Sunday, December 27, 2015

King of Jazz (Universal, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

(graphic from the Bixography Forum Web site,

I ran him [my then-partner Bob] the video of the 1930 musical The King of Jazz. I’d been telling him a lot about two-strip Technicolor, but this was the first time he’d actually seen a film shot in the process. He noticed the anomalies — that, for a process that supposedly could not reproduce blue, there sure seemed to be an awful lot of blue in the film (even the leaves on the trees seemed to be a gun-metal greyish blue, suggesting that the “blue” objects actually were green originally and look blue now because the yellow components of the dyes have faded) — and the whole process seemed biased towards orange and green (it could reproduce bright red quite well, but director John Murray Anderson and his designers seemed to be avoiding red deliberately, as an aesthetic choice). Bob, with his engineer’s low tolerance for old-fashioned technology, said the film’s color was poor but at least better than black-and-white; I found the effect pleasant and harmonious, with little or none of the garishness that affected later three-strip color films.

As for the movie itself, I still have a great deal of affection for it. Paul Whiteman’s band, while not good enough to merit his P.R.-awarded “King of Jazz” title (“Louis who? Duke what?” Newsweek commented ironically when it mentioned Whiteman in a recent issue), was the best white jazz band of the time, and many of the arrangements heard in the film are Whiteman at his jazzy best. (Bix Beiderbecke may have missed out on being in the film, but Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang and the Rhythm Boys vocal group — Bing Crosby, Harry Barris and Al Rinker — were still around to keep the jazz flame alive.) Anderson’s direction, if not quite as imaginative as Busby Berkeley’s in the Warners classics of 1933-35, is still stunning, and Hal Mohr’s camerawork is quite innovative in its use of the famous “Broadway crane” for moving-camera effects — and also in its pioneering use of wide-angle lenses so both musician and instrument could be in focus simultaneously (creating some interesting distortion effects).

Though The King of Jazz was a revue with no plot — and Universal’s contract list wasn’t comparably stellar to those of MGM, Warners and Paramount in their all-star revues — it remains a far more creative movie than any of the competitors, not only due to Anderson’s direction but also the screenwriting as well. Many of the gags are surprisingly racy for a movie this old — nearly all the blackout comedy sketches between the number rely on sexual gags, and the whole movie makes fun of the whole Victorian ethic and the very concept of fidelity. Perhaps the funniest line in the movie — certainly it was Bob’s favorite — came from a skit about a prospective bridegroom, being warned by his bride-to-be’s father that, even if he was making enough money to support her, there might be children. His response was, “Oh, we’ve been lucky so far.” (The King of Jazz was made during that four-year period — which I call “Hollywood’s glasnost” — of lax Production Code enforcement between 1930 and 1934. Many of Hollywood’s best movies came out during this period, and benefited from it: the Berkeley musicals; the Lubitsch films with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald; Stroheim’s last film as a director, Hello, Sister!; and the original Maltese Falcon, which had the “strip scene” from the book that couldn’t be used in the later remakes.) — 3/25/93


Charles and I drove back to Hillcrest, found Davids’ Place coffeehouse closed for an AIDS Art Alive exhibit, then went back to his place where I ran him the videotape of the 1930 movie The King of Jazz. It’s a movie that holds up pretty well — though the two-strip Technicolor print has faded quite badly (last week I ran Charles the movie Whoopee!, which he liked considerably better, at least partially because it’s survived in considerably better shape visually); many of the short comedy sketches are surprisingly risqué (well, it was a “Forbidden Hollywood”-era movie), the music was pretty good (though, like virtually all of Whiteman’s projects, it suffered from his insistence on demonstrating that his band could play virtually anything, from the sickliest sentimental Victorian-era style of “My Bridal Veil” to international music to the kind of lightly jazz-flavored dance music that was what his band actually did well) and the production (“Entire Production Devised and Directed by John Murray Anderson,” ran his credit) was stunning (one could well see why Herman Rosse’s set designs won an Academy Award). It wasn’t a movie that was all that creative in terms of camera movement and stunning editing (Busby Berkeley’s work was ahead of Anderson’s in the innovation department at that time, though Anderson would out-Berkeley Berkeley in that bizarre final number he created for the 1944 Red Skelton/Esther Williams movie Bathing Beauty, which I believe was excerpted in the first That’s Entertainment! as well), but the sheer audacity of the conception of some of the numbers made it work. — 2/10/96


Two nights ago Charles programmed an interesting set of movies for Christmas — including a couple I’ve written about in this space before, the 1971 cartoon adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant and the 1967 Bob Hope Military Christmas Special (what struck me most this time around was the viciousness of the jokes Hope was making attacking the anti-war protesters back home), as well as a Donald Duck cartoon from 1942 called Donald’s Snow Fight, which was surprisingly good. The conventional wisdom of the history of animated film holds that by the early 1940’s artistic leadership in animation had passed from Disney to the Warner Bros. cartoon department, with such unforgettable characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and my all-time favorite, the Road Runner (there was an online poll on to name the cartoon villain you feel most sorry for, and my choice would certainly be Wile E. Coyote; like George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, which fellow cartoonists tend to regard as the greatest comic strip ever created, the Road Runner cartoons were set in the American Southwest and took advantage of its awesome geographic features) — but Donald’s Snow Hunt, featuring an all-out battle in the snow between Donald Duck and his three nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie (all four of the duck characters were voiced by the same person, Clarence Nash, whose 1934 radio broadcast reading “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in the voice of a girl duck had attracted Walt Disney’s attention and led Disney to sign him, though in working out the character Disney decided that Nash’s duck voice would work better for a male than a female) that was quite well staged and had a lot of truly inventive gags, including one in which Donald wears a “winter coat” that is almost perfectly conical (is this where the makers of A Christmas Story got their gag about the almost totally spherical winter garment Ralphie’s parents send him to school in?) and another in which Huey, Dewey and Louie fire a well-placed shot at Donald’s fortress, split it into ice logs and the ice forms bars around him like a prison. But our “feature” for Christmas night was a movie I was startled to find online given that the reports I’d read about it — mainly that UCLA was in the middle of a full restoration but it was taking so long I was wondering whether I’d able to see the film again in my lifetime — King of Jazz (I noted that the opening credit didn’t feature the definite article, and neither did a Variety cover from January 1929 announcing that Paul Whiteman and his orchestra were going out by train from New York to Los Angeles to make the film), Universal’s amazing 1930 musical revue built around Paul Whiteman and, as his credit reads, “Devised and Directed by John Murray Anderson.” I first saw King of Jazz when MCA Home Video released a tape of it in the early 1980’s — I got the Beta version but later dubbed it to VHS alongside the other great full-color musical from 1930, Sam Goldwyn’s Whoopee — and I didn’t quite know what to make of it: it seemed to be split between numbers that had the lumbering, ponderous effect of other contemporary musicals and numbers that were attempting to break free of the restrictions of the stage-bound films of the day.

Certainly it’s a film of major historical importance: it marked the screen debut of Bing Crosby and was shot entirely in the two-strip Technicolor process, which as I’ve pointed out in these pages before at its best had a painterly elegance that’s often more watchable than the shrieking, overly vibrant hues of the three-strip process that replaced it. Two-strip Technicolor had a major weakness — it could not photograph blue — though in surviving two-strip films there are some sequences that look blue because the yellow chemicals in the green dyes have faded over the years while the blue ones have survived or faded less — as witness the Irish tenor who sings “Killarney” in the final sequence, “The Melting Pot of Music.” His coat looks teal, and it seems likely given the usual iconography of Hollywood that everything from Ireland is green, the coat was probably a bright, vivid green in the original release. Well, the more times I’ve seen King of Jazz — in the 1990’s, when I ran my VHS dub of the Beta tape for Charles; and now Christmas night — I’ve liked it better and better, and the person who really made this film great was its director, John Murray Anderson. King of Jazz was a troubled production — the date on the Variety cover that showed Paul Whiteman and his “boys” on their way to the coast to make it was January 2, 1929 and the movie was released April 20, 1930 — and much of the reason for that was a huge fish-out-of-water disconnect between Whiteman’s tightly disciplined way of running his band and the movie industry’s more devil-may-care attitude towards things. Whiteman took himself and his band out to California on a train called the “Old Gold Special” (Old Gold Cigarettes was the sponsor of his weekly CBS radio show) and expected Universal to be like a nightclub, ballroom or concert hall: everything would be ready for him and all he and his boys would have to do was set up and play. When he got to Universal, ready to hit the soundstages and begin filming, he was told that no one had yet written a script for the film — which made Whiteman furious. He said it would be like having a band on stage, ready to play, having to apologize to the audience because no one had brought music. Universal’s writers suggested various ideas for a script, including a Whiteman biopic with Whiteman playing himself and a romantic love story in which Whiteman and Ruth Etting would be the leads — and Whiteman was well aware that his overall bulk, as well as his lack of acting experience, would make it difficult if not impossible for the audience to accept him as a romantic lead.

Whiteman was also having difficulties with the sound engineers, who had suddenly become the divas of Hollywood now that talking pictures were a reality; unless a strong director stood up to them, sound men were taking over virtually every movie made, insisting that the actors speak s-l-o-w-l-y and d-i-s-t-i-n-c-t-l-y and … pause for at least a beat between hearing their cue line and speaking their own. (This is what accounts for the existence of films like the 1929 Fox production Behind That Curtain, which will make clear just why some critics wrote that silent movies were actually more naturalistic than sound ones.) Universal’s sound engineers had the Whiteman band play through their entire repertoire for hours on end, supposedly doing “tests,” and they thought Whiteman would be as awed by them and uninclined to resist as all the Hollywood actors were. Whiteman, who had been one of America’s top-selling recording artists for nine years and probably knew more about sound recording than all the self-appointed “experts” in Hollywood combined, first complained and then, when that didn’t do any good, went through the indignities and probably rationalized, “At least we’re getting paid for this.” The Whiteman musicians lived in L.A. for six months, consuming a lot of bootleg alcohol and getting themselves into so many scrapes with the law that ultimately they started removing the cloth spare-tire covers with Whiteman’s famous potato-head caricature on them because the L.A. cops were targeting cars so equipped for special enforcement. Finally, in August 1929, Whiteman, worried that the band was getting stale since its members weren’t playing for live audiences, accepted an offer from a New York nightclub and told Universal president Carl Laemmle and his “suits” that they weren’t coming back until the Universal executives approved a finished script and were actually ready to make the film. In the meantime Whiteman lost the greatest musician who ever worked for him, Bix Beiderbecke, whose alcohol abuse finally caught up with him and weakened him to the point where he could barely get through a show, much less make a movie.

Universal also lost the director they had originally assigned to the film, the Hungarian-born Paul Fejos (whose name is listed on in its Hungarian form, Pál Fejös — though in Hungary it would have been Fejös Pál!), when he had a nervous breakdown while shooting a film called La Marseillaise (it was eventually finished, retitled Captain of the Guards, by John S. Robertson, whose most famous credit today is probably John Barrymore’s 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and spent most of the rest of his life working as an anthropologist and combining those two careers by making nature documentaries in Asia. At this point the Universal executives decided that King of Jazz would be a revue — a term usually meaning a stage musical without a plot, one that simply alternated songs, dances and comedy sketches, but which in 1929 was being pursued by Hollywood. MGM made Hollywood Revue of 1929, Warner Bros. made The Show of Shows, Fox made Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 and Paramount made Paramount on Parade. Alas, by the time King of Jazz actually made it before the cameras, movie audiences were in open revolt against musicals in general and revues in particular. MGM abandoned their second revue production, The March of Time, in mid-shoot (they ultimately commissioned Moss Hart to write a screenplay that could link the March of Time footage to a plot, and in 1933 released Broadway to Hollywood, a multi-generational story of showbiz performers which in the end contained only about two minutes of the March of Time footage, though some of the numbers got released as shorts like The Devil’s Cabaret). Universal plunged ahead with King of Jazz and hired the director who probably knew more about how to do a stage revue than anyone else in the business: John Murray Anderson, who had directed most of the Ziegfeld Follies on stage but had never made a movie before. Anderson plunged in with both feet, designing spectacular numbers and getting Universal’s art director, Herman Rosse, to build some of the hugest, most over-the-top sets ever designed for a musical. (Rosse won the Academy Award for art direction for this film; as Charles pointed out, he was probably the first Oscar winner ever for a film made entirely in color.)

King of Jazz is basically a revue that purports to take us inside “Paul Whiteman’s Scrap Book,” a 10-foot tall prop that taxes the ability of the film’s M.C., Charles Irwin, to turn its pages. Whiteman brings his entire band inside a little satchel — though double-exposure photography the band appears as miniature people while Whiteman and Irwin show them off on top of a piano (for some reason showing people in radically different scales in the same scene was an effect that was quite popular then) — and though some of the shots of choristers on the big sets have the best-seat-in-the-theatre placement of most musicals this early (which frequently made the dancers look like ants on a wedding cake), Anderson also shoots three-quarter shots, vast panoramas, moving-camera shots (he had access to the famous “Broadway crane” designed and built by Paul Fejos and cinematographer Hal Mohr for the 1928 film Broadway and used by Universal for years) and even a couple of Busby Berkeley-style overhead kaleidoscope shots, including one showing off Whiteman’s violin section playing Fritz Kreisler’s “Caprice Viennois.” By coincidence, Berkeley was also in Hollywood at the time making his first film, another all-color musical, Sam Goldwyn’s adaptation of Ziegfeld’s hit Whoopee, starring Eddie Cantor — and he and Anderson were both pushing the bounds of what had previously been done in musical films. So the two most creative musicals made in Hollywood in 1930, King of Jazz and Whoopee, both had Ziegfeld connections. It also seems likely that Berkeley saw King of Jazz because he did strikingly similar numbers later on: the Manhattan landscapes shown as part of the “Happy Feet” song were duplicated in Berkeley’s ground-breaking 1933 film 42nd Street (the blockbuster hit that marked the comeback of musicals as a genre after audiences had got tired of them in the early 1930’s) and the “Bench in the Park” number, featuring Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys (the other two were Harry Barris and Al Rinker, Mildred Bailey’s considerably slimmer brother) and a group called the Brox Sisters, who weren’t at the level of the Boswell Sisters musically but still impress, was quite closely copied by Berkeley for “Pettin’ in the Park” in Gold Diggers of 1933. “Happy Feet” even begins with an animated sequence of empty shoes dancing by themselves, an idea Fred Astaire recycled almost two decades later for his last film with Ginger Rogers, The Barkleys of Broadway.

King of Jazz shows off the wide range of Whiteman’s musical interests, from a salon piece called “My Bridal Veil” (a middle-aged but still attractive woman clutches her bridal veil and flashes back, Proust-style, to memories of her wedding day, and the number ends with the bride descending a giant staircase, her attendants flanking her and all three women wearing gowns whose trains seem to trail off into eternity, much like Carmen Miranda’s bahiana hat in Berkeley’s 1943 film The Gang’s All Here) to the piece most closely associated with Whiteman, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. It’s presented here with an introduction in which Irwin says that jazz originated in Africa — “to the beat of a voodoo drum” — and then we get a scene of either one voodoo dancer and his shadow or two dancers “shadowing” each other to a drum beat before an actor wielding a clarinet pantomimes to the famous opening of the Rhapsody (Gershwin originally wrote the phrase as a 17-note scalar progression, but Ross Gorman, featured clarinetist with the Whiteman band when it premiered the piece in 1924, decided to play it as a glissando, Gershwin altered the score accordingly and it’s bedeviled numerous clarinetists ever since — including Benny Goodman, who flubbed it on a 1942 broadcast with Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony) and we get chorus boys in top hats, white ties and tails marching out of the wings for a night on the town. We also get a giant piano. so large eight people can sit at it, though obviously they’re not actually playing it — just pantomiming a piano performance on those giant keys, unstrikable by any human. Number after number showcases Anderson’s staging skills and the talents of the cast he assembled, including seemingly impossibly acrobatic dancers of both genders (I particularly like the “My Ragamuffin Romeo” number, in which, in a way anticipating Universal’s production of Frankenstein the next year, a lonely rag dealer assembles himself a girlfriend from rags; she turns out to be Marion Stattler, an amazingly limber and accomplished contortionist dancer; Charles called the number “Raggedy Ann Meets Raggedy Apache”), one of whom, Paul Small, impersonates Whiteman and does a dance number until Whiteman himself “outs” him by pulling off his reproduction of the Whiteman moustache.

The huge finale, a song called “Song of the Dawn” (sung by Universal leading man John Boles, one of the few people featured in the film who wasn’t a part of Whiteman’s organization) staged to look like Boles is a Third World peasant leader about to stage a revolution, segues into “The Melting Pot of Music,” in which Paul Whiteman is presented as a sort of mad scientist stirring a huge cauldron in which just about every sort of white European music is blended into that “exciting new rhythm — Jazz!” There’s no intimation here that Black people had anything to do with creating jazz (though there was that earlier reference to the voodoo dances that supposedly inspired the Rhapsody in Blue), and some online commentators have questioned that as well as the whole idea of Whiteman being crowned “King of Jazz” in the first place (by his publicist, Mary Margaret McBride, who also quoted Whiteman as saying he had “made a lady out of jazz,” as if that were a good thing), but “The Melting Pot of Music” is yet another number that soars on the sheer audacity of Anderson’s directorial conception; at its end, Whiteman stirs the cauldron, concentric rings emerge from it like the ones with which the robot in Metropolis got turned into the “false Maria” (Brigitte Helm), and out of it all, in yet another sequence anticipating the next decade and Universal’s involvement in horror films, the Whiteman band emerges for a reprise of “Song of the Dawn.”

Incidentally, Whiteman originally intended the vocal lead in “Song of the Dawn” for Bing Crosby, but he got into trouble — he took a girl out one night, drank too much and got involved in an auto accident in which she was killed. He pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and, probably due to pressure from Whiteman and/or Universal, was given only a one-month sentence — but he was essentially work-furloughed, taken to Universal under police escort to do his work on King of Jazz during the day and then transported back to jail at night. During all this Whiteman reassigned “Song of the Dawn” to Boles — though Bing still sang the song on the Columbia record Whiteman made to promote the film, and the comparison shows that Boles was actually the better singer for that song. It calls for a stentorian, quasi-operatic delivery on the order of Nelson Eddy’s, and Bing, despite his enormous talents, never could sing that way. (For some reason, Bing never got over his bitterness over losing “Song of the Dawn.” He was still complaining about it in an interview he did with Barbara Walters in 1977, just months before he died!) So Bing was featured only as part of the Rhythm Boys — though, unlike a lot of other legendary stars who seem to be groping towards a character in their first films, Bing seems already fully formed; when he interrupts the Rhythm Boys’ performance of “Mississippi Mud” with a speech about how in an expensive movie like this “we’ve got to get out of the mud, and reach for the finer things,” he says it in the rising and falling inflections he used his entire career to endow even the most prosaic speech with musical qualities.

There are some low points in King of Jazz — mostly the novelty sequences like “Oh, How I’d Like to Own a Fish Store,” “Has Anyone Here Seen Nellie” (an homage to the earliest days of the nickelodeons in which the projectionist leads the audience in a sing-a-long) and a dreary novelty number in which Willie Hall, ordinarily a Whiteman trombonist, plays “Silent Night” (so there was a Christmas connection to this movie after all!) and “‘Pop’ Goes the Weasel” on violin and “Stars and Stripes Forever” on bicycle pump — but the dazzling high points, number after number that offers one impressive vista after another and is quite creatively staged for 1930, as well as some raunchy gags in the comedy sequences that mark this film as definitely a product of the so-called “pre-Code” Hollywood glasnost, make King of Jazz a film for the ages. Samples of the raunchy dialogue: in one skit a man and a woman receive word that their marriage is not legally valid, and the man says, “That makes me a bachelor!” The woman says, “That makes me a spinster,” and their baby — played by Paul Whiteman (complete with moustache) in an oversized cradle — whines towards the camera, “Well, look at what that makes me!” Another one: a young man is meeting with his girlfriend’s father to ask for permission to marry her. Dad questions whether the man has enough money to support a wife, and the boy assures him that he makes $65 a week and that should be enough to support her. Yes, says the father, but there may be children later on. The boy says they’ve decided not to have any, and when Dad asks them how they’re managing that, the boy says, “Well, we’ve been lucky so far.”

King of Jazz is considered, at least by one of the “Trivia” posters, to be the film that killed off musicals for the next two years because it was such a big flop (though at least part of that might be a Zeitgeist problem; it’s clearly a film conceived in the freewheeling 1920’s and released in the Depression-era 1930’s — albeit Richard Barrios claims in his book on early musicals that King of Jazz was reissued in 1933 and did better then than it had in 1930), but seen today it’s an extraordinary movie and makes it seem inconceivable that John Murray Anderson never again made a feature film. He got just two more movie assignments: staging the final water ballet in Esther Williams’ 1944 film Bathing Beauty (the first of the big color extravaganzae starring the Olympic champion swimmer) and doing some circus-performing scenes for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1953 movie The Greatest Show on Earth. (He also ran an acting school with Robert Milton that trained at least two legendary stars, Bette Davis and Lucille Ball.) But he remains so little known that his Bathing Beauty number is frequently misattributed to Busby Berkeley, who did do similar choreographies with Williams on some of her later films. I’ve long felt it was a cultural crime that Anderson wasn’t hired to direct MGM’s 1936 biopic The Great Ziegfeld — instead MGM gave the directorial assignment to one of their house hacks, Robert Z. Leonard — because as the director of many of the Follies Anderson knew Ziegfeld (personally and artistically), while King of Jazz had proven he could direct a movie. A John Murray Anderson-directed Great Ziegfeld might have been a masterpiece instead of the slow, ponderous bore, redeemed only by the acting of William Powell and Myrna Loy, it actually is! — 12/27/15