The Making of 'Mary Poppins
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“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one”.
Louis Armstrong - Chicago Style (1976)
Jazz legend Louis Armstrong appeared in many films throughout his career, usually portraying a version of himself in both fictional and biographical films. Whether he was cast opposite James Stewart in The Glenn Miller Story, Danny Kaye in The Five Pennies, Bing Crosby in High Society or Barbra Streisand in Hello Dolly, Armstrong’s roles merely showcased his immense talent and jovial public persona. This biopic, for all of its faults, provides a moderately more rounded portrait of one of America’s most loved entertainers.
It’s 1931 Hollywood, and Louis Armstrong is enjoying himself entertaining the famous clientele of a second-rate speakeasy. However his manager wants him to return to the more profitable climes of Chicago and shortly thereafter, Armstrong is arrested for possession of marijuana and is kicked out of California. Back in Chicago, he meets up with his ex-girlfriend and ex-wife while the mob pressures him to break his contract to perform at an old friend’s club.
In his first dramatic role, Ben Vereen laughs a little too readily in the film’s opening scenes and still moves like a dancer when avoiding the mob. He does equip himself well onstage though, where Teddy Buckner ghosts for his trumpeting. The two combine for a standout scene in which Armstrong duels with two other trumpet players planted in the audience by the mob. Yet the dangers that Armstrong faced never feel threatening. An encounter with racists at a petrol station is played for laughs and an apparent life-and-death car chase is accompanied by a jaunty soundtrack. Other hackneyed touches employed by director Lee Philips include rapid sweeps of the audience between Armstrong’s numbers, umpteenth performances of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’, and a final emotional performance that truly blows.
Six years later, Philips would direct the equally uninspiring biopic Mae West.
as Louis Armstrong
as Jack Teagarden
At the time if his arrest, Louis Armstrong was performing at Los Angeles’ New Cotton Club. One of the most popular jazz clubs in the city, it was far from being the second-rate speakeasy depicted in the biopic.
When arrested for possessing marijuana, Louis Armstrong was sharing the drug with white drummer Vic Berton, not standing by while a fellow African-American band member was smoking.
Red Cleveland is a fictional character.
Alma Rae is based on Armstrong’s third wife, Alpha Smith.
Though movie opens in Hollywood at a time Louis Armstrong was appearing in a couple of short films, there are no scene recreations in this biopic.