BOOTLEG FILES 473: “Hi De Ho” (1947 musical starring Cab Calloway).
LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube and other video websites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: From public domain labels.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An expired copyright.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Nope.
During the 1930s and 1940s, jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway was among the most exuberant forces of energy to shine in the entertainment world. Hollywood tapped Calloway for appearances in a number of films, albeit with a significant catch. While producers of that era didn’t mind having Calloway sing and dance as part of a standalone musical sequence, they were not progressive enough to integrate him into the wider films.
In 1947, Calloway received an offer to star in his own film. This did not come from a Hollywood studio, but from an independent production company creating so-called “race films” that featured all-black casts. These films were exclusively released to cinemas in predominantly African American neighborhoods – white audiences never saw the films and probably did not know they existed.
The resulting production, called “Hi De Ho,” was something of a disappointment. Despite Calloway’s kinetic music and the jolly input of other variety artists, the film was pretty weak. Today, “Hi De Ho” exists in a truncated form, with a chunk of the production absent from surviving prints.
In “Hi De Ho,” Calloway plays a singer/bandleader who is waiting for his big break. He has a girlfriend named Minnie, although their relationship is somewhat rocky. When Minnie accuses Calloway of cheating on her with Nettie, his female business manager, Calloway responds by violently slapping her across the face. This assault causes Minnie to fall on the floor and burst into tears – and for the longest time, it becomes difficult to warm up to Calloway’s character because of this very harsh action.
(A woman named Minnie, of course, was the subject of Calloway’s most famous tune, “Minnie the Moocher.” Oddly, he never sings that number in this film – instead, he offers a new song called “Minnie’s a Hep Cat Now.”)
Nettie arranges for Calloway to audition for the owner of the Brass Hat Club. Calloway performs a few tunes and the club manager is eager to hire him. However, the notorious gangster Boss Mason is planning to open his own club across the street from the Brass Hat, and he wants Calloway to be his main attraction. When Calloway refuses, Mason decides to have one of his gangsters rub out the entertainer. In a convoluted turn of events, Calloway thwarts both his would-be assassin and Mason (who inexplicably decides to turn up for the killing). Mason is shot to death by Calloway, but Minnie (who had briefly allied herself with Mason against Calloway) is also fatally shot in the crossfire. Calloway survives with nary a scratch and goes on to a grand career and a happy marriage to his manager Nettie.
“Hi De Ho” is a weird affair, with Calloway shoehorned into a rather shabby production. The audition sequence takes place in a tight living room, and the nightclub where Calloway shines is a small space consisting of a stage, an old curtain and two potted palms. The plot is strictly at a B-grade level, but the film’s pacing is so abrupt and clumsy that the story pretty much runs its course by the end of the film’s first half. Indeed, the second half of the film is devoted to an extended musical revue, with the marriage of Calloway and Nettie tacked on for the final few minutes.
Calloway seems to be working at half-steam for most of the film. Although “Hi De Ho” offers a surplus amount of music, including eight songs performed by Calloway, the star’s lip-syncing is frequently off and his enthusiasm for several of the numbers is visibly lacking. Only once in the film does he come to full-throttle life: an over-the-top raucous rendition of his classic “St. James Infirmary Blues,” with Calloway singing and dancing in a complete display of his performing power. Outside of this sequence, however, Calloway is strictly conserving his energy.
As a result of this, the strength of “Hi De Ho” comes through a pair of guest acts that share the film’s revue-style second half. The real singing stars here are the Peters Sisters, a trio of zaftig siblings who perform “A Rainy Sunday” and “Little Old Lady from Baltimore.” These singers enjoyed some degree of popularity in the U.S., but found more receptive audiences (and far less show biz racism) in post-World War II Europe. “Hi De Ho” is one of their rare U.S. movie appearances, and their brief but joyous screen time can make anyone hungry to see and hear more of them.
Also sharing the bill is the tap dancing trio of the Miller Brothers & Lois. Calloway’s swinging orchestra vigorously backed their lively dance style, and their on-screen time is a true show stopper. Sadly, this was their only film appearance.
Another act was part of the original “Hi De Ho” release: comedian/singer Dusty Fletcher, who had a hit record with the song “Open the Door, Richard.” Fletcher was prominently billed in the film’s poster and positively cited in the reviews following the initial release. However, Fletcher’s presence (which may have lasted up to 10 minutes) is absent from existing prints. It is not certain why Fletcher was removed from “Hi De Ho,” or if his footage still survives.
“Hi De Ho” is also notable for being a rare occasion when actress/singer/dancer Jeni Le Gon received proper screen time. Le Gon’s film career was the ultimate wasted opportunity: She made her screen debut in RKO’s 1935 feature “Hooray for Love,” where she shared a musical sequence with Fats Waller and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. After that film’s release, MGM swooped in and signed her to a contract, with the plan to prominently feature her in “Broadway Melody of 1936.” However, she was dropped from the film and her movie career mostly consisted of unbilled bit parts as maids. In playing the doomed Minnie in “Hi De Ho,” Le Gon had her first and only starring film role.
All American News Inc. produced and released “Hi De Ho,” and it claimed to have a copyright on the film. However, no copyright filing was ever recorded, which means the film has always been in the public domain. The scratchy prints that are in circulation today appear to be second- or third-generation dupes. Unless the original version can be found (and the music rights cleared up – Calloway’s songs are not in the public domain), a fully restored version for commercial release is highly unlikely.
“Hi De Ho” is a curio blip in Calloway’s otherwise brilliant career. Unless you are serious Calloway addict, it is easy to pass this one by.
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