Reviews and notes
Festivals (digitally restored version):
2016 London, Chicago
An early movie musical showcasing Paul Whiteman and his orchestra sounds like a simple proposition, but King of Jazz
(1930) is a strange beast In lurid two-strip Technicolor, this revue-style musical whips through a series of flashy musical numbers, lightning-fast skits and even an animated sequence set in "darkest Africa". It's a lavish affair, if stagy, and features such familiar names as John Boles, Bing Crosby (in his first screen appearance) and silent comedienne Laura La Plante. The red-and-green palette does begin to grate after a while, as does the humour and oddly stilted, perky tone. Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr at Universal for an estimated $2 million, this is an awesome spectacle, though, representing musical-theatre legend John Murray Anderson's sole directorial credit on film. King of Jazz
is never less than fascinating — right up to and including the notorious "melting pot" finale, in which music from all nations is performed and popped into a cauldron to produce all-American jazz. That this jazz soup contains flamenco, bagpipes and an English hunting party singing D'ye Ken John Peel?
but not a single musician of colour is a mind-boggling reminder that white America's idea of jazz was very different then. The most challenging number is surely the rendition of George Gershwhin's Rhapsody in Blue
, requiring a shade that two-strip Technicolor could not achieve.
- Pamela Hutchinson, Sight and Sound, September 2018.
Released a year into the Great Depression, the 1930 musical revue King of Jazz
was a major flop. The poor box-office showing nearly crippled Universal Studios and exiled the movie to obscurity and neglect, only to be restored nearly a century later thanks to an ever-growing cult of devoted film lovers. And watching the newly minted version of this big-screen variety show, it’s easy to see where the adulation comes from. Shot in two-strip Technicolor by Broadway mainstay John Murray Anderson, King of Jazz
remains a visual wonder, complete with extravagant dance routines, creative special effects, and even the first-ever Technicolor cartoon, directed by Walter Lantz, who would go on to create Woody Woodpecker.
Following the format of other movie revues - meaning, King of Jazz
is a collection of musical numbers by a variety of acts, interspersed with short comedic skits - Anderson builds his film around Paul Whiteman, an esteemed band leader, utilizing his orchestra and other stage acts that performed with them. Notable among these is the Rhythm Boys, featuring a young Bing Crosby, here making his film debut. Anderson’s conceit is that we are peering into Whiteman’s impressive scrapbook of musical history, with each new song or performance being a turn of a page.
This could have meant for a rather stodgy presentation, but the impressive thing about this early movie musical is how Anderson and the performers alter their acts to fit the cinema screen, rather than playing for the stage. For instance, in the “My Ragamuffin Romeo” number, we witness the dangerous physicality of the dance up close, with the male dancer (Don Rose) tossing the female dancer (Marion Stadler) like the ragdoll she’s meant to be playing. Her head comes dangerously close to the floor on multiple occasions, and the thrill here is how her limber agility makes us fear for her well-being. In a live theater, they might have been able to play it safer, the distance of the audience aiding their illusion; on film, no such cheat would work.
As joyous a viewing experience as King of Jazz
may be, new audiences should likely adjust their expectations. Most likely the music here will not fit your preconceived notion of what classifies as jazz. Whiteman’s Orchestra represents the most mainstream of mainstream jazz from the time, a kind of orchestral take on the Big Band model. The band-leader’s position as “King” is highly dubious, and one can’t wonder how aware the filmmakers were of that at the time, given that the cartoon segment meant to explain how he got the name ends on the joke that it’s based on a crown-shaped bump that grows after Whiteman is conked on the head. The irony of the King of Jazz
being a dude named “White man” - who looks like Oliver Hardy’s less hip older brother - will be lost on few, and it’s impossible not to notice that very few people of color - a Mexican singer and a little African American girl - appear in the movie. Or that a dancer photographed in the dark, his features hidden by costume and make-up, performs a “voodoo” number. Or that the final number features a bunch of different European cultures jumping into a melting pot, emerging as one shade of gold, to form American music.
That said, the quality of performance is unimpeachable, and Paul Whiteman’s bonafides are pretty secure. The conductor did do a lot to popularize the culture and give a showcase to many talented performers. Perhaps most impressive, though, is that George Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in Blue
for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, and the legendary tune is reprised here on a fantastic set piece, featuring a piano so big that it fits the full orchestra inside it and requires five different stand-ins for Gershwin to cover all the piano keys. It’s here that you can really start to see how King of Jazz
is a snapshot of the time, capturing a theatrical collective that might have otherwise been lost to the ages.
- Jamie S. Rich, Criterion Confessions, 30 March 2018.
Undertaken by Universal Pictures, this new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on Oxberry, Scanity, and ARRI film scanners from the 35mm nitrate original camera negative and three 35mm prints. The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from a 35mm optical soundtrack negative. Picture and sound restoration was performed by NBCUniversal StudioPost in Los Angeles. Film evaluation, scanning, and recombine were performed at YCM Laboratories in Burbank, California; Cineric in New York; and Prasad Corporation in Chennai, India.
The film was shot in early two-strip Technicolor and some of its native limitations are quite prominent. The absence of primary blue and bluish nuances for instance clearly contributes to some of the mild flatness that emerges during select panoramic shots, while elsewhere clarity feels less than optimal. Density levels also tend to fluctuate, though in this case the nature of the surviving elements that were used to create the new master are primarily responsible for the unevenness. Predictably, grain exposure is also affected. Image stability is good, but there are some missing frames and a few shaky transitions. A few tiny specks and even smaller black dots remain as well. Overall, this is a good organic presentation of the film with some unavoidable minor inherited limitations.
The audio is stable and nicely rounded, never exhibiting any signs of troubling deterioration. There are no stability issues to report either. Overall dynamic intensity is also surprisingly good, though you should not expect a strong range of nuanced dynamics. There are no pops, audio dropouts, or digital distortions to report.
- adapted from Blu-ray.com, 25 March 25 2018.
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