Cast & Crew
Arturo De Córdova
In 1917, in the Storyville district of New Orleans, Louisiana, Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong plays ragtime music with his band in the basement of the Orpheum cabaret. The cabaret, which also operates as a casino, is owned by Nick Duquesne, the "King of Basin Street." One of Nick's patrons, a wealthy widow named Mrs. Rutledge Smith, from Baltimore, Maryland, is joined in New Orleans by her daughter Miralee, a classically trained singer. Miralee's black maid, Endie, who is Satchmo's girl friend, introduces Miralee to the blues, and takes her to a "jam" session featuring Satchmo and his band. Nick discourages Miralee's love of ragtime because high society considers it immoral, and orders Grace Voiselle, a debutante, who is in love with Nick, to take her home. Jealous of Nick's attention toward Miralee, Grace calls Mrs. Smith and warns her to keep Miralee away from Nick.
Mrs. Smith, who earlier had lost ten thousand dollars at the Orpheum, wins it back in roulette and offers it to Nick on the condition that he discourage Miralee's involvement with him. After a month of successfully keeping Miralee out of Basin Street, Nick determines to show her its sordid side to teach her a lesson. At dawn, assuring Nick she has no illusions about him, Miralee kisses him, and they are seen by her mother. Mrs. Smith appeals to her friend, Colonel McArdle, and he has an article printed about the dangers facing unchaperoned debutantes visiting Storyville. He also suggests to the Public Safety Commissioner that he condemn the district. One night, Nick orders Grace, who is drunk, to leave the club, and she is hit by a car and killed. The incident causes a grand jury to order that Storyville be evacuated by the United States Navy. Satchmo and his friends pack up and leave, and Nick makes plans to move to Chicago.
Miralee begs Nick to take her with him, and in order to spare her feelings, he accepts an expensive bracelet from Mrs. Smith to make it look as if he never loved Miralee. He returns the bracelet to Henry Ferber, Miralee's music teacher, to give to Mrs. Smith, but she does not tell Miralee. Determined to give up the gambling business in favor of spreading jazz music across the nation, Nick opens the Club Orleans in Chicago, with Satchmo and piano player Meade Lux Lewis as performers of Chicago style blues. Meanwhile, Miralee becomes a famous opera singer in Europe. Eventually, Satchmo and Endie are married, and he and his band tour Europe. In Paris, Satchmo sees Miralee and tells her that Nick returned the bracelet and has been heartbroken ever since. He also tells her that Nick gave up gambling, has a new job as a music agent, and has been busy trying to introduce New York to the blues. Finally, at a concert at Symphony Hall, Miralee surprises Nick by including Woody Herman and his band and Satchmo and his band in the program. For an encore, Miralee sings Endie's old favorite, "New Orleans," for Nick.
Arturo De Córdova
Original New Orleans Ragtime Band:
Meade Lux Lewis
Papa Mutt Carey
Herbert J. Biberman
Herbert J. Biberman
Bernard W. Burton
Nat W. Finston
Dick Irving Hyland
Joseph H. Nadel
More interesting for what it could have been instead of what it is, New Orleans started off as a starring vehicle for Holiday and Armstrong, cast as jazz artists who leave the south to seek their musical fortunes elsewhere. Through each new rewrite of the script, however, their parts became less and less prominent until they were finally reduced to secondary characters while a new storyline was fashioned around a romance between a white opera singer and a white club owner known as the "King of Basin Street." Typical of Hollywood's treatment of many black entertainers during this era, this "new, improved" version of New Orleans was obviously based solely on box-office considerations; the studio was afraid southern theater owners wouldn't book the film with black actors in the leads, but it was also true that the largest majority of moviegoers in America at that time were white and not that interested in black culture or jazz musicians.
In an ironic twist of fate, Billie Holiday, who had managed to avoid domestic service - the only work available to most black women - for most of her life, now found herself cast as a servant. According to Donald Clarke in his biography, Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday, she didn't want to turn down an opportunity to appear in a motion picture and told composer/journalist Leonard Feather, "I'll be playing a maid, but she's really a cute maid." Once production began, Holiday created a few problems on the set due to her frequent tardiness, but the studio musicians didn't mind since they were getting paid for any overtime. Leading lady Dorothy Patrick also reportedly complained to Arthur Lubin that Holiday was a shameless scene-stealer. The director, however, recognized Lady Day's genuine artistry and later commented that Holiday made Dorothy Patrick look like "a hole in the screen." To demonstrate Lubin's point, just compare Holiday's rendition of "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" with Ms. Patrick's performance of the number.
Yet, while Holiday shines in her brief scenes in New Orleans, the film provides a much more prominent showcase for Louis Armstrong, who had already appeared in ten feature films prior to this (Holiday only made one previous film short, Symphony in Black, 1935). It's a rare opportunity to see the real "King of Basin Street," strutting his stuff alongside another New Orleans jazz legend - Kid "Ory" - while performing some of that city's most famous and representative songs - "New Orleans Stomp" (written by Joe "King" Oliver), "Buddy Bolden's Blues" (written by Jelly Roll Morton), "West End Blues," "Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble," "Basin Street Blues," and many more. Armstrong's duet with Holiday on "The Blues Are Brewin'," though, might be the showstopper.
As an attempt to tell the history of jazz through a love story that spans forty years, New Orleans is a laughable failure. But as a visual and aural record of two of the most influential musical talents in the history of jazz, the film is a must-see. Jazz aficionados will also enjoy spotting other legendary musicians in the background - Woody Herman and His Orchestra, Barney Bigard, Russell Moore, Charlie Beal, Zutty Singleton, and Lucky Thompson to name a few. And, yes, that is Shelley Winters in a minor role playing Arturo de Cordova's secretary.
Producer: Jules Levy
Director: Arthur Lubin
Screenplay: Herbert Biberman, Dick I. Hyland
Art Direction: Rudi Field
Cinematography: Lucien N. Andriot
Film Editing: Bernard W. Burton
Principal Cast: Dorothy Patrick (Miralee Smith), Arturo de Cordova (Nick Duquesne), John Alexander (Col. McArdle), Irene Rich (Mrs. Smith), Louis Armstrong (Himself), Marjorie Lord (Grace Volselle), Billie Holiday (Endie).
by Jeff Stafford
Louis Armstrong is listed twice in the opening credits, once as "Louis Armstrong and his band" and once as a member of the New Orleans Ragtime Band. The opening credits include a "grateful acknowledgement" to the National Jazz Foundation based in New Orleans for its assistance in the production of the picture. New Orleans marked the first and only feature film appearance by renowned blues and jazz singer Billie Holiday. The Variety review commented about musician Louis Armstrong's acting: "...'Satchmo' Armstrong is the star of the film, proving as solid in a generous dramatic role as he is on the trumpet." Portions of the film were shot on location in New Orleans, LA, including the front steps of the city hall building, which, as reported in the New York Times, had remained unchanged since 1917. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, musical director Nat Finston organized a group called the Ensemble Symphonique to record the music for the film.
A soundtrack album of the film was released in 1983 and included complete versions of the songs performed in the film, as well as numbers that were omitted from the final release. Among the many numbers found on the album are "Tiger Rag" by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band; "Milenberg Joys" by Leon Rappolo, Paul Mares and "Jelly Roll" Morton; "King Porter Stomp" by "Jelly Roll" Morton; "Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble" by Spencer Williams; "Basin Street Blues," music and lyrics by Spencer Williams; "Beale Street Blues," music by Chris Smith, lyrics by Jim Burris; and "Dipper Mouth Blues," music by Joe "King" Oliver, lyrics by Walter Melrose.
New Orleans was the last Hollywood film produced by Herbert J. Biberman, who was one of the "Hollywood Ten," a group of directors, producers, writers and actors who were blacklisted after refusing to state their political alliances during testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). After being charged with contempt of Congress, Biberman served six months in jail. Biberman did not make another film until the 1954 independent picture Salt of the Earth, which received great acclaim in Europe. For more information on the HUAC hearings, please see the entry above for the 1947 RKO picture Crossfire.