The Bootleg Files: Boogie-Woogie Dream

BOOTLEG FILES 798: “Boogie-Woogie Dream” (1944 musical short starring Lena Horne).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: There are no plans for a restored version.

In September 1941, an unlikely group of creative artists converged in a New York City movie studio to shoot an independently financed musical short film. The finished production sat on a shelf for three years before it was seen, making very little impression in its day. But today, this film is considered an invaluable asset for capturing an iconic performer at the cusp of her rise to prominence while providing the only filmed record of two of the greatest jazz performers of all time.

“Boogie-Woogie Dream” takes place in a nightclub that is shutting down for the night. The great jazz pianist Teddy Wilson and his band are the headliners at this venue, and they are packing up to go home.

The nightclub’s two remaining patrons, a Mr. Weathercoop (Russel Morrison) and his lady companion (Virginia Pine), are preparing to leave when the woman makes a last-second decision to “powder her nose.” As Mr. Weathercoop waits for his date in the now-empty nightclub, he overhears a conversation from the kitchen involving a paper hanger, a piano tuner and a lady dishwasher. The trio talk of their dreams of becoming entertainers in the club and the men begin playing the kitchen’s pianos in a rapturous boogie-woogie rhythm. (Hey, doesn’t every nightclub kitchen come with two pianos?)

Mr. Weathercoop and his date fall asleep into a join dream with the three kitchen staff members are transformed into finely-clad entertainers who perform musical numbers, with Teddy Wilson joining in the jazzy fun. When the dream is over, Mr. Weathercoop approaches the kitchen workers, who are now back in their work clothing at their labor. It is revealed that Mr. Weathercoop is an impresario and he invites them to an audition – lo and behold, their dream of becoming entertainers is on the verge of coming true.

“Boogie-Woogie Dream” was inspired by Café Society, a New York City nightclub that was one of the rare entertainment venues where Black patrons were welcomed and not segregated to a corner of the space. Café Society also offered a mix of Black and White entertainers on the same bill, another rarity for the city’s nightclub scene.

In his film, Mr. Weathercoop and his date are White while the rest of the cast are Black. But this is the rare film of its time where the Black on-screen talent is shown as equals to their White cast members – Wilson and his band are shown as tuxedo-clad gentlemen and the kitchen staff show off their true class and style in the Cinderella-worthy dream sequence.

The two men in the kitchen are Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, who were among the most influential pianists of their day. Ammons and Wilson were at the forefront of the boogie-woogie sound that dominated jukeboxes and radio broadcasts in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and both were regular performers at Café Society. But despite their popularity, “Boogie-Woogie Dream” marked the only time either of them appeared in a film. Still, the quality of their appearance compensated for the cinematic elusiveness – their duet number that borrowed the film’s title is one of the most invigorating musical sequences ever films.

The third member of the kitchen staff was the least famous at the time – Lena Horne was establishing herself as a singer at Café Society and appeared in one independent film, “The Duke is Tops,” but she was mostly unknown to wider audiences. Her appearance in the film was by accident because Billie Holiday was initially slated for the role but became unavailable.

Horne was given two blues numbers, “My New Gown” and “Unlucky Woman,” for the film – and while blues music was not her forte, she projected a freshness and vibrancy that sold the numbers.

Behind the camera was director Hans Burger, a Czech exile who was best known for the 1939 documentary “Siege” about Hitler’s takeover of the Sudetenland. While living in the U.S., Burger’s film work was primarily focused on political documentaries, most notably the 1945 “Death Mills” that offered harrowing footage from the liberated Nazi concentration camps. Burger was a frequent patron at Café Society and was encouraged by Karl Farkas, an Austrian cabaret performer, and Mark Marvin, the film producer brother Herbert Kline, Burger’s co-director on “Crisis,” to make a musical short featuring some of the Café Society talent.

“Boogie-Woogie Dream” was quickly made and almost quickly forgotten. Marvin was unable to sell the film anywhere – the Hollywood studios had their own short films divisions and weren’t buying independent fare, while the distributors of the so-called “race films” released to theaters in Black communities passed on the work. It wasn’t until 1944 when Horne was established as a star performer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that “Boogie-Woogie Dream” was dusted off and had its premiere at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Sack Amusements, a distributor of race films, offered the film in theaters with Horne given star billing and the film’s musical numbers were edited into standalone pieces for Soundies Distribution Corporation, which marketed jukeboxes that played 16mm prints of musical performances.

“Boogie-Woogie Dream” was mostly obscure until many years after its belated release, when the public domain labels began to include the copyright-lapsed work in their anthology collections and a new appreciation was given to Horne’s career and the race film genre. Copies of the film are easily located online, and time has not dimmed its vitality and energy.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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