith (Dorothy Patrick)
An element of New Orleans that may be progressive for its time is its respectful exposition of ragtime. When Miralee inquired about the genre, Nick deftly informed her that, “it comes from work-song, Gold Coast of West Africa, little Christian churches, riverboats… They made up the music as they went along.” The couple then waxed poetic about how new music is always taboo, but one day, ragtime would be old and classical too.
Miralee remarked that ragtime already felt like “her music,” but her later performances of it didn’t have much soul — encumbered by formal training. Her singing didn’t flow because ragtime is a genre that was never meant for transcriptionor translation. It’s defined by tangy syncopation, stuttering its beat to flatter our ears. The core technique is deep–feeling, which can’t be imitated — only embodied.
Ragtime has grown old, but thankfully it’s always remained its own.
TEXT / AUDIO: ‘Billie Holiday: Emotional Power Through Song’ by Tom Vitale (includes some description of Holiday’s friendship with Armstrong)
TEXT: ‘Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy’ (Smithsonian)
TEXT: ‘Classic Ragtime: An Overlooked American Art Form’ by Daniel Stephens