This is my contribution to the Dorothy Lamour blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Font and Frock. Please visit and take a look at the other postings.
Dorothy Lamour is magnetic to watch in this sometimes noirish period melodrama laced with music, but sadly the film just doesn’t hold together overall. Lamour’s title character is clearly intended to be a woman who ruthlessly climbs her way from one man to another, like numerous pre-Code anti-heroines But this movie was made when the Production Code was in full force, so the portrayal of Lulu Belle is somewhat confused.
The film is based on a smash hit 1920s Broadway play by Charles MacArthur and Edward Sheldon, which had a mainly African-American cast, although the lead roles were played by white actors in blackface. The character of blues singer Lulu Belle was played by white actress Lenore Ulric. (I found out about the original play by reading an extract from Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance, by James F. Wilson, via Google books.) However, when the drama was belatedly adapted as a film, more than 20 years on, the character of Lulu Belle was turned into a white singer, and there was also a lot of censorship brought into force. For instance, although Lulu clearly makes money from men, any suggestion of prostitution is fudged, as it had to be under the Code.
Nevertheless, the first half hour or so makes compelling viewing, as director Leslie Fenton keeps things moving at a brisk pace. Young lawyer George Davis (George Montgomery) wanders into a bar in Natchez, Mississippi, hears Lulu Belle singing and falls under her spell. He is “sort of” engaged to Pearl, but soon abandons his job, fiancee and home for Lulu Belle, moving into a hotel with her and spending until his money runs out. In another plot twist decreed by the censor, the couple get married. It’s clear that Lulu Belle is out for what she can get, but she has a pre-Code style speech where she explains that she has been poor and doesn’t want to be again. “Who wants just enough money to live on?”
After the money is gone, Lulu Belle moves on to New Orleans, accompanied by George, who now finds it impossible to find work as a lawyer and instead becomes an unsuccessful boxer. Meanwhile, his wife is finding success as a singer, and also accepting money from other men, including a more successful fighter, Butch (Greg McClure) and a businessman, Mark Brady (Albert Dekker). Unfortunately, there are too many clumsily-constructed scenes where all the lovelorn men follow Lulu Belle around at once, arguing over who should have the next dance. All this gets even harder to believe when they are then joined by yet another suitor, the wealthy Harry Randolph (Otto Kruger).
Amid all the unlikely plot developments, Lamour continues to sing beautifully, though none of the songs are very memorable. I found the film rather disappointing overall, but it has a lot of compensations, including the music, the atmospheric black-and-white photography and art direction, and the sheer force of Lamour’s personality, which allows her to skate over some of the holes in the plot. I also enjoyed the scenes showing Lulu together with her friend from the clubs, Molly (Glenda Farrell). Their down-to-earth conversations and devotion to one another helps to give some warmth to their characters.
The film is available on DVD in the UK/region 2 from Simply Media, in a pretty good print. There is no region 1 DVD, but it is available for streaming on Amazon Prime in the US.