Saturday, January 12, 2019

King of Jazz (Universal, 1930; restored by the Criterion Collection, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on a movie Charles and I had seen together more than once before, but not in this format: the much-ballyhooed restoration of the 1930 Universal mega-musical King of Jazz, featuring Paul Whiteman and his orchestra along with what passed for an all-star cast at Universal then: John Boles, Jeanette Loff (a quite interesting actress and singer I’ve only seen in one other movie, a 1934 Mae West knockoff called St. Louis Woman), Laura La Plante, Glenn Tryon (father of writer Tom Tryon) and a number of comic-relief character actors, including Slim Summerville and the young Walter Brennan. I’ve written about this film extensively before at and so I’ll just give a recap: Paul Whiteman was by far the most successful bandleader of the 1920’s. His first record, “Whispering” b/w “Japanese Sandman,” was a super-hit in 1920. In 1922 his publicist, Mary Margaret McBride, staged a ceremony where Whiteman was literally crowned “King of Jazz” (an event satirized in the opening of this film via a cartoon by Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz) for his having taken the raw early jazz of groups like the (white) Original Dixieland Jazz Band and turned it into a sophisticated form of syncopated music played from written scores and essentially made safe for mass consumption. Whiteman’s career today is inevitably seen through the prism of the reverse-racist legend that has become the mainstream view of jazz history, the idea that jazz is exclusively an African-American creation and whites have simply copied Blacks and offered no real innovations of their own. This is nonsense: jazz was already a fusion of African and European traditions (through most of its history jazz has been played almost exclusively on European, not African, instruments and its basic harmonies and musical structures are mostly European, with modifications like the so-called “blue notes” — the African influence on jazz came through mainly in its freer, more flexible and more insistent rhythms compared to the Western music that preceded it) and I once assembled a partial list of white jazz musicians who had offered creative innovations of their own and hadn’t just copied Black models: Bix Beiderbecke (who played in Whiteman’s band for nearly two years and should have been in King of Jazz, but he’d drunk his way out of that job before the film was finally made), Django Reinhardt, Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton, Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck (and his superb saxophonist, Paul Desmond), and Lennie Tristano. 

King of Jazz contains a feature showing the Whiteman band playing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (about half of it, anyway), a piece Whiteman had commissioned and led the premiere with Gershwin himself playing piano (though in the film the piano soloist is one of Whiteman’s two regular pianists, Roy Bargy — oddly, even though he’s clearly identified on the credit introducing the sequence, a New York Times reviewer when the film first came out said Gershwin was the soloist and that mistake has been repeated for decades in the literature on this film), which introduces the piece with a visually magnificent sequence of dancer Jacques Cartier wearing what appears to be a lamé body suit to which the announcer, Charles Irwin, says that it proves jazz was invented “to the beat of the voodoo drum.” That’s about all the acknowledgment we get of jazz’s African-American origins; later there’s a stunning 12-minute production number called “The Melting Pot of Music” which closes the film and offers us an account of all the different sorts of music that allegedly found their way into “this exciting new rhythm — Jazz!” These include British march tunes, Italian serenades, Latin themes, Italian songs, Viennese waltzes and just about every other conceivable form of white European pop music. This rather skewed version of jazz’s origins has been a talking point about this movie ever since King of Jazz, long thought lost, was rediscovered in the 1980’s in a badly faded copy of the reissue print from 1933, which added three surprisingly racy comic sketches that hadn’t made the final cut in 1930 (one in which an anxious man asks his girlfriend’s father for permission to marry her, and when the father asks if they aren’t worried that they’ll have children before he’s financially well off enough to support him, the young man says, “Oh, we’ve been lucky so far,” and another in which a young couple receive word that their marriage was not legal. “That makes me a bachelor!” says the young man. “That makes me a spinster!” says the woman. “What are you complaining about? Look what that makes me,” says their baby, played by an adult in an oversized prop cradle) and are included in the version we watched last night (a new Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection) as “deleted scenes” and reduced the film from its original 105-minute running time to 90 minutes mostly by trimming the long on-screen intros to some of the numbers. 

Whteman took his band from New York to Hollywood to make the movie in January 1929 and the film didn’t get made until March 1930 because, to Whiteman’s astonishment, when he got there the writers at Universal hadn’t completed a script for the film. The band hung out there for several months doing nothing but making elaborate sound tests at Universal for the recording directors who had become the virtual dictators of Hollywood in the early days of the talkies — they made recording seem like an obscure, arcane art to which only they had the keys, and actors, directors and producers who’d never been involved with recorded sound before bought their we-know-it-all act. Whiteman, who’d been one of Americas best record sellers for nine years, didn’t, but he put up with the regime and probably rationalized, “At least we’re getting paid for this.” But when the pre-production and pre-pre-production processes on King of Jazz had lasted for months and the band members had got into trouble (Bing Crosby took a girl on a date one night, crashed his car, she was killed, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and, though he only served a one-month sentence, he was essentially work-furloughed, allowed to leave jail under guard to do his work on the film but then taken back into custody), Whiteman got a job offer from a New York nightclub. Worried that the band was getting stale from not having played before an audience for so long, he took the job and served notice to Universal that he wasn’t coming back until they had a finished script for him to shoot. During that time the plans for King of Jazz morphed from the original concept — a biopic of Whiteman with Ruth Etting playing his girlfriend (which Whiteman turned down because he knew his talents well enough to realize that acting — even playing himself — didn’t fall within them) — to a revue, a plotless musical that simply alternated songs, dances, production numbers and comedy sketches.

Alas, by the time King of Jazz was finished and ready for release, audiences were tired of musicals in general and revues in particular. MGM canceled a revue they were in the middle of shooting, The March of Time (though bits of it surfaced as clips in other features and stand-alone shorts like The Devil’s Cabaret), and King of Jazz — conceived in the free-wheeling economic boom times of 1929 and released at the start of the Great Depression, which couldn’t have helped it at the box office (in 1930 the highest-grossing movie released by any U.S. studio was Warner Bros.’ hard-edged gangster drama Little Caesar, a film about as different from King of Jazz as could be imagined) — was a huge flop and nearly bankrupted Universal. (What saved them was the enormous grosses they earned on two 1931 releases, the horror classics Dracula and Frankenstein.) King of Jazz was an unusually expensive movie because the entire film was made in the two-strip Technicolor process, at a time when shooting in color doubled the production cost of a film. I’ve long been a fan of two-strip — though it had severe limitations (notably, it could not photograph blue because blue has the shortest wave length of any color and the films used then weren’t sensitive enough to pick it up), at its best it had a harmonious, painterly elegance the more accurate but also more garish three-strip process that replaced it often did not (especially with Technicolor “consultants” riding herd on the filmmakers and demanding that the hues be as bright as possible). The colors two-strip Technicolor did best were salmon and turquoise, and those are the dominant colors in King of Jazz — though in that “Melting Pot of Music” finale the British soldiers are in bright red uniforms and the Irish tenor who sings “Killarney” is wearing the bright emerald-green jacket we would expect given the Pavlovian conditioning of Hollywood costumers and set designers that “Ireland = green.” The color scheme in this beautifully restored version of the film is beautiful, harmonious, painterly but also a bit monotonous, especially since the entire movie was filmed inside soundstages, the skies are clearly painted backdrops, and one wishes they could have gone outdoors for at least one sequence. 

In 1933 — after the huge popularity of Warners’ 42nd Street had reawakened public interest in musicals — the father and son team of Carl Laemmle, Sr. and Jr., who ran Universal reissued it with a new beginning title and a few tweaks to the comedy scenes as well as trims in the on-screen introductions to various numbers, thereby bringing the running time down to 90 minutes — and the film did better than it had in 1930 but still wasn’t a big enough hit to salvage the film career of its remarkable director, John Murray Anderson. Anderson had been hugely successful on the Broadway stage, mostly as director of the Ziegfeld Follies and other big revues (“The Melting Pot of Music” and some of the other King of Jazz numbers are based on concepts Anderson originally developed for his stage shows), and King of Jazz is full of sweepingly innovative production numbers including the sorts of overhead shots and tracking shots usually associated with Busby Berkeley (who was making his first film, Whoopee — also in two-strip Technicolor — while Anderson was filming King of Jazz, and who ripped off Anderson’s visual ideas for numbers in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933), staged on dazzling sets by Herman Rosse, an associate of Anderson’s from his stage work who won an Academy Award for his designs for King of Jazz. (I once mentioned that to Charles and he said Rosse was almost certainly the first person to win an Academy Award for a film that was entirely in color.) King of Jazz has some of the lacunae often associated with extensively “restored” films (including a few places where the soundtrack survived but black-and-white stills had to fill in for missing footage), though at least the people doing the restoration kept to the original two-strip color scheme instead of tweaking the colors to be more natural but less authentic for the process, but on the whole this is a great movie and the Criterion release does full justice to it.