Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sweet and Low-Down (1944)

Director: Archie Mayo                                      Writer: Richard English
Film Score: Cyril J. Mockridge                          Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Starring: Benny Goodman, Linda Darnell, Jack Oakie and James Cardwell

Normally these types of films--promos for the artist really, but very lucrative for the studio in playing on their popularity--tend to be incredibly banal or just outright bad. But while Benny Goodman is no actor, he does hold his own in this interesting film, though I could have done without his attempt at singing. The idea here, it would seem, is to convert more young people into fans of the band by centering the first part of the film on kids. Sweet and Low-Down begins with some youngsters spreading the word that “Benny’s back.” It turns out the kids belong to a foster home for boys in Chicago, Benny’s old home town, and he plays a free concert there every year. After the show when one of the boys, Buddy Swan, wants the clarinetist to come and listen to his brother, Benny’s road manager, Jack Oakie, tells him there’s not time, so Swan takes the clarinet and runs for it. Goodman and Oakie chase him right to his brother’s door and when they hear James Cardwell playing the trombone Goodman hires him on the spot.

For Cardwell’s first gig with the band they are playing a military base, or so they think. On the train he meets up with singer Linda Darnell and the two hit it off, but the gig turns out to be at a military boys school run by “General” Dickie Moore, child star during the thirties. To keep his standing up as the main man on campus, Moore enlists his aunt, Lynn Bari who is several years older than him, to dress like a girl and attend the dance as his “girl.” But when she gets one look at Cardwell she’s smitten. The only problem is he thinks she’s a girl and pays her little notice except that she should look him up if she ever gets to New York. Bari also knows Goodman, however, as her family is rich and patrons of the arts. Goodman asks her up to a rehearsal in the city and when she shows up revealing she not a little girl Darnell gets jealous and Cardwell, at her urging, gets bent out of shape. But that won’t be the first time, as Cardwell turns out to be a hothead and burns bridges with everyone.

Of course all of this is leading to a showdown between the girls and an excuse to hear Benny and the boys play some swingin’ tunes. The irony is the tunes written especially for the film are the least interesting. Best are the instrumentals that he and the band play in between, and of those the jam session with Benny and his trio is outstanding. Linda Darnell does a nice job here as the scheming singer whose agent attempts to inflate Cardwell’s ego and lure him away from the band. Lynn Bari, as the wealthy socialite, had been kicking around Hollywood for a decade and never really made it big. This was only James Cardwell’s second appearance in films after an auspicious start in The Fighting Sullivans. But his career gradually deteriorated and within a decade he would commit suicide at the age of 32 because of his inability to find work. Jack Oakie is the comic relief, though it’s a stretch to see him as a musician, but he’s the glue that holds the film together. Other than as a musician, Goodman’s role is minimal. Still, Sweet and Low-Down is a mildly entertaining wartime film and would be very interesting for fans of swing and Benny Goodman.

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