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By Phil Hall | June 6, 2008

BOOTLEG FILES 236: Killer Diller” (1948 musical revue starring Nat “King” Cole, Moms Mabley and Butterfly McQueen).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only through public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Nope, it’s stuck in public domain hell for eternity

This week, I would like to make a public call to the good folks behind the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. My public call is for the inclusion of the 1948 musical revue “Killer Diller” on the next go-round of National Film Registry entries.

“Killer Diller” was part of a genre known (for lack of a better name) as “race films.” These were productions with all-black casts that were made for theaters that catered exclusively to African-American audiences during the 1920s through the late 1940s. The 1948 “Killer Diller” was made during the final stretch of the race films output, and it is arguably among the finest of that genre.

But that is not to say that “Killer Diller” is a great film. It suffers from all of the vices that were prevalent in the race films: painfully low budgets, inadequate direction, uneven performances and wobbly writing. But that is just for the narrative section of the movie. The rest of “Killer Diller” is blessed with an extraordinary cast of talented performers who went far above and beyond the limitations of their material. “Killer Diller” is great entertainment, and it provides a rare film record of the chitlin circuit where African-American vaudeville stars shined during the dark years of Jim Crow segregation.

“Killer Diller” hangs on a tiny and flimsy plot. The owner of a vaudeville theater gives his sexy girlfriend an expensive pearl necklace. The clumsy magician with the theater’s revue (Dusty Fletcher, a comic known for his recording of “Open the Door, Richard”) performs a trick that causes the theater owner’s gal and those expensive pearls to vanish. The police are called, and a quartet of staggeringly inept cops arrive to give chase to the magician.

The plot, however, is not what makes “Killer Diller” so special. Once the shenanigans with the cops and the magician abates, the film then launches into the actual revue. And this is where the movie takes off.

Of key interest today is an early appearance of Nat “King” Cole, performing with his King Cole Trio. Cole was 29 when the film was shot and the trademark sophistication of his mid-1950s peak years wasn’t quite in place. However, he brought a playful, stylish spin and a refreshing youthful insouciance to three back-to-back songs – “Breezy and the Bass,” “Now He Tells Me” and “Ooh Kickeroonie.” Cole fans will be in for a major treat with this rarely-seen performance.

Also worth noting here is the presence of Jackie “Moms” Mabley. She was one of the very few female stand-up comics of the chitlin’ circuit, and her grouchy and gravelly-voiced delivery made her a lovable icon. Mabley’s mainstream success came late in her career – it wasn’t until the 1960s when wider audiences were able to appreciate her via guest appearances on Ed Sullivan and Merv Griffin’s variety programs. In “Killer Diller,” Mabley performs a wonderfully off-kilter monologue where she riffs on why Old Mother Hubbard really went to the cupboard (to get herself a bottle of gin!) before recalling her experience on a disastrous airplane ride. She then performs a weirdly funny novelty song “Don’t Sit on My Bed,” where she chastises a male visitor for perceived incivility.

While Cole and Mabley are recalled today, “Killer Diller” also highlights other performers who never made the transition from segregated chitlin circuit venues to mainstream productions designed for predominantly white audiences. Without “Killer Diller,” these performers would be unknown to us.

Included here are the Clark Brothers, a dapper pair of tap-dancing siblings. The duo appear to rival the more notable Nicholas Brothers with their stylish and energetic performance. However, they never achieved the fame of the Nicholas Brothers, and “Killer Diller” marked their only film appearance.

There is also the Four Congaroos, a frenetic jitterbug quartet who take motion to extraordinary speeds. Their efforts can leave the viewer shocked that people are able to move in choreographed grace at velocities that are so fast and furiously. Alas, this is also the only time they appeared on film.

Then there is Beverly White, a sassy songstress who belts out the attitude-heavy tunes “It Ain’t Nobody’s Business What I Do” and “I Don’t Want to Get Married.” White’s comic styling recalls Pearl Bailey’s act, but White never came close to achieving a fraction of Bailey’s stardom. Again, “Killer Diller” marks the only film we have of this performer.

We also have Patterson and Jackson, a plus-size comedy team who offer a wickedly mocking parody of the Ink Spots (they point out that the two of them weigh more than the combined four Ink Spots). The pair are hilarious and steal the film. Alas, they were never seen beyond “Killer Diller.”

One member of the “Killer Diller” cast who enjoyed film notoriety was Butterfly McQueen. Best known as the silly slave Prissy in “Gone with the Wind,” McQueen was frustrated by Hollywood’s racial typecasting that left her playing maids. In this film, she plays the secretary to the theater owner. Her role is little more than an extended guest appearance, where she mostly reminds Dusty Fletcher of his promise to marry her. Still, seeing McQueen playing something other than a servant is a relief.

“Killer Diller” was also among the films directed by Josh Binney. His behind-the-camera work was limited to race films, including “Boarding House Blues” (starring Fletcher and Mabley) and “Hi-De-Ho” (starring Cab Calloway). Binney had the capacity for talent – this film has a wonderfully surreal moment where the clumsy police, after falling over each other down a flight of stairs, get to retrace their steps by having the film run backwards – but the tight budgets and rushed production schedules of the race film never allowed him to properly shine. I wish I could find more information about him, as no biographical material appears to be readily available.

“Killer Diller” was originally shown only in the racially segregated theaters of its day. Sack Amusement Enterprises, a Dallas-based company specializing in race films, distributed the film. Unfortunately, no effort was made to preserve the film. When Sack went out of business, the original materials for “Killer Diller” disappeared. All that remains of the film today are badly battered and scratchy dupes that were obviously bootlegged a few times too many. Since the film is a public domain title, it is highly unlikely that anyone will go through the time and bother for a full restoration.

“Killer Diller” can be located from DVD labels specializing in public domain dupes. But be aware that some copies are truncated (the Patterson and Jackson sequence has been known to be cut, perhaps due to music clearance problems from their renditions of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “If I Didn’t Care”). However, if you can find a complete copy, seek it out and enjoy it. This is a genuinely diverting and historically important production, and it deserves to be seen (do you hear that, National Film Registry?).

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure

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