It’s the early 1900s in New Orleans, the birthplace of Jazz, the fabled city of music. Nick Duquesne runs a gambling den and club in the Storyville district of New Orleans, where he soon meets Marilee Smith, a young beauty from the upper crust of society. Naturally, a romantic story is in the works here; two people from two different worlds eventually fall in love. The closing of the red light district in New Orleans leads to Nick relocating to Chicago with many of the ragtime players from New Orleans, in particular, Louis Armstrong. Looking to rebuild his club in Chicago, Nick uses jazz and ragtime music to rise back to a respectable position for himself as a club proprietor.
The plot of New Orleans isn’t anything remarkable; in fact, the film is rather forgettable if not for the music that is featured. New Orleans the musical contains many famous musicians and singers of the mid-1900s: Billie Holiday, Kid Ory, Woody Herman and his orchestra, Meade Lux Lewis, and of course, the great Louis Armstrong. It would be quite odd to make a musical about jazz set in New Orleans and not feature Louis Armstrong. Armstrong plays himself in the movie, but the events surrounding Armstrong in New Orleans are not entirely biographical. Instead, they mirror some of the events in Armstrong’s life, the most obvious being Louis moving from New Orleans to Chicago and becoming famous after that. Billie Holiday plays the role of a maid for Marilee Smith and sings the Blues in Mr. Duquesne’s club. The roles that Louis and other musicians play are not necessarily flattering or respectable parts. However, this film was made in 1947, and Hollywood’s priority in those days wasn’t to focus on the positive representation of Black people. The main takeaway of the movie is the musical performances, and, true to most subpar musicals, the plot feels as if its sole purpose is to proceed to the next performance.
The musical has an interesting history in that its origins come from an unfinished Orson Welles project that featured a segment called The Story of Jazz. Writer Elliot Paul wrote the piece to be featured in Welles’ film. Some years later, film producer Jules Levy wanted to make a film about Jazz music and asked Elliot Paul to flesh out his original work with fellow writer Dick Hyland. The revised piece would become the screenplay for New Orleans, which was directed by Arthur Lubin. Lubin was famous for his work as a director and a film producer, known for the 1940 adaptation of Phantom of the Opera and also for his work with various Abbott and Costello films.
The music is the main draw of the film, and outside of that aspect, it fails to deliver anything memorable. But, it serves as one of Hollywood’s many time capsules to an old era of film. New Orleans displays the limited range Black entertainers held in many early Hollywood productions. It should also be noted that New Orleans is an improvement to Louis’ other film appearances, such as A Rhapsody in Black and Blue. Most jazz movies, especially films from the 30’s to early 60’s that are not biopics, tend to use the Jazz as more of an attraction than a core element of the story. New Orleans may use Jazz as a plot device to tell a lackluster love story, but it tries to do more. Through its characters, the viewer actually sees ragtime and early New Orleans music spread out of the city and performed for audiences that become enthralled by these new sounds. It may be oversimplified in its delivery but, we should also not expect a musical from the late 40’s to adequately explain the origins of a Black American art form. All in all, New Orleans may not be the best musical, far from a great “jazz film”, yet it differs in that it is one of the earliest films that attempt to tell the story of Jazz music.