Filmography

Louis Armstrong was a gifted actor—the camera loved him—and he appeared in more than twenty feature motion pictures. Unfortunately, due to racism in the movie industry, Louis and other black musicians were often limited to walk-on roles (appear on screen, perform a musical number, exit screen) so that when the film was distributed in the American south, the segments with the black musicians could be deleted without disturbing the continuity of the story. Ironically, many of these motion pictures are today remembered chiefly for Louis’s appearances.

Because Louis was a guest on all the top television shows and because many of his concerts were filmed, there is an abundance of video footage of Louis Armstrong available on DVD and on YouTube. The following list of suggestions from the Louis Armstrong House Museum highlights a few favorite motion pictures and commercial DVDs, in chronological order.

FEATURE FILMS AND SHORTS


A Rhapsody in Black and Blue (1932)
A one-reel short made by Paramount. Embedded in a story about a near-do-well man’s dream sequence in which he becomes the king of “Jazzmania,” are two spectacular numbers by Louis: “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You” and “Shine.” Look past the sometimes racist imagery to soak up Louis’s stunningly virtuosic performances.
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“I Cover the Waterfront” / “Dinah” / “Tiger Rag” (1932)
Filmed on a sound stage for a Danish film (titled Københaven Kalundborg Og?), these three Armstrong performances are some of the most spectacular on film. They appear to be live performances, but actually the audience reaction shots were edited in later. Louis’s singing, scat singing, trumpet playing, stage presence, and all-around charisma leave no doubt why he was a superstar
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Cabin in the Sky (1943)
Directed by Vincent Minnelli. A morality fable with an all black, celebrity cast, starring Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Ethel Waters, and Lena Horne. Louis plays a “devil’s helper.” (Rex Ingram plays Lucifer, Jr and other devil’s helpers include Mantan Moreland and Willie Best.) Louis’s musical feature is “Ain’t It the Truth.”
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New Orleans (1947)
A “Hollywood-ized” account of how jazz leaves New Orleans in 1917 (with the close of Storyville, the infamous red light district) and eventually becomes a “serious music” performed on stage at Carnegie Hall. Despite a deeply unsatisfying plot and mediocre acting, the film survives because of first-rate musical features with Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and others.
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The Glenn Miller Story (1953)
Jimmy Stewart plays the great bandleader Glen Miller (June Allyson plays his wife) in this immensely successful Hollywood biopic. Louis (accompanied by Barney Bigard, Marty Napoleon, Trummy Young and others) has a fine feature with “Basin Street Blues.”
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High Society (1956)
A remake of The Philadelphia Story, starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly (in her last role before leaving Hollywood to marry the Prince of Monaco). Louis has a starring role: he opens the movie with a song (“High Society Calypso”) and then reappears throughout the picture, commenting on the action, much like a Greek Chorus. Perhaps the most “on-screen” time of any Armstrong film.
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Paris Blues (1961)
Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman play expatriate jazz musicians living in Paris, Diahann Carroll and Joanne Woodward play their love interests, and Louis Armstrong portrays “Wild Man Moore,” a jazz trumpeter on a European tour. An early scene with Newman and Armstrong (alone together in a train compartment) provides a splendid sample of Louis’s acting skills. The musical feature “Battle Royal” (scored by Duke Ellington) is the film’s highlight.
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Hello Dolly (1969)
A film version (starring Barbra Streisand) of the Broadway musical (which starred Carol Channing). Because Louis had had a huge hit with the song “Hello, Dolly” in 1964, he makes a brief, celebratory appearance in the grand finale production of the title song. He is on screen for less than one minute, but it is still great to see an aging Satchmo light up the place.
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DOCUMENTARIES


Satchmo the Great (1957)
A superb documentary that enjoyed a brief theatrical release. The film focuses upon Louis’s groundbreaking visit to Africa in 1956, but also includes stunning footage of Louis performing with the New York Philharmonic, directed by Leonard Bernstein, and of Louis being interviewed by Edward R. Murrow. Although legendary amongst Armstrong fans, Satchmo the Great oddly enough has never been re-released or issued on VHS or DVD.
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Satchmo: Louis Armstrong
Masters of American Music series
Columbia Music Video, 1986

The best video biography of Louis Armstrong yet produced. Written by Gary Giddins, a noted Armstrong biographer and one of the foremost writers on jazz. Includes never-before-seen video, photographs, and documents. Includes reminiscences by Tony Bennett, Arvell Shaw, Marty Napoleon, George Avakian, and others. An essential DVD for every Armstrong lover.
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Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong
Time Life, 2006

Two CDs and one DVD. A superb survey of Armstrong’s career. The CDs present music recorded between 1931 and 1976 and many of Louis’s classics are here: “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “Black and Blue,” “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” “Rockin’ Chair” (with Jack Teagarden), “Blueberry Hill,” “Hello, Dolly,” “What a Wonderful World,” etc. The DVD has video from four decades, including the 1933 Copenhagen performances and rare television appearances (e.g., a poignant “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”). Not to be confused with the biographical documentary (Smoking Dog films, 1999) of the same title.
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Louis Armstrong: Live in ‘59
Jazz Icons series
Reelin’ in the Years, 2006

This live concert in Belgium captures a first-rate set by Louis Armstrong and the All Stars. The personnel: Louis Armstrong (trumpet and vocals), Velma Middleton (vocals), Trummy Young (trombone), Peanuts Hucko (clarinet), Billy Kyle (piano), Mort Herbert (bass), and Danny Barcelona (drums). Includes “Tiger Rag,” “Basin Street Blues,” Mack the Knife,” “La Vie en Rose,” and other Armstrong favorites.
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Louis Armstrong: The Portrait Collection
Multiprises LLC, 2008

A delicious and fulfilling smorgasbord of 15 filmed performances, more than two hundred photographs (many of which came from the Collections of the Louis Armstrong House Museum), and excerpts from a newly-discovered 1961 television interview during which Louis shares fresh information about his life and career. The accompanying booklet has a wonderful essay by Dan Morgenstern. Because no photograph is labeled, the astute Satchmophile may crave more information (“Who is that standing next to Louis?” “When was this photo taken?”) but, nevertheless, this DVD has such a wealth of content that it will delight every Armstrong fan.
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