January 31, 2013
Hi-De-Ho – US, 1947
It’s hard to know how to judge Josh Binney’s Hi-De-Ho. It was not made to win any awards, and judging by how little time is often devoted to anything resembling a narrative, I’d venture even further and say that it really didn’t set out to tell a story. After all, what little drama there is reaches its crescendo about halfway through the film, and what replaces it is thirty minutes of non-stop song and dance numbers. Mind you, both the singing and the dancing are impressive, but part of me couldn’t help wondering aloud, “What happened to the story?”
The film stars that zany, manic entertainer Cab Calloway, whose music I was first introduced to at a Giants game many years ago. I later saw a short film of his called “Jitterbug Party” (1934) on a now out-of-print DVD compilation of short musicals called Hollywood Rhythm: Vol 1 – the Best of Jazz and Blues. What fascinated me about that short was the way it showed two sides to Mr. Calloway, the calm side that he appears to have displayed in front of traditional, whiter audiences and the more outrageous, fun-loving side that comes out at a party he attends after his show. There, among African-Americans, he lets his hair down – no pun intended – and is the life of the party. The film impressed me immensely, and Hi-De-Ho is further evidence of the man’s genius and ability to entertain. He had rhythm, an amazing voice, impeccable timing, and, from the sound of the band he assembled, an ear for musicians.
Unfortunately, the one talent that Mr. Calloway may not have been as prolific at was acting, as many of the scenes in which he is called upon to “act” leave much to be desired. His timing, as well as that of the film’s other actors, is often off, and moments that are intended to be heartfelt or inspire fear instead cause giggling. The film was written by Hal Seeger, who wrote the scripts for seven films before embarking on a rather impressive five-year stint as a producer of TV shorts. I can imagine his instructions were something like “We need a script that will give Calloway’s character plenty of time to do his thing.” And if that was indeed the case, that is exactly what they got. In the film, Calloway plays a version of himself, and as himself, he performs eight musical numbers. The talented Peters Sisters drop by for two more, and in one of the film’s most impressive scenes, a sensational tap dancing group known as the two Miller Brothers and Lois show up to dazzle viewers with some rather stunning footwork.
What little plot there is mainly involves Calloway’s jealous girlfriend, Minnie (Jeni Le Gon). Her name gives Calloway the chance to sing his hit song “Minnie’s a Hepcat Now” not once, but twice. The woman Minnie is jealous of is named Nettie (Ida James), and it doesn’t take a genius to know that there’ll be a song with Nettie’s name in it at some point in the film. Nettie is Calloway’s new agent, and Minnie is determined to make sure their relationship stays strictly professional. When she can no longer contain her resentment, she does what every rationale woman does in this situation - she sits down and has a long heartfelt chat with the man she loves. Well, not really. That’s what normal characters do. Minnie elects to march straight over to a gangster known as Boss Mason (George Wiltshire) and in a not-so subtle way suggest that he bump off Calloway. This storyline is returned to intermittently for about thirty minutes, and then the film becomes a documentation of a Cab Calloway stage show. Impressive, but hardly a movie.
As I said, films like these are difficult to judge. The film was conceived of and shot to showcase Calloway, and in that respect, it succeeds mightily, for it is impossible to come away from the film without a deep appreciation and respect for Cab Calloway, the performer. As a narrative film, however, the film fails miserably. Its dramatic moments fall flat, and it is filled with moments of such head-scratching inconsistency that you’ll wonder just how characters could turn on a dime as fast as they do. Now, normally films with narrative faults such as this one’s elicit a plethora of scornful remarks and long complaints from me, but not this time. Hi-De-Ho will never be mistaken for a good film, but in truth, it succeeds at doing what it set out to do. Not long after I watched it, I ordered a four-disc anthology of Cab Calloway’s music. And isn’t that why the film was made in the first place? (on DVD)
The film: 2 and a half stars
The legend that is Cab Calloway: 4 stars