Sunday, January 15, 2017

From The Bandstand To Hollywood: Musicians In The Movies, Part 1

A topic of great interest to us at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog is which stars and character actors in classic films made a direct transition from fame in the world of music to silver screen stardom.

The epitome of a multi-talented musical giant who could also act was Louis Armstrong.

Once it was obvious that Mr. Armstrong was a crossover artist with broad appeal, both to a racially divided America and to the international market, he began appearing in films. While Louis' first silver screen appearances in Paramount short subjects were very likely regarded as racially insulting even back in 1932, the moment Armstrong plays the trumpet, the mores of the times are obliterated by his musical genius.

Of course, once captured on film outside America, Louis could just play. Here's Pops, soaring in Denmark.

Once Louis Armstrong signed his contract with Decca Records, placing him effectively alongside Bing Crosby as a pop star, he transitioned from just playing and singing in movies to character parts and would continue doing occasional dramatic roles in movies and TV for the rest of his life.

In the pre-Belafonte and Poitier days, the roles almost always left something to be desired. Again, Armstrong's personality and investment in the part shined through. One wonders if any of the method actors and Stanislavsky students noticed his ability to get into a part, even a very flimsy one, and make the most out of it.

Satchmo continued touring as goodwill ambassador, bringing outstanding music to the far corners of the earth - and back again.


Periodically, between tours, Pops would bring that megawatt personality, creativity and originality to motion pictures and TV. Whether playing music or acting, Louis lights up the screen whenever he gets the chance.

The empathy that is front and center in his music translates to Louis' acting and he played quite a few character roles in movies and TV over his long career. One of Armstrong's best performances is in Marty Ritt's film Paris Blues. He co-stars with one of the entertainment world's equivalents of Jackie Robinson, actor and director Sidney Poitier, plus two more icons, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Mr. Armstrong also does a beautiful job in a supporting role in A Man Called Adam starring Sammy Davis Jr.


The key figure in early 1930's music who became a star of feature films, of course, was Bing Crosby. Here he is with Louis Armstrong in the famous musical number from High Society.

Bing's first screen appearance was in The King Of Jazz, as part of The Rhythm Boys with Harry Barris and Al Rinker.

Bing's also a musical guest in the 1930 film Reaching For The Moon, one of the very few talkie appearances of swashbuckling Doug Fairbanks, Sr.

Between many gigs, Bing would make an occasional short subject. The crooner gets chased around by lions in Mack Sennett Star Comedies (by this time in the early 1930's, pretty darn low budget), not unlike Mabel Normand in The Extra Girl and Billy Bevan, Andy Clyde, Sid Smith, etc. in countless silent 2-reelers.

Bing's charm and singing ability was massively evident in these short subjects and he soon graduated from occasional small parts in features to starring roles. MGM and Paramount saw his potential star power and cast Bing in musicals: College Humor, Going Hollywood, We're Not Dressing.

While usually headlining musicals and comedies, notably setting box-office records in 1944 playing the laid-back priest teaching the boys' choir to harmonize in Going My Way, Bing would also ace non-singing dramatic roles in such films as The Country Girl.

Russ Columbo
Even more of a challenger to Bing's pop music preeminence than fellow crooners Rudy Vallee and Al Bowlly: bandleader-vocalist-violinist, radio star and prolific recording artist Russ Columbo.

The Italian American crooner started his career as a violinist and occasional vocalist with The Gus Arnheim Orchestra. He can be seen in the following Vitaphone Variety.

A rising entertainment superstar and the paramour of movie actress Carole Lombard, Russ Columbo began appearing in films in 1933. These include musical short subjects (That Goes Double) and such feature films as Broadway Through A Keyhole.

He subsequently appeared in two more features, Wake Up And Dream and the musical Moulin Rouge.

In this clip from the latter film, Russ sings the first choruses of "Coffee In The Morning (And Kisses In The Night)" with co-star Constance Bennett before The Boswell Sisters swing the next choruses with their customary blue-note filled flair.

Russ Columbo may well have, like Crosby, Sinatra and Doris Day, enjoyed a lucrative career as a star of Hollywood movies but, tragically, he died on September 2, 1934 as the result of a freak accident.

Rudy Vallee
The first popular crooner, Rudy Vallee, turned out to be the first radio star to headline a feature film, The Vagabond Lover in 1929.

Vallee subsequently starred in musical short subjects for Paramount (including Kitty From Kansas City, an all-time favorite "follow the bouncing ball" cartoon of this blogger) as well as the 1935 Vitaphone film Sweet Music with Alice White and Ann Dvorak, but found his movie mojo in the 1940's as a comic character actor in Preston Sturges movies, both at Paramount and Fox. These include some great classic movies: The Palm Beach Story, Unfaithfully Yours and The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend.

The best story regarding Rudy Vallee and his ultimate trouper approach - along the lines of "wherever you perform, give it everything you've got" - is in Illeana Douglas' excellent "my life and times in showbiz" bio, I Blame Dennis Hopper.

Mel Tormé

Scat-singer supreme Mel Tormé was not a particularly prolific actor, besides those numerous walk-ons on the 1980's TV sitcom Night Court. That said, Tormé shared with fellow entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. a background as a child actor and performer. Mel's acting career preceded his music career, beginning with parts on such radio serials as Jack Armstrong: All-American Boy and The Romance Of Helen Trent. Mel's music career commenced when he was hired in 1942 to be the drummer/arranger in Chico Marx' band! Soon after that gig, Tormé would head the vocal quintet The Mel-Tones and be associated with Artie Shaw's group.

As Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra did, Mel would periodically act in films and television during breaks between intense touring schedules.

While the prolific recording artist known as "The Velvet Fog" - a nickname he loathed - mostly appeared in such movie musicals as Higher And Higher (which also was Sinatra's screen debut) and Good News, he also portrayed one of the most miserable poor bastard sad-sack downtrodden characters ever in an episode of Playhouse 90. Mel played the perennially abused doormat brother of raging psychopath comic Sammy Hogarth, played by Mickey Rooney with slimy misanthropic fury.The Comedian was directed by John Frankenheimer and penned by Rod Serling with fever-pitch intensity.

Harry Belafonte

Stage and screen actor, activist for social change, vocalist and recording artist Harry Belafonte is known for co-starring with Dorothy Dandridge in the classic Carmen Jones, but is also responsible for a remarkable performance in Robert Wise's hard-hitting noir thriller Odds Against Tomorrow.

Jerry Lewis
Jerry, granted, is not a crooner in the same sense that Columbo, Sinatra and his partner Dino were - and unlike Bing and Satchmo did not start in the world of music - but would frequently sing and sometimes play the drums as part of his nightclub act.

Lewis is first and foremost a musical comedian, mightily influenced by song-and-dance goofballs The Ritz Brothers. "The Typewriter Routine" is both brilliant and inspired by the musical physical comedy of Harry Ritz.

Other musical Lewis bits include his lip-synching to Mario Lanza's Be My Love on The Colgate Comedy Hour and his pantomime to The Count Basie Orchestra in The Errand Boy.

Jerry very likely enjoyed recording and performing the show-stopping tune associated with Al Jolson, "Rock A Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody" as much or more as doing comedy.

Currently making personal appearances at 90, Jerry Lewis could certainly be considered a musician as well as a comic - and, like Johnny Carson, did enjoy getting behind the drum kit on his and other TV shows.

As Sinatra and Dino did and the overwhelming majority of musical comedians did not, Jerry made a seamless transition into character parts. Just one role of many in movies and TV was in Martin Scorsese's wonderfully creepy drama about celebrity obsession, The King Of Comedy.

Mr. Lewis did something few actors have accomplished, playing a character part at 90, in the 2016 film Max Rose.

And then there was. . .


Ocean's 11. . . Sergeants Three . . . Four For Texas. . . Robin & The 7 Hoods. All funny films, intentionally and unintentionally. And as full of outrageous jokes (mostly at each other's expense) as The Rat Pack performances were, Frank, Dino and Sammy all handled dramatic roles quite well.

Frank Sinatra
It's showbiz legend that The Chairman Of The Board pulled the entertainment grand slam, his performance in the megahit From Here To Eternity arriving along with his first (and among his best) albums for Capitol, Songs For Young Lovers and Swing Easy. He had already done marvelous work in 1940's MGM musicals, but branched out into dramatic acting in the 1950's.

As was the case with Louis Armstrong, Sinatra brought the directness and emotion so prevalent in his music to character parts. The polar opposite of such lighthearted (albeit wonderful) musical films as Anchors Aweigh and On The Town, Otto Preminger's The Man With The Golden Arm showed Sinatra's range and fearlessness as an actor. While never known as an opiate user - Crown Royal was more Frank's style - it's a good bet he knew friends, colleagues and acquaintances in the music business who had experienced exactly what his character in this harrowing drama about drug addiction does.

Dean Martin
As top-notch as Sinatra and Shirley McClaine are in the Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running, the cast member who is quite surprisingly powerful is Dean Martin. Dino gives the storyline a boost with his excellent performance.

He does the same in Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo.

Sammy Davis, Jr.
Never to be outdone, ever, Sammy Davis, Jr. stars as a self-destructive jazz trumpeter in a little known but superb movie directed by Leo Penn (a.k.a. Sean's father), A Man Called Adam.

The film is quite the sleeper, with an all-star supporting cast that includes Louis Armstrong, Ossie Davis and Cicely Tyson.

And The Rat Pack, during their early 1960's heydey, had been hearing and attempting to ignore the footsteps from this guy for seven long years. . .

Elvis Presley

An icon in the world of entertainment, Elvis played the acoustic guitar on his early albums for Sun Records and was a strong vocalist and a dynamic performer in multiple mediums - well, before a very bad diet, plus the prescription painkillers and opiates prescribed by his doc got him. In many of his movies, Elvis has a breezy and likable screen presence that goes hand-in-hand with that undeniable charisma.

Had Elvis wanted to chuck the music career and concentrate on acting, he would have done quite well. One would argue that Kid Creole is tops among Elvis' performances as an actor.

tops musically of all his films, including Jailhouse Rock? That would be Viva Las Vegas, co-starring firebrand entertainment powerhouse Ann-Margret.

Finding the Elvis Presley movies much more entertaining and fun then they were ever cracked up to be, this writer recommends Jim Neibaur's book The Elvis Movies.

The Beatles & The British Invasion

The Beatles never quite crossed over to become character actors, but the Fab Four's immense personal magnetism and abilities as comic actors - and the fact that the camera loved them - were part of what made their movies so enjoyable.

The one Beatle who did tackle a serious acting role was John Lennon. After making the two Beatles films with Richard Lester, John showed acting chops in a supporting part in the director's 1966 anti-war satire of the war movie genre, How I Won The War.

1960's pop stars soon followed into feature films. This would include Paul Jones from the Manfred Mann Group in Privilege, several Mick Jagger movies (Performance and Ned Kelly best known among them) and Two-Lane Blacktop, starring James Taylor - yes THAT James Taylor - and the only Beach Boy who actually surfed, the band's matinee idol, drummer-keyboardist and (whenever he got the opportunity) talented songwriter Dennis Wilson.

Subsequently, the late great David Bowie and Prince would follow suit. The former brought epic theatricality to his tours - Diamond Dogs especially - so it was no surprise that he would demonstrate highly creative acting acumen in Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell To Earth and many other movies.

Prince starred in two stylish films which express his spin on movie and pop music iconography. Had he decided to keep going in filmmaking, the results may have been very interesting indeed, but thoese were his only efforts in the feature film arena. Who knows where Prince would have gone as both an actor and filmmaker had he chosen to do so.

In closing, it is apparent that comediennes, then as now, tend to get short shrift. One suspects that many could play multiple musical instruments skillfully - and wishes there were more film clips demonstrating such virtuosity in addition to unique abilities to sing, dance and be brilliant comediennes. We imagine Charlotte Greenwood whipping out a viola, banjo, trumpet or trombone and stopping the show. Her role in Oklahoma is sheer character actress glory.

There will be more in Part 2 of From The Bandstand To Hollywood: Musicians In The Movies, as additional vocalists and instrumentalists who made the transition to silver screen acting come to mind. This will include everything from musicians who occasionally appeared in a film to such full-blown silver screen icons as Doris Day, the former band singer turned major star for Warner Brothers.

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