(Featured photo: the great Bessie Smith)
At the turn of the 20th century a woman, deserted by the man she loves, walks alone on the streets of St. Louis:
“My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea…”
Musician and composer W.C. Handy, soon to be known as the Father of the Blues, hears her and, inspired by the poetry in her lonesome cry, writes a song: “Saint Louis Blues”. Originally published in 1914, “Saint Louis Blues” quickly became a smash hit; by the century’s end, Handy’s song had been covered by well over thirty noted musicians.
(Above photo: W.C. Handy)
“Saint Louis Blues” is a staple of Pre-Code movies, which is where I first discovered it. It is employed as a plot device in the drama Rain (1932), in which Joan Crawford portrays a free spirited, hard loving prostitute who falls under the spell of a hypocrite bible thumping reformer. The song is also used prominently in Ladies They Talk About (1933), a sexy women’s prison film starring Barbara Stanwyck as a bank robber who falls in love with – you guessed it – the moral reformer who sent her to the slammer. Most famously recorded by the great Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong in 1925, “Saint Louis Blues” would become the theme song for the “bad good-girls” of Pre-Code film: misunderstood and abandoned women, whose sexual desire is at the root of their loneliness.
But before the Pre-Code period, the song had a movie all of its own. In 1929, RKO Pictures released the two-reel short film St. Louis Blues (1929) . The sixteen-minute movie is a musical dramatization of W.C. Handy’s song. Handy co-wrote the script and was also the film’s producer and musical director. Once again making music history, Handy wisely asked Bessie Smith to star in the movie. Today, St. Louis Blues (1929) is the only known footage of Smith still in existence. The movie can easily be found online and we are blessed to have it: as soon as Smith makes her entrance, it is apparent that we are witnessing a bona-fide star; Smith had that distinctive and rare quality that separates the superstars from the merely talented. Of course, she had plenty of talent, too – and how! – but the singer-songwriter Smith, who saved Columbia Records from bankruptcy, also possessed a captivating and engaging presence – the kind that demands, but doesn’t necessarily need, a spotlight.
“Jimmy, don’t leave me,” she begs her philandering boyfriend. “Please don’t leave your Bessie.” Jimmy laughs off her pain. “Woman,” he replies, echoing the words of Handy’s song, “I’ll be gone before the evening sun goes down.” Heartbroken, Bessie cracks open a bottle of gin and as she begins to sing the title song’s opening line, we understand instantly why she was called – and why she will always be – the Empress of the Blues.
In both her music and her lifestyle, Bessie Smith – independent, self-assertive and unapologetically sexual- challenged the era’s idea of what a woman, in particular a Black woman, should be. She fought hard to live life on her own terms – sometimes literally. When a group of torch bearing KKK losers stormed one of her shows and tried to burn the tent down, Smith famously chased them away.
(Photo: Barbara Stanwyck and Theresa Harris in Baby Face)
One of the most interesting uses of the song “Saint Louis Blues” in a Pre-Code film occurs in Warner Brothers’ 1933 drama Baby Face.
Baby Face (1933) stars Barbara Stanwyck as Lily, an impoverished young woman, sexually exploited by her father, who vows to “use men” the way that they have used her: namely by running away to the big city and sleeping her way up the corporate ladder at a bank (literally screwing the bank; Depression-era audiences must have gotten a kick out of that!). Because of its protagonist’s frank sexuality, Baby Face was extremely controversial in its day. Modern audiences however are more intrigued by Lily’s friendship with Chico, played by Black actress Theresa Harris.
With the beauty, natural charm and talent to rival Clara Bow, Theresa Harris should have been a huge star, unfortunately she came up against Hollywood’s racist glass ceiling. Although she has the most amount of screen time of any of the supporting players in Baby Face (1933), Harris is unfairly – and infuriatingly – billed last in the credits.
In Baby Face (1933), Lily and Chico work as waitresses together at Lily’s father’s speakeasy. Lily is protective of Chico, in an almost big-sister kind of way: she stands up for Chico when her father threatens to fire her for breaking a dish (“If she goes, I go!”) and later, when the two women ride the rails to the city and Chico is caught by a security guard who threatens to call the cops, Lily offers to sleep with him if he’ll let her friend go. Chico gets a kick out of Lily’s cynicism and sardonic sense of humor. In the ugly grip of Jim Crow, Lily and Chico’s friendship alone is an act of rebellion, however many modern viewers believe that Chico and Lily are actually lovers and I agree. There is the women’s intense inseparability for one thing, and their constant flirtatious banter (“Honey, you make me tickle!”) as well as a key scene, later on in the film, wherein Lily is preparing to entertain (re: fleece) a wealthy sucker- er, suitor – and Chico dresses up in a maid’s costume (it is clear that this is a disguise and not a uniform). Lily whispers conspiratorially to Chico not to call her “honey” while her date is around, as in “Don’t blow our cover!”, and Chico laughs knowingly in response. Both women begin the film dressed in threadbare dresses and end it decked out in furs so elaborate as to make a PETA protestor lose his tomatoes – we know that Lily’s male lovers lavish jewels and expensive clothing on her and is Lily, in turn, doing the same for her own lover, Chico?
But what really cinches the “Chico and Lily are lovers” theory for me is the movie’s use of “Saint Louis Blues”.
Baby Face opens with Chico singing a line from W.C. Handy’s song:
“Feeling tomorrow like I feel today…”
Intermittently throughout the movie, Chico continues to sing “Saint Louis Blues” – usually when Lily is off seducing a man – and she sings it again at the end of the film, just before Lily ditches Chico in Paris to shack up with George Brent in New York. In Theresa Harris’ hands, “Saint Louis Blues” becomes not just a story of abandonment but also one of forbidden sexual desire.
Harris’ face may not be on the movie’s poster but, like the woman who inspired W.C. Handy over a century ago, Chico’s voice, at long last, is heard.
Written by Heather Babcock, 2020