Make room for a genuine rarity, come back from the cinema graveyard in excellent condition: a lavish color musical extravaganza from 1930 that’s been effectively MIA for generations. Universal undertook a daunting restoration of this ‘revue-‘ style spectacle, which includes a full presentation of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in its original orchestration.
King of Jazz
The Criterion Collection 915
1930 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame / 98 105 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date March 27, 2018 / 39.95
Starring: Paul Whiteman, John Boles, Bing Crosby (unbilled),
Laura La Plante, Jeanette Loff, Glenn Tryon, Wiliam Kent, Slim Summerville, The Rhythm Boys, Kathryn Crawford, Beth Laemmle, Stanley Smith, Charles Irwin, George Chiles, Jack White, Frank Leslie, Walter Brennan, Churchill Ross, Johnson Arledge, Al Norman, Jacques Cartier, Paul Howard, Nell O’Day, The Tommy Atkins Sextette, Marion Stadler, Don Rose, The Russell Markert Girls.
Cinematography: Hal Mohr, Jerry Ash, Ray Rennahan
Film Editor: Maurice Pivar, Robert Carlisle
Dances: Russel Markert
Animated Cartoons: Walter Lantz & Bill Nolan
Comedy Sketches: Harry Ruskin
Orchestrations: Ferde Grofé
Original Music & Lyrics: Jack Yellin, Milton Ager
Additional Music numbers: George Gershwin, Mabel Wayne, Billy Rose and James Dietrich
Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.
Directed by John Murray Anderson
I see that the name of my college friend and one-time co-editor Robert S. Birchard appears on the credits for this restoration. Bob was widely known as an expert resource for silents and early sound pictures; I think the first time I met him, he projected his 16mm print of Paramount on Parade, a musical revue movie that I’ve never seen made available again. Bob passed away last year, so I hope he was able to see this important project finished.
This much-discussed musical restoration reaches way back to revive King of Jazz, a feature that few thought would again see the light of day. Early talkie musicals are an arcane specialty in film studies. Back in college they showed us The Broadway Melody and parts of some operettas (The Desert Song?) and that was it. Certain key pictures were thought to be lost, or at the least, ‘unserviceable.’ Inclusion into the National Registry helped spur Universal to see what it could do about reassembling this ‘wonder musical’ of 1930. Made at enormous expense in 2-strip Technicolor, King of Jazz was acknowledged as a major achievement within the industry, but it reportedly didn’t find an audience. The experts say that it might have been a sensation, had the sub-genre of talkie musical revues (“all singing, all dancing”) not tanked just a couple of months before its release.
Newly restored, with its 2-strip Technicolor brought back to full luster, King of Jazz is quite a show.
The enormously successful bandleader Paul Whiteman called himself ‘King of Jazz’ yet ran an orchestra that played pop tunes and dance music. He marketed himself well — the cartoon image of his face was known the world over. Young Billy Wilder was such a Whiteman fan that when the band played Berlin, Wilder became a reporter by hustling himself a job to write about the tour. Whiteman also had credibility in elite musical circles — George Gershwin chose his orchestra to play the 1924 debut of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. That number is one of the highlights of this musical revue, which makes its restoration all the more important: King of Jazz gives us Rhapsody exactly as it was played when new, minus George Gershwin at the piano.
Producer Carl Laemmle Jr. employed Broadway director John Murray Anderson as artistic director of the whole enterprise. It’s his one film credit as director. The conceit used to tie together unrelated songs, dances and comic scenes is a giant ‘Whiteman scrapbook’ where pages turn to change acts. Numerous comedy blackout bits, often only a minute long, are the kinds of one-joke gags that might be played in front of the curtain to allow for the changing of stage scenery.
MGM and Paramount used their early revue musicals (the ones I’ve seen, at least) to plug their roster of film stars, which is how we’ve ended up with interesting footage of non-musical talents (Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton, etc.) doing musical bits. This show made ample use of talent from back East, but some Universal names show up as well. John Boles (Frankenstein) sings two of the biggest numbers, ‘Song of the Dawn’ and a Mexican medley around ‘It Happened in Monterey’. He got the boost when young Bing Crosby had to drop out: Farran Smith Nehme tells us that Crosby became sassy with a Judge after a traffic accident and served some time in the hoosegow. Bing does get his share of screen time, with his group ‘The Rhythm Boys.’ Even with his big ears, Bing looks much better in this Technicolor lighting than he would three years later in Warner’s Going Hollywood, where I described him as ‘looking like a shaved monkey.’
Visible in the comedy bits are Laura La Plante (The Cat and the Canary) and Slim Summerville, in a skit that lampoon’s Summerville’s recent success All Quiet on the Western Front. Also recognizable is young Glenn Tryon (Lonesome), but it would seem impossible to spot Carla Laemmle (as Beth Laemmle) in the dance numbers. Immediately recognizable is Walter Brennan, who shows up in numerous musical bits. The ingenue performers stick to the fashion of the time — guys with perfect varsity profiles and cutesie-poo singers that warble tunes in Betty Boop-style baby talk. It doesn’t take much time to adjust to the antiquated theatrical style — the performers are indeed talented. Dancer Al Norman does a rubber-legs act with fancy foot moves that far outdistance Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Paul Whiteman gets involved in person now and then, and seems a genial-enough fellow.
Universal and Anderson don’t scrimp on scale and spectacle. Most numbers use massive multi-level stage sets that rotate, or unfold. An opening number is basically a giant fashion show, showing off the history of bridal gowns, including one with a lace veil so big, its a wonder the bride can drag it behind her. One special effect shows bandleader Whiteman unpacking his orchestra from a little bag, as if they were Fantastic Puppet People.
A famous image is the sight of an entire string section performing from the interior of a giant grand piano, with four pianists at the oversized keyboard. The revue must have at least twenty elaborate costume changes for three or four platoons of dancers that form enormous chorus lines. Although his choreography doesn’t reach to the Escher-like extremes of Busby Berkeley, Anderson is highly conscious of his visuals. For every straight-on shot of a stage setup, we get two or three creative angles. Trick effects produce strange imagery, framing performers in bizarre moving scenery, and multiplying faces with kaleidoscopic mirrors.
This restoration is a showcase of what 2-strip Technicolor could do. Everything we see including facial makeup appears to designed to handle the restricted color range. The opening emcee looks like a painted toy, but everyone else comes off fairly naturally. Since there’s no pure blue (but a lot of greenish teal), for Rhapsody in Blue the designers use gray and silver details to make us perceive the teal decor as bluer than it is. It works rather well.
The 2-strip Technicolor shown here doesn’t look faded or dull, as have some other examples I’ve seen. Anderson’s cameramen use bright colored rim lights everywhere, for color contrast. Sparkly curtains really sparkle. Bold color contrasts come across clean and sharp, as with a scene with a dancing African native on a drum, with a giant shadow thrown on the wall behind him. The only number with color difficulties is the ‘around the world’ ‘Melting Pot’ grand finale — no matter what one does, 2-strip can’t replicate the hues of French and American flags.
The massed chorus girls (all those legs) and the specialty dance numbers never grow dull. One novelty number, with the male dancer folding and flopping his supposedly unconscious female partner, displays contortions suitable for a circus.
The music was arranged by Ferde Grofé, lessening the kitsch factor of hearing all kinds of incompatible music pushed together. Although an interesting rhythm or two slips in, there’s little or no jazz in King of Jazz; Whiteman apparently just appropriated the word for his dance band. The full-length Rhapsody in Blue is impressive, but the ‘Melting Pot’ finale comes off as a little weird: the recurring, macabre image is of smiling performers being lowered into a boiler, one nationality at a time. My favorite big number is built around the bright song ‘Happy Feet,’ which is still familiar (from The Muppets, I guess). The fast-moving parade of chorus lines and specialty dancers is still very impressive.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of King of Jazz is hotly awaited by followers of movie musicals; I don’t think it will disappoint. It is said to be almost intact, assembled from two or three existing remnants. The bulk of the movie looks sensational. For parts of numbers here and there, the image will cut to a less distinct copy, but these sections do not last very long. Now and then a B&W still will pop up where something is missing, so smoothly that I at first thought it was part of the original show. The film looks and feels intact, not pieced together.
The color is fascinating. It soon becomes clear that skilled color design is what makes the image seem more dimensional than other 2-strip shows — perhaps the influence of stage lighting is a factor as well. It looks so good that it makes me wish that Warners would (or could) remaster its 2-strip Tech movies Mystery of the Wax Museum and Dr. X.
The film is listed as 1:33, which makes sense if it was released in the Vitaphone system, with audio on discs; no image space would have been taken away for an optical sound track. Until the Academy standard came in, many Movietone sound-on-film movies were almost as tall as they were wide.
Viewers curious to learn more will find Criterion’s extras the equal of a college film course. An informative commentary combines the observations of critics Gary Giddins, Gene Seymour and musician Vince Giordano. Michael Feinstein appears in a stand-alone interview. Experts James Layton and David Pierce host a quartet of featurette essays about the making of the film. A selection of alternate scenes are taken from a 1933 reissue.
Four vintage short subjects feature related content. All Americans from 1929 features an earlier version of the ‘Melting Pot’ stage number. I Know Everybody and Everybody’s Racket, is a 1933 Paul Whiteman musical short, built around (a very annoying) Walter Winchell. And a pair of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons use music and animation from King of Jazz.
Farran Smith Nehme’s insert booklet essay is a concise introduction to this unique film, its production history and its long-delayed restoration.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
King of Jazz
Movie: Very Good
Full Supplements (from Criterion): New audio commentary featuring jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, music and cultural critic Gene Seymour, and musician and bandleader Vince Giordano; New introduction to the film by Giddins; New interview with musician and pianist Michael Feinstein; Four new video essays by authors and archivists James Layton and David Pierce on the development and making of King of Jazz; Deleted scenes and alternate opening title sequence; All Americans, a 1929 short film featuring a version of the “Melting Pot” number that was restaged for King of Jazz; I Know Everybody and Everybody’s Racket, a 1933 short film featuring Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra; Two Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons from 1930, featuring music and animation from King of Jazz; PLUS: An essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 7, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson