Cue strings. Fade in. Medium shot on debonair man: dignified posture, dark suit with silky tie, palmaded hair. A brief sustain as strings transition out of introduction theme to verse, man holds breath. “When I fall in love…” Release.
Such was the graceful presence Nat ‘King’ Cole brought to television viewers every week from November 1956 to December 1957. His Nat ‘King’ Cole Show began as a 15-minute variety show on NBC-TV, but ultimately buckled under its surface qualities: it was the first television program to star an African-American person in a primetime series. Although a pleasant, family-friendly program by today’s standards, social mores of the 1950s classified the show as too revolutionary, and forced Cole to end the series prematurely.
Instead of covering this storied history in American media, When I Fall in Love: The One and Only focuses on the program’s vastly entertaining qualities by going straight for the goods: the music. The disc is chaptered by music segments, as opposed to by thematic content. Cole standards, such as “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”, “Mona Lisa”, and “The Christmas Song”, are featured alongside major guests, such as: Sammy Davis, Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mercer, the Oscar Peterson Trio, the Mills Brothers, and Billy Preston. The performance footage is supplemented by interviews with the Cole clan: wife Maria; brother and pianist Freddy Cole; daughters Natalie, Casey, and Timolin; and friend and show producer/director Bob Henry. While the comments of the family are understandably more loving than illuminating, When I Fall treats the family interviews as the closest to a posthumous voice for Nat. Thus, the DVD’s structure appeals to the music aficionado—convenient screening and scrolling through music clips—but purports to have an ‘insider’s’ perspective.
When I Fall is unexceptional in the first arena, because it covers already-covered ground. Much of the material has appeared in previous Cole video collections. The Incomparable Nat ‘King’ Cole, Vols. 1 & 2 on Kultur previously collected a large amount of these and other Cole Show performances. The footage on When I Fall was culled from original kinescopes, which are already shaky in terms of picture quality, but have a fuzzy yet warm quality. However, given the general lack of documentation of the Nat ‘King’ Cole Show, When I Fall is disappointing mostly because it chooses not to delve deeper; narrator Dennis Haysbert’s intonation that the show was “ahead of its time” is about as profound as When I Fall gets. In its defense, When I Fall does not aspire to be a definitive re-release of the Nat ‘King’ Cole Show, nor a critical look at the circumstances that brought about its creation and end. Instead, it combines the show’s extraordinary musical segments with warm reflections, thus highlighting how Cole’s charm and charisma flourished in the television medium.
Early in When I Fall, Natalie Cole reflects, “My dad just had a charisma about him. That part of himself he took everywhere, even at home. When he walked on stage, that walked on with him.” The comment comes to life in a performance clip wherein Cole fuses his technical virtuosity and sweet sincerity with the greatest of ease. Cole calls upon musical director Nelson Riddle to “shoot me an introduction” while making a gesture of a bow and arrow, smiling the entire time at this obvious joke as if he were a child seized with the wonder of pun. However, any indication of novelty and naïveté is erased as Cole strolls to the piano under the blare of a brass introduction, takes a seat, and with legs in a casual 90 degree position pads out rolling lines of eighth and sixteenth notes with the greatest of ease. The moment is cursory, but illuminates the consummate entertainer and musician that Cole was, a model performer in this regard.
Charisma was indeed a considerable part of Cole’s attraction, a quality that shines through the Show footage. On the aforementioned title cut, Cole sits and sings directly into the camera with a veteran’s level of comfort. Given how relatively new television was at the time, his ease and grace is that much more remarkable (keep in mind that three years later, a certain presidential candidate still remained clueless about the power of the televised image). He treats the camera like an individual, his singing a form of dialogue between you and he. He still uses stage performer tropes—his eyes drift away, his head rocks gently, he smiles openly at the right moments—but he is fully aware that the camera is the conduit through which his likeness is being invited into thousands of private abodes. Subsequently, he behaves like a well-mannered houseguest, treating the camera with the respect due to a congenial host.
Quite befitting, then, that the greatest thrills come when Cole extends the spotlight to include other great personalities. And, always a gentleman, he did not allow ego to seep into his music, making for comfortable groupings. In the company of a busy, busy Oscar Peterson, a chilled Herb Ellis, a chiller Ray Brown, and the Hawk taking a saucy chorus after Norm Granz introduces the whole shebang, Cole coolly swings his way through “Sweet Lorraine”. Forever in the mood for fun, Nat and Ella sing d’lovely from conjoined lovechairs. Sammy D. also drops by to offer lip service and some singing tips on “Somewhere Along the Way”; Nat dishes ‘em out like he receives ‘em, mugging in tickled disbelief as SD lingers over the lyric, “Our hearts were carefree / And gayyyyy”. The two have so much fun, though, as Cole takes a verse to do a nasal-perfect imitation of Mr. Entertainment. The collabo madness only gets better throughout, as Cole actually steps back to support both burgeoning and bundles of talent. Taking on “Blueberry Hill” with a child “Bill” Preston, the two trade verses and seats, but Cole provides ample room for Preston’s bursting talents; though Cole dwarfs Preston in every sense of the word, he “is very aware of giving Billy the spotlight”. WTF moment goes to Johnny Mercer vamping on “Save the Bones for Henry Jones”; the famed songwriter reminds us of his capable pipes, bending and curving around the lyrics with sly charm like a coy Elton John. Meanwhile, Cole stays back in the cut, restraining his delight until the end when he squeals, “Henry?? Coming, Mother!”
While these extraordinary performances are delectable in their own right, they also frustratingly hint at the adversity the show faced. Bob Henry goes so far to compare Nat Cole to Jackie Robinson, yet this statement loses magnitude with little follow-up. Over a montage of cameos from Harry Belafonte, Mel Torme, and Peggy Lee, the narrator intones the outpouring of support Cole received as the show struggled, but never discusses specific sponsor reactions, the network’s perspective, not even audience ratings. When I Fall insists on walking to the ledge without taking the complete plunge. (Read here for a concise history of the show). The show was fascinating both as a music document and as popular culture entertainment, but it is impossible to divorce the content of the show from its place in race relations within mass media and American society.
When I Fall‘s response comes from the Cole family, and is understandably (pre-)Civil Rights in tone, given the generations from whence they identify. When they reflect on the show’s struggles, positivist platitudes are worn openly. Maria Cole focuses on the unflinching support Nat received from his entertainer peers, commenting, “There’s very little bigotry in show business.” In spite of her gratitude and respect (the former Maria Ellington herself sang with Duke Ellington; no relation), her comment overlooks the complete mechanism of the entertainment industry. That both Joe Dirt and Joe Windsor did not step up to bat when Nat needed a pinch-hit led to the show’s demise… all because the country could not handle a dignified black man for 15 (later 30) minutes a week. Certainly, it is an obvious point, but the current result is a country that has forgotten this man’s sacrifice. And for that alone, Nat ‘King’ Cole is owed more than When I Fall.
Indeed, the complete story behind The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show is a complex tale of economics, media, and race. Cole himself was aware of the magnitude of his show, noting “It could be a turning point so that Negroes may be featured regularly on television”. While his wife’s concession that “we were both a little naïve” rings painfully true, African-Americans have since made significant strides in controlling media depictions of persons of color. While stereotypes continue to be perpetuated (the jury’s still out on VH1/Ego Trip’s Race-O-Rama) and considerable work remains to be done, a great debt is owed to Cole’s pioneering work; his portrayal of blackness—a combination of intelligence, wit, and warmth that was in complete antithesis to brutal media projections and demeaning societal categorizations—was a brave and bold stance to take on national, primetime television. To ask one film to embody this spirit is indeed an equally substantial request. And to ask a nation to further assess its past is quite another. However, considering that many in the world have the privilege to enjoy Cole’s voice over an elaborate sound system in upscale department stores, proper reflection is indeed a small favor to ask.