‘The King of Jazz’ Was on the Cutting Edge of 1930s Film Tech
[if ! lte IE 8] ENLARGE [endif]
A scene from John Murray Anderson’s ‘The King of Jazz’ (1930). Photo: Courtesy NBCUniversal
June 7, 2016 5:50 p.m. ET [if ! lte IE 8] [endif]
In the 21st century, the cutting edge of cinematic technology is continually being pushed forward to depict superheroes fighting aliens and giants, or, perhaps, a jungle boy living with lions and tigers and bears. But try to imagine a moment in our cultural history when the latest techniques of the movie magicians were put in the service of singing and dancing. Such a vintage Hollywood musical is having its final screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on June 14, before moving on to venues around the country and the world.
“The King of Jazz” was the brain child of, and directed by Broadway veteran John Murray Anderson in 1930. The industry had only recently converted from silent to talking pictures at that time and color movies were even newer than that (well before the modern, three-strip process was perfected). It’s a musical revue built around the most popular bandleader of the era, Paul Whiteman, when jazz itself had been around for less than a generation and the idea of playing jazz in the large ensemble format of a concert orchestra was a very recent development.
Every aspect of the movie was innovative, from the orchestration techniques of the band’s arrangers to George Gershwin ’s 1924 “Rhapsody in Blue.” So was the idea of pre-recording the musical performances, and even Russell Market ’s high-precision choreography was like nothing most audiences had seen before. From an animated color cartoon prologue to a miniaturized orchestra emerging from a giant suitcase and bewitched shoes dancing without benefit of feet, everything smacked of newness.
Today this 86-year-old movie is again on the cutting edge, this time of digital restoration techniques. To bring the picture and sound back to their original glory, the experts at Universal Pictures’ digital restoration unit drew from a wide range of prints, negatives and soundtracks. Now theatrical audiences can see what hasn’t been seen since 1930.
In the late 1920s, Broadway, at the height of its pre-Depression opulence, was enamored of the revue format, and virtually all the major Hollywood film studios produced Ziegfeld-style revues—songs, dances and brief comedy sketches—to show off their own stars without long-form narrative. As James Layton and David Pierce show in their forthcoming book “King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue,” the film derives from the parallel careers of two extravagant showmen: Whiteman, the superstar bandleader, and John Murray Anderson, a flamboyant Broadway auteur who specialized in thoughtful and imaginative song-and-dance spectacles.
The heart of “King of Jazz” is Whiteman’s orchestra—the band’s legendary cornetist, Bix Beiderbecke, had already left, alas, but there’s amazing footage of the violin and guitar virtuosi Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, as well as of the soon-to-be-superstar singer Bing Crosby, then ensconced in the band’s vocal group, the Rhythm Boys. Anderson and Whiteman contrived to make “King of Jazz” a feast for the eyes and ears, and they succeeded.
The original release of the film did less well than Universal was expecting, since American moviegoers were beginning to tire of the musical genre after a surfeit of song-and-dance epics, though it made more money overseas. The movie was re-released in truncated form in 1933, but soon became a semi-lost film—there hasn’t been a good print in circulation in over 80 years. (The film historian William K. Everson owned a copy that, as he once told me, had formerly belonged to the personal collection of none other than Benito Mussolini. )
One of Anderson’s more infamous sequences is a musical number depicting the “melting pot” of American music, which includes—among other international musical icons—Irish harpists, Viennese waltzers and dark-eyed Balalaika-strumming Volga boatmen, but no trace of any African elements. Also disturbing to modern eyes is the film’s introduction to “Rhapsody in Blue.” Here, Whiteman does tell us that “jazz was born in the African jungle, to the beating of the voodoo drum,” but this leads into a prologue in which the white dancer Jacques Cartier dances to a so-called primitive beat (in reality, these are some highly sophisticated polyrhythms), nearly naked except for full-body black makeup. Make no mistake: ”The King of Jazz” is an artifact of its time—and tells us more about Broadway than it does about its titular musical genre—but no less valuable for that.
Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for the Journal.