Starring Cab Calloway, Ida James, Jeni Le Gon, and William Campbell
Directed by Josh Binney
Music and Lyrics by Cab Calloway and others
Cab Calloway's career went back to the late 20's, when he got started playing at night clubs and cafes in Chicago. His band eventually moved to New York in 1929, where they were a hit in Harlem show spots like the Savoy Ballroom and the Cotton Club. Calloway became the first African-American to have his own radio show, and one of the first to lend his voice to cartoons. He appeared in small roles in movies like The Singing Kid with Al Jolson and larger ones in short subjects with his name on the title. He even released a dictionary of "jive" in three versions. By 1947, however, his gambling and bad financial decisions had caught up with him, which is likely the reason for his starring in this smaller independent B musical. Is it worthy of "Minnie the Moocher," or should it be left standing at the club? Let's begin with Calloway (himself) and his girl Minnie (Le Gon) and find out...
The Story: Minnie is furious when Calloway hires Nellie (James), a female manager, to help him get his band going. Nellie's doing good things for him, including getting him and his eight-man band booked into a brand new club. Minnie would rather he focused on her and spent a lot less time with his very pretty manager. She goes to local gangster Boss Mason (George Wiltshire) and his hit man Mo the Mouse (James Dunmore) to eliminate Cab, while she tries to head off Nellie. As it turns out, Minnie is wrong about Cab and his feelings for Nellie, but she may be too late to fend off Mo before tragedy strikes.
The Song and Dance: Calloway's ongoing financial problems don't prevent him from really getting into his numbers here. He even had a hand in most of the songs. Wiltshire and Dunmore are the only ones who get near him as the menacing "fixer" and his genuinely menacing hired killer. I also give them credit for going a little darker than usual for these "race" musicals. I genuinely did not expect the hit man subplot or the tragic twist near the end of the film.
Favorite Number: "Minnie was a Hepcat," supposedly his song for Minnie, is played at least three times during the film, including in the night club after Calloway and his orchestra get the job there and for Minnie after tragedy strikes. Calloway really romps through the more dramatic "St. James Infirmary" and "At Dawn Time." "Hey Now" is his first number with his expanded orchestra.
He opens the big finale with his hit "Hi-De-Ho Man," then joins singer Elton Hill to sing about how "I Got a Gal Named Nellie." Dusty Fletcher gets "Open the Door, Richard." The ample and ample-voiced Peeters Sisters sing "Little Old Lady From Baltimore." One then dances with one of the male dancers while singing about "A Rainy Sunday" before finally shoving him off the set! We also get some decent tap routines by The Miller Brothers and Lois done on top of blocks and stands in front of the orchestra.
What I Don't Like: Calloway's music may be terrific, but he's no great shakes as an actor. His reaction to that dark twist is too hammy for words. Most of the cast isn't even at that level. The ladies are especially stiff, with Le Gon wavering between waxy and shrill and James fading into the woodwork. The music is the only reason to see this. The costumes aren't bad, with some decent suits for the guys and James and gowns for Le Gon, but the sets are obviously B-movie level. While the copy currently at Tubi is slightly better than what they have for Boarding House Blues, it's still not great. Wish someone would take a crack at preserving these bits of black cinema history.
And I wish the movie had ended with Calloway holding Minnie. The montage of his success and big happy finale directly afterwards rings false after the violence and darkness earlier.
The Big Finale: If you like Calloway or the "race" films of the 1930's and 40's, you'll want to give this a try for the musical numbers alone.
Home Media: It's in the public domain, so it's easy to find anywhere. It's currently free with commercials on Amazon Prime and Tubi.