Updated: Jan 18
In this 1958 biopic, the legendary performer with the feline personality provides all the glamour in gowns by Edith Head.
It’s not an easy film to find, but if you ever come across 1958’s St. Louis Blues, a loose biopic of rhythm-and-blues icon W.C. “Will” Handy, definitely take the time to watch it, if only for its stellar cast: Nat "King" Cole as Handy, with supporting roles by Cab Calloway, Ruby Dee, Pearl Bailey, Mahalia Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald (playing herself) and, as the sultry center of the film, Eartha Kitt as a clever chanteuse named Gogo Germaine.
Kitt, who was born on this day in 1927, was already a Broadway and recording star after establishing her career in Paris cabarets, celebrated as much for her stylish look as her voice. She recorded “Santa Baby” in 1953, a year after Orson Welles, who had cast her as Helen of Troy in his 1952 staging of Dr. Faustus, famously called Kitt “the most exciting woman in the world.” But her onscreen career didn’t yet match the wattage of her onstage performances: In addition to uncredited work and a couple of TV roles, Kitt had only played the wife of Sidney Poitier in 1957’s The Mark of the Hawk before she was cast in St. Louis Blues. But in at least one respect, she received the star treatment in this Paramount Pictures production, as Edith Head was assigned to design Kitt's costumes, while Nelson Riddle, a longtime collaborator with Cole, was engaged as the film's conductor and musical arranger.
Calling St. Louis Blues a loose biopic, of course, may be something of an understatement. When you dig into the details of Handy’s life, it’s easy to see how the film had been Hollywood-ized for 1950s audiences, but it remains a compelling story of a man who spent the early part of his life pursuing a career as a songwriter and musician, even as his father, a Methodist pastor, believed popular music to be “the devil’s work.”
As was the case with several films of the 1940s through 1960s, the costume design also doesn’t quite match up with the timeline of Handy’s life. He was born in 1873 and by 1900 was already an established musician who had married Elizabeth Price, played by Dee in St. Louis Blues. But the film opens with a title card that implies Will is still a child at the turn of the century – he’s played by an 11-year-old Billy Preston in his first film role – and it’s entirely possible that Head’s costumes are a key reason the timeline was pulled forward, to allow for some chic moments featuring Kitt, whose Gogo likewise seems to be a fictional element of Handy’s story.
But make no mistake: Gogo Germaine owns every scene in which she appears. Kitt’s purring persona would become more amplified a decade later when she replaced Julie Newmar as Catwoman in the third and final season of TV’s Batman, but in St. Louis Blues, her no-nonsense attitude is enhanced with feline undertones. Gogo is a woman who sees how Handy’s talent also could benefit her own career, so she takes control of the situation, demanding that Blade, a nightclub owner played by Calloway as a man with his own monetary motives, hire Handy and his band, largely so she’ll have both strong musicians performing behind her and a strong songwriter providing her with new material. Gogo also plays an integral role at the film's end as the peacemaker between Handy and his family.
And throughout, Gogo Germaine is wholly glamorous, in albeit anachronistic looks. Head does a terrific job with Kitt’s performance costumes, notably a fringed gown she wears in an early scene, as well as a satin gown at the film’s end, with a pair of beaded straps that fall down her back from her shoulders. Another dress for a scene in her dressing room, when she meets Dee’s Elizabeth, is more toned down, but in both color and style it’s still a marked contrast from the decidedly demure look Head created for Dee, and that difference is only heightened as Kitt finishes dressing by accessorizing her chicly simple dress with a feathered cloche-style hat and a lavish fur muff.
But perhaps the most perplexing costume created for Kitt is a look she wears to a rehearsal, a turtleneck-style bodysuit that once again takes advantage of showing her fabulous legs – but for both its era and the practicality of the moment (Kitt is never shown dancing in the scene), the bodysuit is fabulous but undeniably seems out of place. Unfortunately Head’s thoughts on this assignment have not been saved for posterity, as neither Kitt nor St. Louis Blues is mentioned in her autobiography. Kitt, mea
But maybe that’s just nitpicking. Paramount certainly knew what they had with Kitt in the cast, if you judge solely by how St. Louis Blues was marketed. While the film is the story of W.C. Handy, it’s Kitt who is front and center on a few versions of the poster, and in at least one she’s wearing a feather-embellished gown that’s never seen in the film. This decision also could be due to the fact that St. Louis Blues isn’t teeming with powerful performances: Nat "King" Cole, in a rare onscreen appearance in which he plays someone other than himself, is a bit wooden as Handy, a fact pointed out by critics at the time, while other performers, such as Pearl Bailey as his aunt, don’t fare much better.
In his review of April 12, 1958, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther seemed to save his kindest words for Kitt in an otherwise negative assessment, calling her “waspish and impatient as the girl who tries to make [Handy] relax.” But don’t let that turn you off from checking out St. Louis Blues when you’re able to locate it. The DVD isn’t widely available, and consumers should beware of a pirated version that’s floating around in the marketplace. Amazon Prime Video likewise seems to have pulled it from its current offerings; YouTube offers the film in parts, allowing viewers to at least check out the genuine highlights of St. Louis Blues: the excellent musical numbers, from Cole and Kitt to a brief scene of Fitzgerald as herself, singing one of Handy’s songs in a New York nightclub. And for stunning visuals, it doesn’t get much better than Eartha Kitt as a performer who approaches her career with nothing but strength and style – much like the woman who played her.