I’ve been reading a brilliant biography of the original Public Enemy No. 1 – gangster “Scarface” Al Capone and it has revived my fascination with the Roaring Twenties, when jazz thrived in the illegal drinking dens operated by hoodlums.
Of course, my earliest impressions of that period were formed by the movies, and particularly a couple of the jazz biopics which usually featured a scene set in a speakeasy. Here’s one of the first I remember seeing: Louis Armstrong and the All Stars with some special guests, in The Glenn Miller Story (1953)
Another family favourite was The Five Pennies (1959), the biopic of the trumpeter Loring “Red” Nichols. A little Danny Kaye goes a long way but he was on top form on the songs in this film, notably When The Saints Go Marching In, a memorable duet with Louis Armstrong. The speakeasy scene in this movie came near the beginning, when hick-from-the-sticks Nichols, whose new, cool girlfriend doubts his hot trumpet skills, reveals all as he emerges from the men’s room… Sounds dodgy on paper, but make up your own mind .. oh, and that’s Nichols ghosting Kaye’s playing.
Of course, the speakeasy scene cropped up in many movies set during the 1920s – remember the opening sequence of Billy Wilder’s masterful black comedy Some Like It Hot (1959)? Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) – a drama about a jazz trumpeter who runs into problems with the mobsters - featured some of the best speakeasy jazz – and no wonder: it had two top jazz singers in its cast:
Undoubtedly the most authentic evocations of the speakeasy come from the Prohibition era itself and that authentic touch adds immeasurably to the already considerable appeal of this last clip: the “soundie” of Bessie Smith’s majestic St Louis Blues, from 1929.
* Get Capone by Jonathan Eig (JR Books) is out now.