King of Jazz

Studio: Criterion

Mar 16, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Released on April 20th, 1930, The King of Jazz was a grandiose, color musical at a time when both color and sound were both relatively new sensations in film. Shot without sync sound, with the singers and musicians lip-synching and mugging to a soundtrack amplified across the soundstages, it’s something of a bridge between silent films and talkies. The sound is off just enough, the color tones produced by the Process 3 Technicolor just far enough from real life to appear almost illusory. The King of Jazz has that magical, gauzy quality provided only by a few movies from Hollywood’s classical era. Watching it now, in Criterion’s 4K, restored Blu-ray edition, it can feel like you’re peering into a dream from almost a century ago.

Our film’s King of Jazz is Paul Whiteman, a now-largely forgotten bandleader and violinist who a big role in popularizing a symphonic style of jazz among the American public. In hindsight, a plump white guy with a tiny pencil moustache describing himself as the “King of Jazz” seems ridiculous and is a large part of the reason he’s been pushed into the footnotes of jazz history, but this was the era of segregation, and Whiteman’s larger-than-life persona were what it took to bring rhythmic music to the (white) masses. (While his mainstreaming of jazz elements looks a lot like appropriation, Whiteman did have a deep respect for the black artists he lovingly ripped off, and employed them behind-the-scenes where he could get away with it.) In 1930, the rotund conductor was as big a celebrity as Jay-Z or Justin Timberlake. Something like Alfred Hitchock with a baton, he was the face of an entire musical style, and the small army of talented musicians at his command. At the height of his popularity, Whiteman’s band included legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, violinist Joe Venuti, guitarist Eddie Lang, and crooner Bing Crosby. (The latter four feature in The King of Jazz.)

Universal Pictures handed Whiteman carte blanche and roughly $2 million dollars (in 1929!) to produce his own grand, Hollywood musical. With the help of legendary Broadway producer John Murray Anderson and art director Herman Rosse (who designed the sets for the studio’s beloved monster features), Whiteman put together a variety show for the ages.

The King of Jazz is comprised a many, many independent segments, loosely connected by a narrator or introductions from Whiteman himself. (Each piece, no matter how small, gets its own title card with credits.) These range from seconds-long pieces of sketch comedy, to lengthy musical compositions and elaborate dance numbers. There’s even an animatd cartoon from future Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz. Almost every one of these bits – well, maybe not the non-musical comedy skits – is memorable in its own way. Whiteman, Anderson, and company went as far as they possibly could to squeeze maximum spectacle into each frame, from the overabundance of chorus girls to the ornate sets, swooping crane shots, innumerable costumes, and fancy optical effects. Technicolor couldn’t yet accurately reproduce every color, but they damn well made grand use of every color they could. The King of Jazz is as decadent as movies get, not by 1930’s standards, but by any standards. It’s so rich an full of variety, it’s impossible that anyone who genuinely loves oldschool Hollywood movies will walk away from it not feeling drunk on its pageantry.  

The extra features on Criterion’s Blu-ray are nearly as essential as the film itself, providing context for the film and its performers through numerous video essays and a full-length commentary. Also included are deleted scenes and an alternate opening sequence, two Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons and a 1933 short featuring Whiteman and his band, and a 1929 stage version of the movie’s finale number shot in Astoria, Queens.

www.criterion.com/films/29389-king-of-jazz




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Barry Rivadue
March 21st 2018
8:10am

Nice review. If anything, Paul Whiteman looked a lot like Oliver Hardy with a baton!  :)

Matthew
March 24th 2018
7:17am

Hay author, work on your grammar .