Louis Armstrong and Comedy Part 3: “A Solid Man For Comedy”–Films of the 1930s and Early 40s

After a brief hiatus for the election and to celebrate the anniversary of Louis Armstrong’s trip to the Congo, we’re back with part three of our extended look at Louis Armstrong and Comedy. In Part 1, we examined Armstrong’s earliest and greatest influences, Bert Williams and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and in Part 2, we demonstrated how Armstrong’s own sense of comedy and showmanship was honed on record dates and on the stage in the 1920s and early 1930s.

When we left off, Armstrong was palling around with Slim Thompson in late 1931, writing comedy routines and perfecting the art of “mugging” in their offstage time together. The timing was right as just a few months later, Armstrong would get to show off his skills with appearances in two Paramount shorts, A Rhapsody in Black and Blue and I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You, the latter a Betty Boop cartoon. Armstrong’s first film appearance in Ex-Flame from 1930 is lost so we cannot judge what he did in that one, but the Paramount works are very much available and have the been the subject of much analysis.

We won’t get into that analysis here, but it’s worth quoting our Curator, Jason Moran, on A Rhapsody in Black and Blue as he recently discussed it for the Criterion Collection: “I’m actually in the midst of working on the permanent exhibition for the Louis Armstrong Museum, which is going to open across the street from his house in Queens. So I’ve been watching this film and reading up about it, but I haven’t really gotten to the bottom of it. This isn’t the only film in which he overperforms. The long racist tradition of minstrelsy gets slathered on to Armstrong.  It was very common for Black performers to be trapped in these settings, losing agency while also performing music that is all about agency. And from what I understand about him, he was the kind of artist who would say yes first, with the idea that maybe he didn’t know what the final result was going to look like but, in the end, music saves. If you don’t look at the film, and just listen, it’s beyond incredible.”

With that in mind, here’s A Rhapsody in Black and Blue:

Armstrong spent much of 1933 and 1934 overseas but when he came back to the United States in 1935, new manager Joe Glaser embarked on a plan for Armstrong to conquer all media platforms. After getting a recording deal with Decca, broadcasting nightly on the radio, starring in a Broadway revue, and getting a contract to write an autobiography, Armstrong turned his attention to the movies. He did so with the help of his longtime friend and disciple Bing Crosby.

Crosby was the biggest star in the world at this time and used his clout to insist that Armstrong appear in his new film, which began shooting on July 6, 1936. Columbia Pictures President Harry Cohn had no interest in paying for Armstrong but Crosby “refused to discuss the matter,” according to Crosby’s biographer Gary Giddins. “What’s more, though his part was small (one musical number, two comic exchanges), Louis would be top-billed as part of a quartet of stars,” Giddins added. “No black performer had ever been billed as a lead in a white picture.” Here’s that historic card from the opening credits:

Armstrong’s big showpiece would be “The Skeleton in the Closet” (which we recommend for Halloween viewing) but he also had some comedic dialogue with Crosby. The scene barely lasted a minute but according to Armstrong, it was the “biggest laugh in the picture.” The humor is at the expense of Armstrong’s character, which has caused this scene to come under scrutiny in recent years, but Armstrong remained proud of it for the rest of his career. Here’s the scene in question:

In my new book, Heart Full of Rhythm: The Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong, I detail the debate in the African American press about Armstrong’s role in Pennies From Heaven as the majority of black writers applauded Armstrong for his work in the film, but as years have passed, more writers and cultural critics sided with those who found it problematic. Armstrong himself knew that times had changed–but he never stopped finding it funny. During a taped dinner with his friends the Shoniker family in Toronto in 1964, Armstrong recounted the entire scene shown above, line for line, laughing throughout. This clip begins at the punchline, as Armstrong says, “And the scene with the chickens, you know? Big laughs. Big laughs. See, you can’t do scenes like that now in movies because of the NAACP. Oh, lord. That was the biggest laugh in the picture! Shit, you can’t do those scenes now.”

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In a letter written to an unknown recipient in the 1950s or 1960s (the beginning and end is missing), Armstrong spent several pages praising Bing Crosby before coming to Pennies From Heaven and recounting the entire comedy sequence. “GASSUH PERSONIFIED” he writes at the punchline!

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In February 1971, Armstrong and Crosby had their last reunion on television, teaming up on The David Frost Show just about five months before Armstrong passed away. Sure enough, as Armstrong took his seat on the panel, he immediately reminisced about Pennies From Heaven and once again recreated his big comedic sequence from 35 years earlier (starts at 7:35):

Pennies From Heaven established Armstrong as a bona fide Hollywood star–and other stars took notice. Martha Raye insisted Armstrong appear in her film Artists and Models, where they teamed up for a controversial number, “Public Melody Number One,” choreographed by young Vincente Minelli. Armstrong was then teamed up again with Crosby to perform “The Trumpet Player’s Lament” in Doctor Rhythm, a sequence that is sadly lost. While filming that sequence, Mae West caught Armstrong on the Paramount set and insisted he appear in her film, Every Day’s a Holiday, with Hoagy Carmichael contributing “Jubilee” on short notice.

In each of those three films, Armstrong was called on to sing and play trumpet but his scenes were standalones (easier to be cut in the South) and didn’t require any comedy. That changed in 1938 when Armstrong was cast in a Dick Powell update of The Hottentot to be titled Going Places. Armstrong was given a meaty role as stable boy Gabe, introduced the Academy Award nominated number “Jeepers Creepers,” teamed up with Maxine Sullivan on the “Mutiny in the Nursery” sequence and delivered plenty of comedic lines.

Today, Going Places is the one film most people point to when arguing that Armstrong was wasted in Hollywood, namely because he sings “Jeepers Creepers” to a horse of the same name and is referred to as “Uncle Tom” by white comic actor Allen Jenkins (bassist Arvell Shaw remained incensed about this for the rest of his life). Indeed, this is far from a Sidney Poitier role as can be but like with Pennies, it’s interesting to point out that Armstrong relished his part. Even before he knew the details, Armstrong wrote a letter to his friend Elmer Lewis while en route to Hollywood on August 18, 1939, noting, “I don’t know yet – just what part I’m to play in Mr. Powell’s Flicker…I do hope it’s a Comical’one…I love to do Comedy for those Picture Stars…Something like the part I  had in Papa Bing’s Picture…..Remember Pennies?….”

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Indeed, Going Places was quite a “comical one” for Armstrong. Though the comedy is dated from a 21st century perspective and there’s no denying that Armstrong’s gravel-voice is coated with a thicker dialect than usual, there’s also no denying his superb comic timing throughout the film. Here’s one short example:

Critics agreed that Armstrong was one of the highlights of the lightweight flick. In fact, Armstrong’s comedy chops were praised so often and in outlets as lofty as The New York Times that Joe Glaser collected the best blurbs and took out a full-page ad in Variety on January 18, 1939 to tout Armstrong as “A Solid Man For Comedy” (and for those who were with us for part one, note the photo in the background, depicting one of the last times Armstrong accepted second billing to none other than Bill Robinson at the Strand):

Just four days after that ad ran, Armstrong wrote a follow-up letter to Elmer Lewis, still full of happy memories from his time making Going Places.

Two years later, Armstrong hired Leonard Feather for a short time to be his press agent. Feather dreamed up an idea that 1941 was Armstrong’s 25th anniversary in show business and asked the trumpeter to sum up the most important moments of his career for an eventual story that ran in the New York Times. Armstrong’s first thought was his historic 1937 run as host of the Fleischmann’s Yeast Show before he immediately recounted his film work, opening with Pennies From Heaven and specifically calling out “that fine” Going Places.

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Around the time Armstrong wrote that letter to Feather, Orson Welles, fresh off Citizen Kane, announced he was going to make a film of Armstrong’s life starring Armstrong himself. Alas, plans fell through in 1942, allowing Glaser to focus on getting Armstrong a part in MGM’s upcoming all-African American musical, Cabin in the Sky. Cab Calloway was initially in the lead for the role, but it eventually went to Armstrong, who would have his own production number, “Ain’t It the Truth,” plus be featured in a comic scene with Lucifer and his Idea Men, including actors and comedians such as Rex Ingram, Willie Best and Mantan Moreland.

Cabin in the Sky sequence with Lucifer (Rex Ingram) and his Idea Men (Fletcher Rivers, Leon James, Willie Best and Mantan Moreland). LAHM 2006.1.1724a

However, when the film was released in 1943, Armstrong’s “Ain’t It the Truth” sequence was left on the cutting room floor. And though other cut sequences, including one with Lena Horne, have been found and made public in recent years, Armstrong’s musical interlude remains lost.

However, his one long comedic sequence in the finished film finds him more than holding his own alongside those heavyweights; in fact, to Armstrong, it was one of his lines that saved the scene. Here’s audio from a 1960 interview in which Armstrong tells the story about he and Joe Glaser being surprised to see his musical number cut when they first saw the film in Philadelphia, before Armstrong discusses the scene and recreates his line.

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Unfortunately, the “Lucifer” sequence of Cabin in the Sky has not turned up online yet and we don’t have a digital copy so our recommendation is to find the whole film and enjoy it! Audio of Armstrong’s “Ain’t It the Truth” number has at least survived and is worth sharing as Armstrong remained proud of it and dubbed it to tape numerous times:

When Cabin in the Sky was released, Armstrong was in the middle of compiling a joke book in his spare time offstage. He devoted a page to typing up the lyrics of “Ain’t It the Truth,” adding a “P.S.” that this was the song he did in Cabin in the Sky, “But they-no-release….why? Be Damned if I know….Tee Hee.”

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Wait a minute. Back it up. Did I say “Joke Book”? Indeed I did and the “Joke Book” and Louis’s reel-to-reel tapes will be the subject of the next installment of our look at Louis Armstrong and Comedy. You won’t want to miss it (but maybe let the youngsters sit that one out….).

Published by Ricky Riccardi

I am Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

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