Like Edgar G. Ulmer’s Carnegie Hall (1947), New Orleans features some of the greatest musicians and performers of the ’40s shoehorned into a flat, uninteresting story.
I had high hopes for New Orleans. In the first scene, we see Nick Duquesne (pronounced “doo-cane”), who’s played by Arturo de Córdova, operate his casino and nightclub with smooth, effortless charm. Duquesne is known as the “King of Basin Street,” and de Córdova plays him well, so I was hoping to see an involving story about vice, graft, and crime.
Alas, the story quickly devolves into a maudlin melodrama about a young blond singer named Miralee Smith (Dorothy Patrick) who falls in love with both Duquesne and the Dixieland jazz she hears played by Louis Armstrong and his ragtime band. Of course, Miralee’s mother, the wealthy Mrs. Rutledge Smith (Irene Rich) doesn’t approve, and wants her daughter to sing opera.
The screenplay and acting in New Orleans are better than they are in Carnegie Hall, but the only reason most people will want to see this movie is for the music. The good news is that there’s plenty of it, especially if you’re a fan of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.
Holiday plays a maid named Endie, and she doesn’t look happy in the outfit, or in the scene in which she’s dressed down by Mrs. Smith for playing the piano and singing while on the job. The strange thing is that her role as a maid is tangential to her role in the rest of the film, and she only appears in a maid’s uniform in her first scene, in which she introduces Miralee to jazz. After that, Holiday loosens up a bit, and her scenes onstage with Louis Armstrong and his band are all fantastic. Together they perform Louis Alter’s “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” “The Blues Are Brewin’,” and “Endie,” as well as Spencer Williams’s “Farewell to Storyville.”
Holiday and Satchmo aren’t the only great performers in the film. Woody Herman, Charlie Beal, Barney Bigard, George “Red” Callender, Meade “Lux” Lewis, Kid Ory, Bud Scott, Lucky Thompson, and Zutty Singleton all play themselves.