“Don’t Be a Joe” (1947), the unreleased and lost movie with Cab Calloway

by Jean-Francois PITET and Keller WHALEN


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The only known surviving movie still of Don’t Be a Joe (1947)


It takes a collector’s serendipity to find a clue about a movie nobody ever saw. When opening a program dated with pencil by the original owner “November 14, 1947,” we found at the penultimate page a mysterious photo with a tagline: “A scene from ‘DON’T BE A JOE’”

After years of unsuccessful research to see this film and a last-minute discovery by jazz film specialist Mark Cantor, we have decided to share what little we know about it -- which is quite a bit considering the total absence of information in all the usual sources.  Plus some of our speculations are included for context.


Genesis of the Film -- Rhythm Shorts, Inc.

In his unpublished memoirs, the film’s screenwriter Hal Seeger remembers: “Cab and I became partners in a company called ‘Rhythm Shorts Inc.’ I worked in the Cab Calloway / Duke Ellington office in the Brill Building [1649 Broadway, NYC]. The Little Lindy's was across the street. It was frequented by musicians and song writers.” [Instagram post by Benjamin Seeger, Hal Seeger’s grandson]

RHYTHM SHORTS, INC. was incorporated in early 1947 on the East Coast, possibly New York, New Jersey, or Delaware. Don’t Be a Joe is supposed to be the first title in a series of Rhythm Shorts produced by E.M. GLUCKSMAN of All-American Pictures (read soon our forthcoming article about Hi De Ho, 1947).


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Hal SEEGER (1917-2005)

Script and Songs by Hal Seeger

The script of the movie is 9 pages long written by Hal SEEGER, a well-known cartoonist who worked for Fleischer Studios and later had his own animation company. At the time, Seeger was the official scriptwriter of all the feature films produced by All-American Pictures.

The actual script is in the Cab Calloway’s archives now located at the Smithsonian. Although the Calloway estate doesn’t currently allow researchers to dig into the boxes, a copy of the script was uncovered at the Library of Congress by the resourceful Soundies scholar Mark CANTOR. We’ll show you more later…

Since the title belongs to a planned series called “Rhythm Shorts” we can expect some music, probably two or three songs.

Hal Seeger again fills in some of the blanks:

“I wrote the Hi-De-Ho feature starring Calloway and formed a company with him. We produced a short subject starring Cab introducing what is known today as ‘rap’. I heard Cab tell a disc jockey that rap is not new. He did it many, many years ago (about 50, Cab!). I wrote it and called it ‘syncopation.’ I wrote the story in rhyme and the lyrics for all the songs. Cab and others wrote the music. I was not a musician, but I was a lyric writer!”

Yes, in 1991, Cab told author William Eric Perkins, “I was rappin’ 50 years ago, my rap lyrics were a lot more dirty than those in my songs.”  What Cab called his “jive scat” included both rap’s call-and-response form and rap’s improvisational rhymes.

“Rhythm and rhyme propelled his popular slang, as well as vocal style, which thrived on attitude more than technical prowess. Singing/storytelling alongside in sync rather than around the backbeat, Calloway innovated a vocal technique that was to later inform the beat-based singing of Bo Diddley, James Brown, and the subsequent histories of funk and rap phrasing.” [from: Cab Calloway: Original Rapper by Iain Ellis , 17 November 2005]

With this in mind, watch the brief rhythmic “rapping” that the minister does at the very end of Hi De Ho on “Don’t Falter At the Altar”. That number is a possible sample of what Seeger’s ‘rap’ song would be in Don't Be a Joe. “Don't Falter” is the same in each script, with a preacher performing the lyrics in a ‘rapping’ fashion. Another All-American Picture, Big Timers (1945), also features some early rap in a skit with Stepin FETCHIT. No writer or composer is credited and  Hal Seeger may have been inspired by it.

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A scene from Swing Wedding (1937)

These examples aren’t the first instances of ‘rapping’ in the movies, even for Cab! The 1937 Harman-Ising cartoon Swing Wedding has Cab, Satchmo, Fats Waller and Bill Robinson portrayed as swamp frogs (with wonderful imitated voices). A frog preacher raps the ceremonial vows for the marriage of Cab Calloway and his frog girlfriend, and the bride and groom both respond with some wild scat singing. Cab’s voice in that cartoon was provided by Scott WHITAKER (1915-1976).


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Copyright card for "That's The Least, Don't You"

And since Hal Seeger was a clever man, he secured the copyrights for his songs. For the feature movie Hi De Ho, he wrote Minnie Grew Up Overnight with music by Cab Calloway and Buster HARDING (in fact, Minnie's a Hepcat Now, an a capella of Minnie The Moocher) and Don’t Falter At The Alter with the same musical team.

The sheet music for the songs used in the movie are listed in the inventory of the Cab Calloway Archives:  

  • "Minnie Grew Up Overnight", words by Hal Seeger and music by Buddy GROVER. Grover was a pianist and composer successfully performing with small groups in the service during WWII and later in night clubs.  In the late 1940s he led a group imaginatively billed as “A Trio That Grew in Brooklyn”.
  • "That's The Least, Don't You" by the same composing team.
  • "Don't Falter at the Altar", words by Cab and Hal Seeger and music by Buster HARDING who probably wrote the arrangements for the whole movie, with some help from Chappie WILLETT. Harding was a prolific big band arranger who worked with Count Basie, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and others in addition to Cab Calloway (he was responsible for dozens of arrangements in the forties and worked on all the songs by Cab in the movie Sensations of 1945). 


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Binney in 1918

The All-American Pictures’ director: Josh Binney

Josh BINNEY (read soon our forthcoming full-length article) has directed the movie, as he announced it in Film Daily’s “Directors’ Credits” of September 10, 1947, August 26 1948 (!) and in the 1948 yearbook of the magazine. A point to notice is that he lists his 1947 movies probably in chronological order, with Don’t Be a Joe before Hi De Ho.



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From the Catalog of Copyright Entries for 1947 motion pictures

The Catalog of Copyright Entries for motion pictures of 1947

This is THE document that reveals the main information:

  • filmed in 35mm (standard for the era)
  • 11 prints is the number of representative stills taken from the motion picture and provided to the Copyright Office. We only know the one with the picture presented in this article.
  • 8 May 1947 is the date of registration (not the release date as incorrectly indicated on IMDb).  This date would be close to the date that a finished print would have been delivered to the Copyright Office.
  • Cab Calloway is the only one indicated for the cast, and we haven’t able yet to identify the actor in the photograph (Joe), who is left “holding the bag” at the door.
  • the code number MU1994 indicates “Motion Picture Unpublished,” with the number referring to the registration order.
  • Don’t Be a Joe was the only film ever produced by Rhythm Shorts, Inc. in 1947 or after.

Also of interest is the lack of credit for the director, Josh Binney, in the copyright listing.

The budget for an all-Black film would inevitably be small.  With Hal Seeger doing most of the illustrations by himself, and the film being in black and white with no colorists or in-between animators to create flowing movement, expenses would be low.  In this case, the cartoon portion of the film was probably made up of illustrated still images, with little or no motion (other than the camera), similar to the many “following the bouncing ball” sing-along short films of the era. Indicating the overall simplicity of the animation, one of the screen directions reads, “NOTE: THIS IS DONE BY REPLACING ONE CUT-OUT WITH ANOTHER, FADE OUT, FADE IN.”

J.R. BRAY was actually one of the first filmmakers to use the limited animation technique. And Cab had earlier experience mixing live-action and cartoon with his jive sequence in the movie "Sensations of 1945" with an animated cat dancing along with the music.  His Betty Boop experience in 1931 was also amazing, with Cab’s unique dance moves brought to animated life using the Fleischer Rotoscope method.

  1. The FLEISCHER brothers were fond of Cab, and Cab in turn loved his cartoon work with them.
  2. Josh BINNEY is the director of Don't Be a Joe. Between 1944 and 1946, he worked for the BRAY STUDIOS, managed by the FLEISCHER Brothers. Those studios specialized in educational films (animated and not) and were able to produce several movies on a very low budget.
  3. Hal SEEGER also worked for the Fleischer studio for several years (although it was after Cab's cartoons).
  4. Josh BINNEY and Hal SEEGER had previously teamed in 1946 for the movie "Chicago After Dark", produced by E.M. GLUCKSMAN's All-American Pictures.
  5. It would make sense that RHYTHM SHORTS and BRAY STUDIOS partnered for "Don't Be a Joe".


The Fate of the Film

When and where was the film shot? And why wasn’t it released?

“Don’t be a Joe, the musical short starring Cab Calloway, is almost ready for your local screen,” states Pittsburgh Courier’s columnist Billy ROWE in his June 14, 1947 chronicle. That’s the only mention in the press we found so far, and we are all still waiting for the release!


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The cover of the 1947 program that first informed us of the existence of Don’t Be a Joe.

Don’t Be a Joe might have been originally planned as the opening program before the feature film. That would also explain why they shortened the running time of Hi De Ho, editing out Dusty FLETCHER’s "Open the Door, Richard" sequence (which was later commercially released separately as short).

Several assumptions are raised without any clear answer. We share them all with you.

• We have almost the entire itinerary for Cab in 1946 and 1947 and we believe the shooting for Don’t Be a Joe took place in November 1946, before the Hi De Ho shooting in February 1947. There is the possibility that the movie was shot in Chicago, in mid-November 1946, since Billboard dated November 9 announced the filming of Hi De Ho there, possibly confusing it with Don’t Be a Joe -- the actual shooting of Hi De Ho occurred in February 1947 in the Bronx.


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A trade ad for West Coast Sound Studios, Inc., in New York City

• The most credible location for shooting was on 510 West 57th Street in midtown Manhattan at the West Coast Sound Studios (CBS is still operating there for some of its CBS News shows).  A promotion from the period reads, “Studio maintains a completely equipped motion picture production plant with new RCA high fidelity recording equipment, the most modern Mitchell cameras, set designing accessories, up-to-date ad complete lighting, its own art department, scenic and model shop, and all other standard facilities for studio or location work anywhere.” Among the many producers using the facilities are the likes of Warner Brothers, Bray, William F. CROUCH (producer of Soundies), Transfilm, Universal Pictures and… Rhythm Shorts.

• Another guess is that All-American Pictures was so budget-minded in production that if they shot both movies at the same time, they could avoid using another facility and stay on their Filmcraft location in the Bronx.

• Perhaps they shot Don’t Be a Joe first but no distributor or theatre was interested, or they simply decided to postpone its release after deciding to produce a feature movie. The short life on screen of Hi De Ho that premiered in April 1947 didn’t encourage the producer to release his Rhythm Short No. 1 so they shelved it, and produced no further shorts.

There might have been a financial issue. From Mark Cantor: “Perhaps he could not pay the lab costs and they would not allow him access to the prints; or maybe he had a falling out with some of the other backers of the film and there was the threat of legal action that prevented its release.”

To release a film in New York, the script and film had to be submitted as required by the New York censors, but there’s nothing in the New York archives.  Maybe the cartoon Minnie was too sexy (she's in bed at the beginning wearing a nightie). Minnie could have been influenced by the voluptuous women in Tex AVERY cartoons like Red Hot Riding Hood (1943).  Maybe a sexy African American woman was too much for the censors. Sorry, we don’t have a picture of the cartoon Minnie!

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Red from Tex Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hood (1943)


So what does the phrase “Don’t Be a Joe” mean? According to the script, Joe is the guy who failed to pay attention to his girl and lost her. In 1936, some fickle fans coined the phrase “Don’t be a Joe Louis when the boxer lost a major fight against Max SCHMELING. Cab and Joe LOUIS were friends, however, so it’s unlikely that “Don’t Be a Joe” was meant to be a reference to Louis.  Ultimately, the phrase “Don’t be a [insert name here]” simply refers to anyone who does the wrong thing.

And who played the music for Cab’s songs and syncopated narration?  Was the full band available or just a sub-set of a few members? The standard practice was to record the music and vocals beforehand and then lip-sync in the film, so the music could have been recorded any time prior to filming.  On February 3, 1947, Cab and the orchestra were in New York making several studio recordings for Columbia, including “Don’t Falter at the Altar”, so they had the time and space to record some rhythm backup for the short film. But nothing appears on the ledgers… Worse, this song was rejected by Columbia and would eventually be released in 1994 on CD!

Those are only our ideas, and yours are welcome!  Did we ask more questions than we answered? 


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The page in the 1947 program announcing the forthcoming release of Don’t Be a Joe


The plot continues…

And now, for the first time on the Internet, we summarize for you the full plot of Don’t Be a Joe (warning:  big spoilers ahead!):

Cab wakes up one morning and addresses the camera, speaking in syncopated rhymes, “Hi-de-ho… hi-de-hey… move in and hear what I have to say…”  He proceeds to tell the story of Minnie (not the Minnie of “moocher” fame, he explains). 

The camera now cuts to cartoon Minnie, who is described as a girl in her late teens, going to sleep a child but waking up a “gal”. While Cab narrates, Minnie wakes up, gets dressed, goes to the ice cream store, drops a coin in the jukebox and checks out Joe, who doesn’t seem to notice her at first.  Cab sings Minnie Grew Up Overnight”.

Joe and Minnie are soon dancing together and share a soda. Then we cut to Joe sitting on a park bench, checking out other girls and leaving Minnie by herself.  We turn back to Cab who is now brushing his hair and singing about Joe giving Minnie the brush-off. The song is “That’s the Least, Don’t You” followed by more syncopated talk/singing.

Minnie quickly finds another suitor, Tom, who brings her candy and flowers…and a wedding ring. Joe realizes too late what he’s done as we cut immediately to Tom and Minnie in front a preacher.  Cab sings a chorus of “Don’t Falter at the Altar” and the preacher hands Joe a bag of rice.

In the last scene, poor Joe shows up at Cab’s front door, holding the bag of rice in his hand. “This story has a moral, I don’t say it as a gag/But if a guy acts like a ‘Joe’ he’ll be left holding bag,” Cab sings to the fade out.


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A portion of the nine-page script for Don’t Be a Joe
with Cab’s syncopated dialogue on the right.


Yes, it’s a silly story, with dull animation, a low budget, and tiny cast, but it would have included Cab’s undeniable charisma and some fine verbalizing to a syncopated beat. 

Movies that have been lost for decades are occasionally re-discovered in far-flung museums, obscure archives, old theaters, and collectors’ private stashes. But the chance of finding a copy of Don’t Be a Joe is unlikely since it seems that the film was never shown publicly and a final print may never have been made.



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