In September of 1935 Paramount Pictures released a nine-minute movie remarkable in several ways. Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life is one of the earliest cinematic explorations of African-American culture for a mass audience. It features Duke Ellington and his orchestra performing his first extended composition. And perhaps most notably, it stars Billie Holiday in her first filmed performance.
The one-reel movie, directed by Fred Waller, tells the story of Ellington’s “A Rhapsody of Negro Life,” using pictures to convey the images running through the musician’s mind as he composed and performed the piece. Ellington’s “Rhapsody” has four parts: “The Laborers,” “A Triangle,” “A Hymn of Sorrow” and “Harlem Rhythm.” Holiday appears as a jilted and abused lover in “A Triangle.”
Holiday’s only previous screen appearance was as an uncredited extra in a nightclub scene in the 1933 Paul Robeson film, The Emperor Jones. Symphony in Black was produced over a ten-month period. Holiday was only 19 when her scenes were shot. She sings Ellington’s “Saddest Tale,” a song carefully selected by the composer to fit the young singer’s style. “Saddest tale on land or sea,” begin the lyrics, “Was when my man walked out on me.” In the book Billie Holiday: A Biography, author Meg Greene calls the performance “mesmerizing”:
Symphony in Black marked an important milestone in the development of Billie Holiday, the woman and the singer. Ellington’s deft handling enabled Billie to distinguish herself from other torch singers. She did not wear her emotions on her sleeve; instead, she revealed herself gradually as the song unfolded. Hers was a carefully crafted and sophisticated performance, especially for a woman only 19 years old. This carefully woven tapestry of life and music was the origin of the persona that audiences came to identify with Billie. Other singers such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland may have more successfully established and cultivated an image, but Billie Holiday did it first.