The Vitaphone "Broadway Brevity" two-reeler The Black Network (1936) is set in a black-owned radio station. The title is a play off the actual National Broadcasting Company's "Red Network" & "Blue Network."
The Red Network centered out of station WEAF specialized in musical programs, while the Blue centered at WJZ focused on cultural broadcasts & news. On the West Coast there were similar designations for the Orange, Gold, & White networks. So it was just a natural to name this Vitaphone short The Black Network.
The film opens with the Mack Gordon & Harry Revel composition "Without a Word of Warning" sung by Emmett "Babe" Wallace, backed up by the Harlem Gondoliers.
Crooner Babe Wallace is playing Nina Mae McKinney's boyfriend. He was a great talent well known to visitors to the Savoy Ballroom, the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theater, & jazz clubs in Europe. He lived some while in Israel where he became extremely popular singing in both English & Yiddish.
And his European tours meant he had big fan followings & record sales in Spain, France, England, Germany & Holland. But he somehow never quite became a big film star, though he plays "Chick Bailey," Bill Bojangles Robinson's rival for Lena Horne's attentions in Stormy Weather (1939), & he again appears opposite Nina Mae in The Devil's Daughter (1939).
His band the Gondoliers seem to be a fictional orchestra, as they are known only in this film. But I can't otherwise identify them, so lets think of them as the Black Network house band.
Babe is such a wholesome fellow singing: "Am I dreaming or am I awake/ I can't believe my eyes/ Is it really true/ Is it all just a lovely mistake..."
Bruce Johnson's Washboard Serenaders are up second performing a novelty tune with kazoo solo, some Yiddish lyrics, very jazzy with loads of humor, yet getting a bit more serious musically as it progresses. The piece is called "Ochi Chornya" or "Dark Eyes." They follow up with "St. Louis Blues."
The third act to go on the air is Nina Mae McKinney. For my tastes she's the foremost star of this musical short, performing the Cliff Hess composition "Half of Me Wants to be Good." The lyrics run in part:
"Got two arms to work with/ Got two eyes to see/ Got two ears to hear with/ It's wrong to give two souls to me.../ Half of me says let's find salvation/ Half me says be low down/ One minute I'm singing 'halleluja'/ Next I'm ready to go to town..."
This is a very cool song & Nina's just a tremendous talent performing it. And the line "One minute I'm singing 'Hallelujah'" is good for a grin since Nina Mae is so absolutely incredible in Hallelujah (1929) playing a character indeed torn between two natures. And The Black Network is available as a extra together with Nina's other important short subject Pie Pie Blackbird (1932) on a dvd issue of Hallelujah.
There's a little bit of a story in this music film. The station's key advertiser has a wife, Mezzinine Johnson (Amanda Randolph), who wants to be on the show. She bamboozles her way on the air to sing "Something Must Be Wrong With Me," another pretty darned good Ness composition.
Amanda's a funny sexy gal, kind of a black Fanny Bryce, & though part of the joke is she has no talent but gets on the air anyway, fact is she's an astounding talent & comes dangerously close to steeling the film from Nina Mae.
She may be remembered by some as Sapphire's mom on the first all-black television sitcom Amos & Andy (1951-53). Already before that, she was the first popular black actress on television with her own show Amanda (1948-49). The episodes were a quarter-hour each, as were the similarly formatted Rosemary Clooney show & Liberace show.
Amanda Randolph was all too often reduced to playing maids, as work is work. Playing Louise the maid, she was a semi-regular on the Danny Thomas sitcom Make Room for Daddy (1955-1966).
Meanwhile back at management, an amateur show has been planned, auditions invited, beginning with a bad singer & a bad comic.
Just as it's beginning to look hopeless, the very young Nicholas Brothers show up. They sing Cliff Ness's third song in the film, "Lucky Number," & do it damned well. The younger brother Harold is an especially fine singer.
But their fame was as tapdancers so of course they turn in a tap routine beyond brilliant. How can kids be that purely elegant I wanna know!
A couple days before watching The Black Network I'd re-watched The Cotton Club (1984), & just so enjoyed Gregory Hines' dancing. And yet seeing the Nicholases as kids, gads, Gregory doesn't compare.
After Nina Mae & her boyfriend Babe leave the radio show, there's a magically swift & rather silly "happy ending" when they win the lottery. They move to Sugar Hill (rich district of Harlem), which is the cue for Babe Wallace & the Gondaliers to sing a very nice jazz number, again by Ness, "Walkin' with My Sugar on Sugar Hill."
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl