03rd Sep2018

‘King of Jazz’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Paul Whiteman, John Boles, The Rhythm Boys, Laura La Plante, Jeanette Loff | Written by Harry Ruskin | Directed by John Murray Anderson

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John Murray Anderson’s sole foray into cinema was this lavish revue, released in 1930. It missed the zeitgeist and bombed at the box office and Anderson retreated to the theatre thereafter. Like many a sketch show, the quality of its content is highly variable. Some of it is starkly dated – and some of its omissions are highly questionable – but as a time capsule it’s a fascinating piece of cinema (not least because it’s the film debut of a certain Bing Crosby). The film is presented by an MC and is comprised of music and dance performances, along with comedy skits. While fixed firmly in the stage tradition, it comes across as an early showcase for the possibilities of cinema, most obviously in its liberal use of close-up. In some ways the episodes are the original music videos, with very little in the way of narrative connective tissue and musicians playing directly to camera. Audiences had never been closer to the players and instruments.

King of Jazz is shot using Technicolor’s “two-colour” method, which is as limited as it sounds, but also mesmerising and oddly dreamlike. (If nothing else, it really brings out the rouge and lipstick on women and men alike.) Given the film’s quickfire structure, if you don’t care for a particular piece of music there’ll be something different along in a minute. And the music isn’t the trad jazz we might think of today; “symphonic jazz” is the phrase Whiteman used. This big, mad medley opens with a cartoon, from the creator of Woody Woodpecker – a delight for modern-day Cuphead fans – before switching to live action, and the introduction of the portly Mr Whiteman himself. He presents his band: forty guys inside a tiny carry bag. It’s the first of several truly impressive, perspective-bending SFX ideas peppering the film.

The set design is consistently stunning. One early setpiece involving a bride is a glorious work of Burtonesque gothic. Equally lavish is the set for “A Bench in the Park”, one of several episodes to feature the popular harmony group The Rhythm Boys (that’s where Bing comes in). This particular piece also includes The Brox Sisters, looking distinctly uncomfortable. Still, it’s one in a series of show-stoppers – the money is certainly up there on the screen. Inevitably, the centrepiece of the show is George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” – even if, in literal terms, the two-colour method renders it silver and teal. It’s a great segment with a timeless piece of music, and it features a lovely moment where the band rises out of a giant grand piano.

If the music is too dated for your tastes then there’s always the dancing. My personal favourites are the introduction to the ladies chorus line, where the group does an entire routine sitting down using just their legs; and later there’s “My Ragamuffin Romeo”, which includes a dizzyingly dance duet of still-impressive athleticism. This being a pre-Code work of boundless imagination, there are numerous trippy moments to enjoy, like when two faces sing on a mirror, creating four faces, all hopping between English and German. Elsewhere, chorus girls dance through a meticulously recreated miniature Times Square; and at one point Whiteman’s face appears in the moon, Georges Méliès style. A deliberately butchered rendition of the song “Nellie” reminds us that the Old West was a living memory for many viewers of the time, before “Song of the Dawn” plunges us fully into that era, and features some unusually sophisticated camera moves tracking into John Boles’ face.

Alas, age withers some elements more than others, and the comedy sections in particular have not held up. “All Loud on the Eastern Front” is a one-joke skit about a woman in wartime, and a series of soldiers showing up and asking, “Have you been true to me?” In another tedious scene, a drunk man rants about a goldfish. Also dated is the representation of Whiteman’s wife, who is disturbingly childlike. “I’d like to do things for you…” she squeaks in her Shirley Temple voice. This is juxtaposed against another couple singing the same lyrics – except this time it’s an abusive wife and her effeminate husband. Bad jokes layered on bad jokes.

But the worst joke of all is the climactic musical medley, “Melting Pot”, which purports to represent the global nature of jazz. “America is a melting pot of music,” the titles read, “wherein the melodies of all nations are fused.” By all nations they mean America and Western Europe, of course. Eerywhere from Ireland to Holland is included in a procession of traditional music and instruments from each country. A jazz film without a single African-American? That’s right, folks. It’s a reminder that, for all the pizzazz on show, the lack of diversity dates the film into a deserved curio-only status. Mind you, it’s a wonder we can see such a curio at all. Its production troubles were legendary, as the film passed through the hands of numerous directors. Then there was the issue of Whiteman not wishing to act. The whole shebang was over-budget and ultimately too late. By the time the film was released, audiences were well over the revue craze.

King of Jazz’s negatives were believed to be lost, until the 1960s when collectors and archivists began piecing it back together. The result is that the picture quality is highly variable – some shots and entire segments are missing, with photos and voiceover in their place – but its existence is a miracle nonetheless. If nothing else, this makes the film a tainted treasure. On a technical level, even if it never fully attempts to shake off its theatrical roots, it shows great sophistication. But most casual filmgoers will find it horribly dated, in quaint and sometimes more sinister ways. It may not have blackface, but its lack of black faces is nearly as offensive, given the subject matter.

Extras:

  • Interview with Gary Giddins, film and jazz critic
  • Interview with Michael Feinstein, musician and pianist
  • Video essays from authors James Layton and David Pierce
  • Four deleted scenes
  • “All Americans”, a short from 1929
  • “I Know Everybody and Everybody’s Racket”, a short from 1933
  • Two Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons

King of Jazz is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.

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