Duke Ellington’s Film Debut

(The following is a guest post from Mike Mashon, head of the Moving Image Section in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.)

The Washingtonians, ca. 1925. Photo by Steven Lasker.

One of the great joys of working with the Library of Congress film and video collections is learning more about our holdings from the astonishing variety of researchers the Moving Image Reference Center attracts. While we’re justifiably proud of our in-house expertise, we rely on patrons, scholars and consultants to help us understand even more about our treasures.

A perfect example of this happy circumstance happened just recently when we were contacted by Ken Steiner, an historian specializing in the life and work of Duke Ellington, whose 114th birthday we celebrate today. I’ll let Ken set the stage:

Duke Ellington’s early days in New York are a Prohibition-era tale of torrid jazz, hot shows, Broadway stars and Treasury raids. Before he rose to fame at Harlem’s Cotton Club, Ellington spent three and a half years in a cellar dance club and cabaret near Times Square, which had opened as the Hollywood in September of 1923. Ellington assumed leadership of the house band, the Washingtonians, in February 1924, and they cut their first record late in the year. By 1925, the Hollywood had re-opened as Club Kentucky, and the Washingtonians had developed a small following for their “indigo modulations.”

I was doing some research on the Washingtonians when a one-sentence paragraph in the June 13, 1925, edition of the Philadelphia Tribune caught my attention:

“Johnn[y] Hudgins, the Kentucky club band and four girls from the club Alabam have been filmed in the Rue La Paix [sic] scene in a feature film called ‘Headlines’ being produced by the St. Regis Picture Corp.”

I immediately knew that “the Kentucky club band” had to be Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians, the only band to have played at the club to that point. The question then became: was there a copy of the film “Headlines” still in existence?

So, Ken immediately googled “Headlines 1925,” which led him to a website devoted to the film’s star, Alice Joyce, where he learned that “a copy of this film is located at the Library of Congress (35mm, not preserved).” He contacted Reference Specialist Zoran Sinobad, who in turn alerted me to this tantalizing possibility.

Our nitrate print of the silent film “Headlines” was indeed unpreserved. It was acquired from the Netherlands Film Archive (now called EYE Film Institute Netherlands) in 1992 and has Dutch intertitles. One of the first steps in film preservation after physically preparing the reels is setting the exposure levels for individual scenes, otherwise known as “timing” or “grading” a film. I asked timer Frank Wylie to keep an eye out for the Rue de la Paix sequence and, if possible, get some frame grabs that might help identify Ellington. He did—with his phone’s camera—but despite the poor resolution and the fact the band remains far in the scene’s background, I sent them to Ken with eagerness and trepidation. He quickly responded that he had shared the stills with several other Ellington experts and that they unanimously agreed the fellow with the distinctive “bean-shaped head” at the piano was definitely Duke Ellington. “Headlines” has since been fully preserved, although we still have some work to do in translating the intertitles.

So while we may wish that the Washingtonians had been favored with a closeup, we’re pleased to present Duke Ellington in his (so far as we know) first ever film appearance, thanks to the detective work of Ken Steiner. This clip is excerpted from the seven minute nightclub sequence.

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