Southern Movie 38: “French Quarter” (1978)

Let’s just start by being clear that 1978’s French Quarter is a weird, half-baked frame narrative whose dual-world, time-warp fantasy underpinning doesn’t make a lot of sense. But what the movie lacks in coherence it makes up for by . . . never mind, it doesn’t make up for it. What it does instead is patchwork together the seedier, jazzier side of early twentieth-century New Orleans history under the umbrella of life in a French Quarter brothel. The historical figures are there – jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton, a young Louis Armstrong, photographer EJ Bellocq – and they are presented to us through a love story involving a virgin prostitute who will be auctioned off and a white piano prodigy who is in over his head.

French Quarter begins in modern times – the late 1970s, that is – with a young woman who is fleeing her small-town, bayou roots and heading to the big city of New Orleans. She is pretty and blonde and holding a suitcase as she weeps over an above-ground grave in a bayou. We hear a man’s voice flippantly explain that her father was deeply in debt, and thus left her less than nothing. She picks up her suitcase, hat, and shoes, and walks among to mossy trees to the road, as a new voice – a male voiceover – picks up narrating her plight: “She was one of those girls as rare as snow on the bayou,” the voice tells us.

The young woman boards a bus, pays her fee, and gets off in New Orleans as the voiceover continues to tell us about her. In his own stalker way, the voice explains that he knows about this young woman because he has seen others like her, the ones who arrive in New Orleans hoping to find something. As the young woman sits beside St. Louis Cathedral and browses the newspaper want ads, he tells us that that “those who wants something real bad . . . usually get it real bad.” The young woman gets up and tries in three places – a clothing shop, a candy shop, and a restaurant – to get jobs, but nothing doing. Meanwhile, the voiceover outs himself, showing us only his back among the crowds, as he follows her through the French Quarter. We already sense the tension: country girl come to town, all alone, followed by a strange man, flat broke and begging in New Orleans.

After those failures, she wanders into the empty Storyville Lounge, past a black woman mopping the floor, and plops down at the bar. She tries to order an oyster sandwich but the kitchen is closed, and she doesn’t want a drink. After putting her head on the bar like a sad puppy, the female bartender asks her what’s wrong. Hearing that she needs a job, the woman points her to the one man at sitting the bar. The young woman introduces herself as Christine Delaplane and has a brief cat-and-mouse conversation, in which she tries to evade disclosing her desperation. The seedy man sees through her though and gets to the point: he is hiring topless dancers. He loans her a few dollars to get an outfit to audition in, and Christine heads for the lingerie shop to get some skimpy panties and pasties.

In the dressing room, Christine sits among the other barely dressed dancers, before going on. After a woman in red lingerie finishes, Christine goes out on the stage and performs an extremely awkward and un-sexy routine in her own black lingerie set. The voiceover comes back to say that this was the first time he really saw the young woman (even though we just saw him following her earlier). After proclaiming at the end of her dance, “I hope y’all liked it,” the crowd claps for her a bit, and she has the job.

The next we see Christine, she is irate and yelling at the owner of the club who just hired her. She has a check for $25, which she is sorely dissatisfied with, and he explains that that’s her pay— minus a room, bills, and rental of her costume. Christine responds angrily that she just wants bus fare home, and the man tells her that she has all she’s getting: a check for $25. Stuck, unable to cash the check, the bartender who took pity on her to begin with suggests that she go see a woman named Florinda Beaudine, who practices voodoo and lives above an apothecary shop. Florinda owes her a favor and should let Christine stay rent-free if she helps clean up. “She’s helped lots of girls like you,” the bartender says.

Christine goes down the street and into the empty shop, calling out but receiving no answer. She then wanders up the stairs and runs into Madame Beaudine, an ugly and strange woman who invites her in and tells her not to worry. Beaudine gives her a cup of tea that immediately makes Christine feel woozy, and the old woman helps her to the bed. As this is happening, the voiceover returns, telling us cryptically that he expected this to happen but that it will take time. “This is how I make my money,” the voiceover explains, but he won’t intervene yet.

From this point, the movie shifts to the inner frame of the story. In this inner frame, there is soft light and a soft edge around the screen. Now, Christine, who has become Gertrude “Trudy” Dix, is lying on a bed in the brothel of Countess Willie Piazza, who we recognize as the female bartender from the first part of the story. It is now the 1910s, not the 1970s, and flamboyant prostitutes are cackling, galavanting half-dressed, and jibing each other, as we meet them one-by-one in the kitchen. A newcomer to the place, Trudy is virgin . . . who will be auctioned off.

Next, we meet Jelly Roll Morton, the house piano player, as he is told that a new piano player is coming to audition. Morton is unhappy about this, but then Kid Ross is seen ambling up the street and meeting a little boy named Satchmo. Morton is black, of course, and Ross is white, and Satchmo is Louis Armstrong, of course, and when introduced, the two piano players have an immediate tension. Kid Ross is a prodigy from Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Morton is the one of the early inventors of jazz— and both men are trying to earn a living in the seedy Storyville section of New Orleans.

After Morton and Ross play a friendly but competitive duet, one of the prostitutes is brought in to perform a burlesque for the male customers. Her name is Lady Lil, and she wears a mask as she strips and writhes in a large glass bowl full of soapy water, which seems to be meant to imitate a huge champagne glass. As the panting men and grinning women watch, Morton goes behind a screen, explaining to the newbie Ross that black men aren’t allowed to watch white women dance, which he does anyway through a tear in the fabric.

At the end of the night, Kid Ross is told by Trudy that he has the job, and Jelly Roll Morton is friendly about his new co-worker but will not share the tip money. Trudy tells him that she has to go to bed, since they’re taking pictures of her tomorrow (for the auction), and as she ascends the stairs, Ross composes a sentimental riff for her.

In the next scene, one of the young prostitutes goes in to wake Coke-Eyed Laura, another of the prostitutes who we’ve been told is a druggie. Laura is lying in her bed, has long scratches across her back, and winces as she moves. The young woman applies some water or medicine to the scratches, then for some unstated reason, as Laura rolls over, the two begin a lesbian sex scene.

The next two scenes move the plot forward in a disjointed way. First, three of the women are in the apothecary picking up an STD cure, when one of them apprises Laura that their competitor Emma Johnson is trying to obtain a virgin to have there, and insinuates that Laura is trying to help her and effectively sabotage their own employer. Laura replies flippantly that she knows nothing about it, then asks for some opium, but is reminded that no “dope” is allowed. Angered by the charges and by the rebuke, Laura grits her teeth in an animalistic way and leaves. Next, Kid Ross and Trudy are having coffee in the courtyard, and Trudy shows her naivete when Ross mentions Emma Johnson, too. Ross goes on to ask about Tom Anderson, the politician, gambler, and all-around rascal who sort of runs things in the Quarter. Trudy has never heard of him either.

The story then moves to an underground New Orleans jazz club, full or raw music and raw dancing. The place is jumping until the proprietor Aaron Harris stops one of his women for fighting, saying to her, “If you want to fight somebody, fight me.” When she won’t, he punches her in the stomach, then slaps her to the floor. But Kid Ross shouts from across the room, “That’s enough,” and the two men begin to fight. Of course, Kid Ross wins, but the mood has been soured. As that scene is ending, one of the prostitutes with him wonders out loud where Laura is, and we see a nearly naked Laura in a voodoo ceremony, with a very large snake crawling over her body. The juxtaposition of the two loud, raucous scenarios is obviously an effort to connect one side of the dark underbelly to another.

Back at the house, we meet Tom Anderson, who is caressing a marble statue salaciously. (Tom is played by the same actor as the topless bar owner that cheated Christie in the beginning of the movie, only this time he has a big fake mustache pasted on his face.) He has come to see Willie Piazza about Emma Johnson’s offer to buy Trudy. He believes that the offer is fair, but Willie responds that Emma’s house is a “cesspool.” The scene then cuts to Kid Ross and Trudy Dix having a nice ride in the country in Tom’s new Ford car. They are discussing Trudy’s future, just like Tom and Willie are.  After the scenes have bounced back and forth, we get Tom’s ultimatum that Willie has two weeks to sell Trudy to Emma Johnson, at the same time that Kid Ross shares his plan to move to Chicago . . . and wants Trudy to come with him. They end in a passionate embrace, kissing and rubbing together.

The next evening is the auction. Trudy is dolled up, and the men are duly assembled. The bidding begins at $300 and is quickly driven up and up to $650. It looks like one of the regular customers will win her, when suddenly Kid Ross shouts, “Eight hundred dollars!” Willie Piazza is confounded but has to concede to his bid. He wins the frightened, crying girl, who he is now in love with, and next we see the two, they’re relaxing on the morning after, talking about their plans, before they have another roll in the sheets.

However, the love-story happy ending can’t be here just yet. Nearby, Tom Anderson is in bed with Laura, telling her that she has blown his mind again. She’s very proud of herself and tells him, too, that he has lost his virgin, that Kid Ross has deflowered Trudy— there will be no sale to Emma Johnson. An angry Tom tells Laura to do away with both of them any way she chooses, with voodoo or otherwise, and to include Aaron Harris or anyone else. Laura relishes the opportunity.

In the daylight, Kid Ross and Trudy walk in a foggy cemetery, as somber music plays. They talk about what happens next. Kid Ross has spent the money (buying Trudy) that he was going to use to buy into a jazz club in Chicago, but he knows that he has to leave town. (He has pissed off Aaron Harris and now Tom Anderson, too.) Trudy knows that doesn’t bode well for her, but Ross insists that he’ll only be gone for a week.

Back at the brothel, a wild party is going on! Loud music plays, and costumed prostitutes strut around with the men. The film stays focused for longer than it should on two people having sex in a rocking chair using pairs of roller skates to propel themselves. All the while, Trudy sits outside quietly in the dark— until the voodoo priestess (played by the same actress who was Madame Beaudine earlier) begins to cast a spell on Trudy. Now, the wild scenes interplay, and we see some of the same imagery as the voodoo scene with Laura earlier: half-dressed black people dancing and writhing, men spitting fire. Trudy is mesmerized and, with a black symbol on her forehead, wanders down the street to be chained down naked on the altar by the voodoo people.

As the scene culminates, Kid Ross is meandering down the street himself and speaks to Satchmo, inviting him to the upcoming wedding. Satchmo informs him that Trudy has been taken by the voodoo people. Shocked, Kid Ross has no idea what to do, and Satchmo tells him to follow the drums. In the dungeon-like voodoo locale, Trudy is screaming and the creepy old priestess is holding a snake to put on her . . . when a black handgun enters the picture. This continues alternating until the guns fires—

And we’re back in the 1970s, where two police detectives burst into Madame Beaudine’s little apartment and find Trudy/Christine still passed out on the bed. While the second detective unties an unconscious Christine, the first detective, who fends off an attempted stabbing by Beaudine, reads Miranda rights to the scowling offender. Through their banter, we find out that the old woman sells young girls to wealthy men in foreign countries and that the officer in the beginning of the movie had been following Christine since she got off the bus. When Christine says that she’d like to thank him, he enters the bedroom— and it’s Kid Ross AKA Inspector Sordik! (I’m not sure why they gave him the euphemistic name Inspector Sore Dick but they did.)

As French Quarter ends, the happy couple is shopping in a market where we see one or two of the players from the brothel scene. The voiceover returns and gives us a history lesson on where everyone ended up, but does warns us that some of the story is fact while some is “wild conjecture.” Though it makes little sense, the voiceover explains that he is a descendant of the story, and that’s how he came to be part of it. In the end, Christine and the two detectives ride away in a white convertible.

There aren’t many reviews or commentaries on French Quarter. Movie critic Leonard Maltin wrote that it is a “neglected drive-in treat [and] a genuine curiosity,” called it a “tongue-in-cheek melodrama,” and remarked that it “ended bizarrely.” All true, I think. In general, the movie is very dated to the late ’70s, the acting is not good, and the story is forced. Sometimes, with movies like this one, it’s better to leave well enough alone. (I couldn’t even find the movie’s trailer to share.)

One of the problems with presenting history in cinema is the time limit. Historians write four-hundred page books on specific and nuanced topics, and the French Quarter in the early twentieth century is a very nuanced topic. The movie French Quarter tries to cover the historical origins of jazz, the difficulties of race, and the realities of corruption in an hour and forty minutes of story that defies genre: is it sci-fi? fantasy? comedy? (Frankly, though the stories are dissimilar, its time-travel, parallel-reality approach reminded me a bit of Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, which was published in 1979.) I can’t tell, after watching this movie, if it would be better or worse to know the basics of the history when you watch it, whether understanding what the movie is trying to convey helped or hurt. Overall – and I’ve written this before about several of the Southern movies – it’s important to remember that this is not a documentary, nor does it purport to be. If somebody were looking for a serious factual account of the time and place, this would definitely not be that. Personally, I took French Quarter as a somewhat hip, quasi-psychedelic, quite loose interpretation of an interesting episode in Southern history, one that added a tremendous amount of gratuitous nudity. But it’s not much more.

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