Juke Joint

Director: Spencer Williams

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Spencer Williams began his acting career in the silent era but never came to any real prominence until the the height of the "race movie" era when he became a successful character actor, appearing in the Herb Jeffries black-cast westerns of the 1930s.

In the 1940s he wrote & directed a handful of race films, beginning with a serious, religious tale Blood of Jesus (1941), a better film than the comedies he would direct. Although honored as a pioneer of independent black cinema, fact is, as a director, he rarely rose even to the level of the mediocre.

Even allowing the lack of budgets & the inadequate second-hand equipment most directors of race films struggled with, Spencer did an unusually bad job on Juke Joint (1947). When not directing he was talented as a song & dance man & as a comedian, but as director he was not the best, with Juke Joint a low point.

Juke JointJuly Jones (a dancer who doesn't dance in this role) is rather confusingly playing the character of July Jones who goes by the alias Cornbred Green. Spencer Williams is playing the character of Bad News Johnson who has taken the important-sounding alias Whitney Vanderbilt.

Cornbread & Whitney have hitchhiked as far west as Texas, apparently for no better purpose than to stand in the street doing an Amos & Andy routine that was only slightly funny.

Spencer really would be playing Andy in the 1952 television series of Amos & Andy, but it's obvious from his stand-up routine with July Jones that his primary influence at this time was the radio program in which the controversial characters were played by white guys who made public appearances in blackface.

Although African American intellectuals & community leaders had long been complaining about the stereotyping in the Amos & Andy radio program, fact is, it was for a long time as popular in the black community as in the white. So it was not unnatural that Spencer would fashion his own character performances off the radio program even before he scored the Andy role for himself.

Andy was an intelligent but calculating dreamer while Amos was a mite slow. So too as Whitney, Spencer plays a gent with a degree of intelligence used for foolish things, while Cornbread, like Amos, is a follower without common sense, & having that slow way of talking most would today find offensive.

Andy, er, I mean "Whitney" & Cornbread soon hook up with the Holiday family for a place to board, though they're flat broke & only pretending they can afford a rented room.

Whitney claims to the naive Mama Lou Holiday (Inez Newell) that he & his slow companion are well known thespians & are qualified acting coaches. The pretty younger daughter of the family, Honeydew Holiday (Dauphine Moore), has entering a beauty contest. So our wandering vagrants fool the naive family into believing they can share their theatrical expertise.

Whitney agrees to teach Honeydew a few theatrical tricks for winning just such contests, in exchange for the cost of meals & the room.

Mama Lou sure loves her pretty Honeydew, but her other daughter, Florida (Katherine Moore), is a disappointment, & gets treated like one. Whether Florida acts out because justifiably jealous of the far more lovingly treated Honeydew, or just wants to get laid, is hard to tell from the script. But she loves to hang out at Johnny's Juke Joint, where the owner (Howard Gallaway) does a lot of two-timing sweet-talking, meeting some of Florida's emotionally starved needs.

The story's so badly written it's hard to know if anyone realized the "bad" sister was being maltreated in the family, though eventually Mama will come around to sternly save Florida from running off with that rotten Johnny. Florida's story culminates in a spanking-fetish sequence with the borders watching through a keyhole as the screaming gal gets her fanny hairbrushed by mama.

Because so many black cast films are ultimately about the music, & this one's called Juke Joint, it's expected that this awful comedy will at least have some good music. Alas, no, it really is trying to be a comedy first & foremost, & the music isn't much.

At least the phony thespian trainers do have Honeydew's best interests at heart, & are not bad guys at heart even if they are minor scam artists. They'll even be helpful at making sure Florida doesn't get too deeply into her bad girl image.

Coaching Honeydew on deportment & the like, we're soon at the theater where the beauty pageant is going on. It's a pretty sorry-ass pageant, despite that a troupe listed in the credits as Duncan's Beauty Show Girls were hired for that scene.

The gals are probably good enough looking, but Spencer Williams as director just didn't know how to show them off. The sequence is brief & lousy, not improved by the presence of an anonymous swing band that is given small chance to do anything. The girls line up & a master of ceremonies (Don Gilbert) instructs the audience to vote with applause. Honeydew easily wins.

Over at Jukebox Johnny's place, we suffer the film's primary musical guest, Red Callhoun & His Orchestra. There's no reason to assume Red & his boys couldn't've played something better than halfway decent, as Red had some good jump-jazz recordings under his belt, much better than what we get here. And again it seems to be the director's failure to provide a decent opportunity to come off well.

During Red's main number, dancers run out in front of the orchestra to do a jitterbug, frequently screwing up but with no opportunity for re-shoots, as every foot of film was precious. These dancers are billed as May & Ace, and Kit & Kat, of the Jitterbug Johnnies -- named it would seem for the owner of the Juke Joint.

These inept kids are the bargain basement versions of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. As in every case for this film, their failure to come off well is not entirely their fault, as they were obviously expected to get through their routines in a single take, for a slipshod director's cost-saving requirements.

At the Juke Joint, Florida is eager to be taken advantage of by Johnny, who plans to take her to Chicago where she believes he's going to marry her & they'll live the highlife with her a princess. But Johnny's a womanizing heel if only Florida could see it.

Whitney & Cornbread rat out Florida to her mom, & a good thing they do, as mom shows up at the juke joint in time to save the bad daughter from her worst decision yet. And I guess we're supposed to believe a good spanking atop the general emotional maltreatment at home is just the thing to set that gal back on the road to goodness.

Misfiring stereotying comedy, bad acting, bad dancing, a good orchestra presented inadequately, do not add up to a lost treasure.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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