Saint Louis Blues (1929), a two-reel short written by William C. Handy and Kenneth W. Adams, was one of the first talking films with an all-black cast. It featured several influential actors and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance and contains the only existing footage of the singer Bessie Smith. The plot of the film, which Handy described as “a serious picture of Negro life,” was loosely based on his popular hit song “Saint Louis Blues” (1914). Although the film was chiefly intended to showcase Smith’s dazzling performance of the classic title song, Saint Louis Blues nevertheless represents a significant event in the history of African American cinema.
At Handy’s recommendation, the film’s white director, Dudley Murphy, cast as the female lead Bessie Smith, then thirty-five years old, who was a vaudeville blues singer and a recording star with Columbia. In 1925, she had recorded the definitive version of “Saint Louis Blues” at Columbia’s studios in New York, accompanied by Louis Armstrong on cornet. The cast of the film also featured the dancer Jimmy Mordecai and the actress Isabel Washington. John Rosamond Johnson helped Handy arrange the choral music and conducted the forty-twomember Hall Johnson Choir that accompanied Smith in the picture. The stride pianist James P. Johnson and several former members of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra performed onscreen in the film’s jazz band.
Saint Louis Blues was produced by RCA Phototone and was shot on a small budget in June 1929 at Gramercy Studio in Astoria, Long Island. The seventeen-minute film was released later that year as a two-reel short to be shown before feature attractions, and it was screened in black theaters until 1932. Variety, in its review of Saint Louis Blues, described the film as “pungent with tenseness and action and replete with Aframerican local and other color.” The sparse plot, set in Memphis, centers on a long-suffering woman named Bessie (played by Smith), whose handsome, crap-shooting lover, Jimmy (Mordecai), physically abuses her and uses her for her money. Although Bessie supports him financially, Jimmy becomes romantically involved with another woman (Washington). A violent confrontation ensues in which Bessie attacks this woman after catching Jimmy and her together in the hotel room Bessie rents.
Jimmy then batters and deserts Bessie despite her tearful pleadings. In the film’s final scene, Bessie drowns her sorrows in bootleg liquor in a smoky saloon on Beale Street, and there, accompanied by the choir and jazz band, moans “Saint Louis Blues” for an appreciative crowd of patrons. Jimmy enters, embraces Bessie, and surreptitiously steals a roll of bills Bessie has tucked in her garter as they dance together. The film concludes with Bessie sinking into a deep depression after Jimmy abandons her permanently. Since its release, Saint Louis Blues has met with mixed reviews by film historians and scholars of blues, although most have praised Smith’s powerful screen presence and her electrifying performance of “Saint Louis Blues.” Thomas Cripps (1977) considered the picture “the finest film of Negro life up to that time,” but Donald Bogle (1973) asserted that the film “was marred by its white director’s overstatement.” Angela Davis (1998) has criticized the film not only because it “incorporates an overabundance of racist and sexist stereotypes,” but also because it “flagrantly disregards the spirit of women’s blues by leaving the victimized woman with no recourse.” Despite such criticisms, Saint Louis Blues remains an important example of African American filmmaking and one that highlights the musical and acting talents of a number of prominent entertainers of the Harlem Renaissance.