Thursday, October 30, 2008

Preserved: The International Sweethearts of Rhythm

During WWII, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were one of the top big bands in America, not just among all-women orchestras, but overall. However, with the end of the war and the return of musicians who had enlisted or were drafted, the Sweethearts found themselves squeezed out of gigs, as did most of their fellow all-women bands. While some video survives of the band (like these performances), it is not like there is an excess supply of archival footage available to fans and scholars, so the recent preservation of That Man of Mine is a welcome event.

The preserved print of Man screened at MoMA last night as part of their To Save and Protect film preservation series, with its star Ruby Dee in attendance. While Dee shows an undeniable screen presence in Man, the caliber of acting overall is frankly subpar. However, the music is what makes the Sweethearts’ Man.

With vocalist Anna Mae Winburn fronting the band Cab Calloway style, the Sweethearts featured some top-notch jazz instrumentalists, including Viola Burnside on tenor and Ernestine Davis on trumpet (who takes an excellent solo turn in Man). The Sweethearts were often compared to the Basie organization, with good reason. They shared a common arranger in Eddie Durham, developing a similar KC jump sound (by way of Mississippi).

Man was produced by William Alexander, a pioneering independent African-American filmmaker. His early films were largely musical, which allowed him to generate more revenue by editing musical numbers for separate release as “Soundies.” Indeed, Man is not at all ambitious in terms of story development. Though oddly self-referential for the time, the on-screen drama of whether or not Dee’s ingĂ©nue will be cast in William Alexander’s upcoming International Sweethearts of Rhythm film, is perfunctory at best. The real point of the film is the music of the ISR. Man is also notable for an appearance by Henri Woode, an unsung swing arranger and the uncle of Ellington bassist Jimmy Woode, seen directing the sextet accompanying leading man Harrell Tillman during his crooner feature.

Man is classic music, if not great drama. It represented a unique confluence of talent. Unfortunately, the ISR’s star would wane in coming years, but they were still quite popular in 1947. Ruby Dee was just embarking on what would become an acclaimed film career. Alexander continued scratching out films, winning an award at Cannes for a short documentary. His final film would be 1974’s The Klansman, starring Lee Marvin, Sir Richard Burton, and O.J. Simpson.

Preserved not restored, the print of Man still shows its age. However, the music of the International Sweethearts still makes for entertaining viewing, so hopefully it will reach a wider audience thanks to the efforts of the Women’s Film Preservation Fund and MoMA.