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  • This review is really about the music and not the movie - although the latter stands up well enough as a period piece. The main deal is to see the great Duke Ellington orchestra in one of its best incarnations performing a collection of Duke's already recorded compositions (wouldn't exactly say 'hits'!) under the slightly self-conscious title of "A Rhapsody of Negro Life", or occasionally, "A Symphony in Black". The most often seen excerpt is "A Song of Sorrow", featuring the very young Billie Holliday (vocalist). The music is in reality "Saddest Tale" recorded for Brunswick earlier the same year (1935). Other delights for Ellington fans include "Ducky Wucky", and "Lightning". Aside from Ellington himself, conducting from his customary position at the piano, there are great shots of clarinetist Barney Bigard, drummer Sonny Greer, and especially trombonist Joe 'Tricky Sam' Nanton, whose statement of the "Saddest Tale" theme (with trumpet straight mute and plunger) is even better than on the Brunswick studio recording. They're miming, of course, but very convincingly! And it is actually them playing on the recording so its as good as you're going to get from the period. Also worth checking out, whilst I'm on the subject, is "Black and Tan Fantasy" from 1929. I believe this was the first all-black movie ever made, and also features the Ellington band - while they were resident at the famous Cotton Club in New York. Cheesy plot, but worth it for the band and the great dance routines! 10 out of 10 to both - from a musical point of view!!!
  • bkoganbing23 November 2008
    I don't think that it was any accident that Duke Ellington wrote this Symphony In Black at the time he did. Right around this time the Gershwins and Dubose Hayward had done Porgy and Bess which purported to be a picture of black life. I suppose Ellington decided that his vision ought to be given a shot as well.

    What fascinated me about this short subject was that it was done by Paramount Pictures which was not known as a studio that did topical films of social significance. This would have been something one of the smaller studios might have considered normally on a skimpy budget. But Adolph Zukor spent quite a bit on this considering it is a short subject.

    We see shots of Ellington at the piano and with orchestra interspersed with various shots of black people just doing their daily routine. The setting of the working people might very well have influenced what was done at Universal for the Old Man River number that Paul Robeson sang in Showboat.

    What we've got here is nothing less than an early music video presided over by one of America's greatest men of melody.
  • The short is basically Sir Duke performing his title composition in four parts: 1)The Laborers which has inserts of men putting bags down on the ground with the emphasis on the impact of the way the bags are dropped, 2) A Triangle: Dance, Jealousy, Blues-once again, inserts depict the steps that are described here with Billie Holliday singing about her man being gone in the last one, 3)A Hymn of Sorrow has men looking sad and praying, and 4)Harlem Rhythm simply shows people having a good time. The rest is just Ellington playing the piano with his own writing showing the titles. This was another great musical short on the Kino Video DVD named "Hollywood Rhythm Vol. 1: The Best of Jazz and Blues".
  • Symphony In Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life (1935)

    *** (out of 4)

    To think that Paramount would allow this short to be made and released says quite a bit considering the studio really didn't take a political slant in most of their films and there weren't many studios at all showing blacks in a positive light. Many have pointed out that Duke Ellington planned this as a true portrait of Negro life back in the day and this was to go against the "images" in Porgy and Bess, which had just been released. This short is broken down into four different parts with the first showing men doing labor with heavy bags. The second features Billie Holliday doing a song about her boyfriend going down the wrong path. The third sequence shows black men praying and the fourth shows people having a good time. I'd be lying if I said this was a great short because there are several minor problems but once again I was really shocked to see something like this being released in 1935. Ellington's score here is terrific and I really loved the dark and somber beats of the first story. The Holliday song was terrific and she did it great justice and the images of the story backing it were also top-notch. The fourth story doesn't have too much but then again it's not very long either. There's some nice style throughout all the visual images of the story being told so this here comes highly recommended.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    My only objection with this film is that it is just too darn short, a rhapsody in rhythm to his orchestra and with him at the piano. It is a moody and jazzy collection of different themes and different moods, intertwining social issues amongst the joy that Ellington's music could bring through its contact with human emotions. Ellington is playing his music in a nightclub setting while off screen, a black female singer deals with the rejection of the man she loves. It doesn't short change the viewer in seeing the dark side of humanity in an era 80 years past, showing various black characters in various states of despair. I really could have seen this as a full length musical drama where the entire story is stretched out to full length. But I'll take what I can get of the Duke, because even for a white viewer decades later, the impact remains the same.
  • Duke Ellington and his orchestra perform barely post-Jungle-phase music in impeccable white tie and tails, while Billie Holliday sings of her sorrow as her boyfriend, played by an uncredited Scatman Crothers, walks out on her. There's not much more than that, but how can you possibly do better than that combination? Film historians, please note: when looking at this film and later, checking the full cast list of this movie in the IMDb, I thought I had identified Miss Holliday's boyfriend as Scatman Crothers. I have been informed by other sources that it is not Mr. Crothers. So there's a bit of a question for you when you look at this movie: is it Crothers or not?
  • planktonrules14 July 2012
    If you want to see this film, it's available in a compilation disc entitled "Hollywood Rhythm: Volume One" and is a set of musical shorts featuring Black artists of the 30s and 40s. The films were made by Paramount and is a rare case of a major studio featuring Black music to wider audiences of the day. This particular short is a highly condensed version of Ellington's much longer "Symphony in Black". It's divided into four parts and you see little vignettes acted out as the music plays. Some of the time, you don't see Ellington's orchestra--just Ellington himself sitting casually at the piano. A big debut here is Billie Holiday--a brilliant singer with a very tragic life. Overall, the piece is very polished--very classy and refined--much like Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess". Very watchable and enjoyable--it's just too bad it's not all of Ellington's piece--now THAT would be a great little slice of history.

    By the way, on the disc, this and another Ellington short are among the very best stuff. What an artist!