The King of Jazz (1930)

I always forget how hectic August becomes. Probably because I’m usually fixated on just surviving July.

Local Government: Artist’s Interpretation

As some of you know, I put a bit of bread on my table by working tech support at City government meetings, usually meaning sound, sometimes camera. August is the end of the fiscal year, so there’s a lot of budget crunching. Politicians like to be on the TeeVee, so damn near everything must be televised. Ergo, I get a lot of extra work in August. Whereas the money is extremely welcome, there is nothing that clears away the movie malaise I spoke of last time, like hearing a politician going off on the same subject a third time while the legal department tries once more to explain to them why something is being done the way it is being done.

Look, I already know I’m not going to get to watch every movie I want, or read every book, and I begin to actively resent anybody who willfully steals more of my dwindling hours on earth.

That is a major portion of the reason for my absence from this digital page; another is the approach of October, and the return of the traditional Hubrisween event. I am usually much further along on that project, and its time to buckle up, down, or under, or whatever the appropriate figure of speech might be. TL;DR: don’t expect anything on a regular basis from me until October, when you’re going to get heartily sick of me.

That being said, I actually managed to watch a movie! I did something!

Who…? What…?

Criterion recently put out a blu-ray of 1930’s The King of Jazz. Now, I’m nowhere near as knowledgeable about film as I’d like to be, so Criterion putting out a movie I’ve never heard of is not unusual. On top of that, I’m not an aficionado of jazz, but I could have sworn that the King of Jazz was somebody like Duke Ellington. But, you know, it’s Criterion, so it’s going to be worth a watch on some level.

The King of Jazz, in this case, is Paul Whiteman. As mentioned earlier, I’m not a particular fan of jazz – I find it listenable, by and large, but other musical genres are closer to my heart. So I’d never even heard of Paul Whiteman. Since my viewing, I’ve done some research. He was quite popular in the 20s and 30s, where he picked up the sobriquet, and still has some renown as a band leader and musical arranger. His was the orchestra that premiered Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, and that orchestra was the farm team for musicians like the Dorseys, Benny Goodman, and and Bix Biederbecke. The aforementioned Duke Ellington speaks well of him. Jazz, as we have come to know it today, has a lot to do with improvisation; the jazz that Whiteman is monarch of is best described as “syncopated dance music”. Perhaps literally, white man’s jazz.

Not the King of Jazz I was expecting.

Hollywood had been trying to do a Paul Whiteman movie for years, with various starts and stops. This was apparently going to be a typical romantic comedy with musical interludes, but after many delays John Murray Anderson took over and made it a revue, complete with comedy blackouts and a cartoon. It’s an early two-strip Technicolor movie, and that opening cartoon is the first in that process; it’s made by Universal’s house animator, Walter Lantz, which animation mavens will instantly deduce from Oswald the Lucky Rabbit’s cameo.

The King of Jazz cost $2 million to make – and that’s two million in 1930 dollars – and was a colossal flop. After The Jazz Singer broke movies’ silence in 1927, there was an absolute glut of musicals. By this time, ticket buyers were sick of them, and apparently they absolutely hated revues. Which is too bad, because – much as I hate musicals – I actually wound up enjoying King of Jazz. The music is quite good, but it’s the audacity of the visuals – most of them quite trippy to my jaded eyes – that take it over the top.

Wait… where’s the King?

The first big number is “My Bridal Veil”, where a young bride, on the eve of her wedding, witnesses a costume parade of brides from every period of time. This is some gothic romance woman-in-nightgown-running-from-spooky-manse-with-one-light-on-in-the-upper-story stuff, but it’s played for pure spectacle and sentiment. One reviewer has mentioned it primarily exists for the elderly people in the audience. On the cusp of elderly myself, I can safely say that what 1930 needed was either more heavy metal or more techno.

One of the prize gems in Whiteman’s crown, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is introduced by several men playing a giant grand piano; the lid raises, and the orchestra is lifted up from within the piano (there is a lot of that 2 million on the screen).

“Ragamuffin Romeo” is an impressive contortionist dance number with a beggar putting together a girlfriend from scraps of fabric. It impresses mainly as a tribute to dancer Marion Stattler’s acrobatic abilities and flexibility.

John Boles was Universal’s big male vocalist at the time, and he gets a couple of solos, but the singer you’re going to notice – if you didn’t notice him in the Rhapsody clip above – is in Whiteman’s vocal trio, The Rhythm Boys – a very young Bing Crosby. In fact, Crosby was going to get one of what was ultimately Boles’ solos – “The Song of the Dawn” – but der Bingle was in jail for drunk driving at the time of filming.

The big final production number is perhaps the most egregious to modern eyes – every single form of white music in the world – from Scottish bagpipes to Spanish flamenco to Russian balalaikas (and their associated dancers) are lowered smiling into an enormous boiling cauldron and out of that soup Whiteman conjures – jazz music.

I am frankly skeptical of this origin story.

(The color here is sadly inferior to the new remastered version, but what do you want from YouTube?)

It’s 1930, and though Whiteman wanted to use black musicians, this was not allowed. There is only one person of color in the entire movie, a little girl in traditional pickaninny garb who is used, not actually as a punch line, but more a punctuation mark (There is one dancer used to illustrate African rhythm who is not actually black – it’s Frenchman Jacques Cartier, wearing a black lacquer of his own invention). Whiteman though, is so affable and self-effacing throughout, it’s hard to hold this or that odd misbegotten musical ancestry number against him.

Walter Brennan, comedian.

The comedy blackouts are mercifully brief (the comic songs are longer and much worse) but the best things about them is one of the actors: If you thought he was perpetually a dried-up old coot, here’s Walter Brennan at 36 years of age:

Okay, one last clip. If “My Bridal Veil” was for the elderly, “Happy Feet” was for the kiddos, featuring the Rhythm Boys and Al “Rubber Legs” Norman:

To show how spoiled I was by Criterion’s blu-ray, I feel like I have to keep apologizing for the quality of those clips – for a movie I didn’t even know existed a month ago. Before, they would been delightful to run across, a “huh, wow” experience. Instead, I’ll just leave you with this New Zealand preview for the restoration, which gives you a far better idea of the quality of Criterion’s blu-ray.

2 Comments

  1. Wow. I recall stumbling across a clip of this a while back and as it was late at night, I didn’t bookmark the page, didn’t note the title and forgot all about it until now. Thanks for that, as I can now put this on that too long list of stuff to see in a restored form.

  2. I don’t care how limber she was– the sort of accelerations Marion Stattler was experiencing are going to make for a sore neck.

    Curiosity compelled me to look her up on IMDB, and this is her only entry. “Oh no! IT KILLED HER!” cries imagination before noticing that she lived into the current century. *whew*


Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.