[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
As much as anything else, Pretty Baby is about the end of an eraâ€”the ragtime era. Music is so much a part of the film’s atmosphere and texture that it seems an aspect of the production design; and the music reflects that delicate transitional period in popular music when the formal, classical ragtime of Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin began to give way to the freer-flowing “walking” sound of New Orleans bluesâ€”a step in the long process whereby African tribal chant and slavery-days work songs developed into the liberated, improvisational swing of the Jazz Age. The pivotal figure in the transition from the Sedalia sound of Joplin to the New Orleans sound that became Dixieland was Jelly Roll Morton, who for all practical purposes appears in the film as “The Professor,” a lean cathouse piano player portrayed by Antonio Fargas, who even looks a little like the old Jelly Roll. Morton did much of his best work playing nights in Storyville; and the closing-down of New Orleans’s fabled red-light district by the U.S. Navy in 1917 was both the end of an era and the reason why many suddenly unemployed musiciansâ€”playing something they then called “jass”â€”fanned out across the country, bringing a new sound with them. In Pretty Baby, when Madame Nell’s closes up and the furniture is being carted off, the Professor still sits, playing a last few bars on his piano as the movers pick it up; he turns quickly away with a tossed-off “Lousy old piano anyway…” to cut the pain of being separated from a part of himself. Fargas has another great moment, earlier in the film, in the close, long take of the Professor’s face, with God-knows-what-all passing through his mind, as the brothel patrons bid for the privilege of taking the virginity of the girl Violet: fleshpeddling of two different kinds meet at that moment in the pained awareness of one face that has seen too much.