THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
As smaller companies like Whirlwind media pore over public domain archives looking for their next releases the market gets more and more cluttered with confusing titles. The Hi De Ho / The Duke is Tops double feature disc seems like a jazz lover's dream: Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington! Perhaps two complete concerts? In fact Hi De Ho is a wooden feature film starring Calloway and The Duke is Tops is a Lena Horne feature having absolutely nothing to do with Duke Ellington.
As far as Hi De Ho goes, it is surprising how stiff Calloway's acting is. For such an unhinged musical performer his line readings are totally lacking in any spontaneity or energy. The film is virtually plotless with a musical sequence nearly every other minute (which is a good thing, but would be better without the pretense of a plot). The performances are lip-synched and pretty poorly, at that. (For the record, a short video about Cab Calloway's band is included on the wonderful DVD of A Great Day in Harlem)
Hi De Ho doesn't succeed as a Cab Calloway musical compilation and it definitely doesn't work as a film. It has a weirdly casual approach to violence against women, cinematography out of a high school educational film on puberty, and strange Ed Wood-style non sequitur dialog like "You have half an hour to make up your mind, and it better be yes!"
The Duke is Tops is a slightly more nuanced film, but still it suffers from a general lack of purpose. The Duke, played by Ralph Cooper, is the producer of a small town musical revue. His star performer Ethel (played by Lena Horne) gets an opportunity to sing in a big-time show and the Duke has trouble filling her shoes. The story, like Hi De Ho, is nothing special, but the filmmaking is slightly more confident. Plus, young Lena Horne's famous smile packs more kilowatts than a carload of Sandra Bullocks.
The disc also features a lame cartoon called "Trolley Ahoy" and a newsreel featuring, among other notable events, footage from the Hindenberg disaster that is so raw, immediate, and visual that it makes the rest of the films here look like child's play. VIDEO:
The video for Hi De Ho is a mixed bag. The blacks and whites are crisp but the print is pretty heavily damaged, with lots of missing frames and scratches. The Duke is Tops is more consistent but also softer and muddier. The cartoon looks terrible and the newsreel is uneven, reflecting a variety of sources. All the films are full-frame and have been cropped on all sides.
The audio is in Dolby Digital mono and actually sounds pretty good, all things considered. Most of the music sounds right for the period and the technology used. No one will mistake this for a modern recording, but it works.
The extras, I suppose, are the cartoon and the newsreel. There is nothing else included.
Other Jazz reviews:
As a jazz fan, this disc held certain curiosities for me. It was, however, roundly disappointing. Cab Calloway's unexpectedly stiff performance set a bad tone that none of the other items included ever recovered from. With Ken Burns' epic jazz documentary on the way, and with several terrific jazz shorts compilations still available on VHS, there are plenty of better sources for this classic sound.
A Great Day in Harlem
Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.
E-mail Gil at firstname.lastname@example.org