Nat King Cole at 100

(Above: Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole as the Greek chorus in ‘Cat Ballou’)

Nat King Cole, who would have turned 100 this Sunday, March 17, achieved everlasting fame as a jazz singer and pianist – but was also an accomplished movie actor and landmark TV host.

Today, we’ll look at Cole’s movie career.

The musician made one of his first major studio appearances in the 1953 Fritz Lang film noir, The Blue Gardenia. Here he sings the title song:

Istanbul, a 1957 crime drama starring Errol Flynn, marked the first film in which Cole played a character other than himself. Here he sings “When I Fall in Love”:

That same year, Cole played a mercenary soldier in Sam Fuller’s China Gate – a “very, very strange film” with a “stupid plot,” according to Krin Gabbard, professor in the Jazz Studies program at Columbia University.

Gabbard, who presented “Happy Birthday, Nat King Cole” last week as part of his ongoing Scenes through the Cinema Lens series at New York’s Tribeca Performing Arts Center, noted that China Gate was “probably the first film about the Vietnam War.” In the plot, Angie Dickenson plays a part-Chinese woman whose child was fathered by mercenary leader Gene Barry. Cole’s character befriends the unwanted kid:

The following year, 1958. Cole had his only starring role: as jazz pioneer WC Handy in St. Louis Blues:

1959 brought Night of the Quarter Moon, a film that Gabbard found “even more bizarre” than China Gate. In this one, re-released a few years later as The Color of Her Skin, sultry singer Julie London plays a quadroon newly wed to John Drew Barrymore (Drew’s dad). His mother, played by Bewitched’s Agnes Moorehead (“at her most witching”), strongly objects. Cole plays one of London’s cousins.

For the next six years, Cole concentrated on singing, but returned to movies in 1965 as half of the Greek chorus in the western comedy hit, Cat Ballou:

Cole died of lung cancer at only 45 years old — before Cat Ballou opened in theaters and went on to garner five Oscar nominations and win one (Lee Marvin, Best Actor). None of the other movies mentioned above are streaming on-demand, but you can enjoy Cat Ballou free with ads on The Roku Channel; free without ads on Hoopla if you’re a member of a participating library; or from $2.99 at other providers.

Sling TV subscribers can also see The Blue Gardenia tonight at 1:30 am ET/PT on TCM.

Tomorrow: Nat King Cole’s historic TV career.

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About Les Luchter

Les Luchter is a former managing editor of Multichannel News, editor-in-chief of Cable Marketing, and news editor of Broadcast Week.

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