King of Jazz (1930)

The King of Jazz (1930)

King of Jazz (1930). 105 minutes. Directed by Paul Fejos and John Murray Anderson. Starring Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, The Rhythm Boys (Bing Crosby, Al Rinker, Harry Barris), Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Willie Hall, Jeanie Lang, George Chiles, John Boles, Wilbur Hall, Al Norman, Jeanette Loff, Stanley Smith, The Russell Markert Girls, The Sisters G, Glenn Tryon, Laura LaPlante, and The Brox Sisters. Art direction by Herman Rosse. Animation by Walter Lantz and William Nolan.

The American King of Jazz, like the British Elstree Calling (1930), is a surviving musical revue from the early days of sound. Filmed in two-strip Technicolor, which emphasizes shades of turquoise and rose, it, unlike Elstree Calling, is a lavish production with impressive sets and gorgeous costumes. Herman Rosse, who created King of Jazz’s often remarkable visual style, won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction for his work on the film. King of Jazz was not successful upon its initial release but is notable today for the beauty of its production numbers, the participation of Paul Whiteman, and the performances by a young Bing Crosby as part of the three-part harmony ensemble The Rhythm Boys.

The movie, like other revues of its time, is an amalgam of song-and-dance numbers and comedy sketches. The sketches are brief and punchline-driven; they are typically cut in an abrupt fashion once the punchline is uttered. As is the case in Elstree Calling, some of them are about adultery, and strangely, two pertain to fish—I am not sure why. The standout for me was the women’s newspaper sketch, where lady reporters rapidly deliver stories to a news desk. The stories come faster and faster as reporters strive to deliver the most current news. I was not terribly amused by the drunk sketch, nor by the purported parody of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which actually seemed more like a parody of The Big Parade (1925). On the whole, audiences that are more accustomed to sketch comedy in the vein of Saturday Night Live and its progeny will probably find King of Jazz’s comedy routines strange and terse.

Of the musical performances, three particularly impressed me: “I Like to Do Things for You,” “Happy Feet,” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” These have the most accomplished melodies and are the most engagingly staged. In “I Like to Do Things for You,” we see several couples sing and dance together, but one in particular stands out. This couple likes to do, shall we say, unconventional things for each other—they punch each other, pull at each other’s clothes, and muss up each other’s hair and faces. I realize that this may sound violent, but their behavior is actually kinkier than it is abusive. In “Happy Feet,” Al Norman performs a rubbery, silly dance, and The Rhythm Boys (Bing Crosby, Al Rinker, and Harry Barris) sing wonderful three-part harmony. As part of this lavish and inventive number, we are also treated to a fascinating cityscape set through which skimpily dressed chorus girls dance. Also not to be overlooked is the beautiful art direction for Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” This symphonic piece is performed by Whiteman’s full orchestra, which emerges from a giant turquoise piano, flanked by feather-adorned dancers.

The movie suffers, like most revues of its kind, from a certain amount of ecstatic confusion. It is never clear why one act is followed by another, and switching attention rapidly among its heterogeneous elements can be overwhelming and tiring. I noticed that the Pacific Film Archive audience I saw the film with started off laughing and applauding with high energy but seemed to grow fatigued as the movie progressed. Still, the audience notably summoned the energy to respond with derisive laughter to some of the more bewildering performances, and I also found myself laughing where it was clear that this was not the intended effect. For example, in the “My Bridal Veil” number, a bride-to-be (Jeanette Loff) muses operatically on the antique veil she will wear at her impending nuptials, then apparently hallucinates as a parade of women (her ancestors?) parade through the parlor wearing ornate historical wedding gowns with elaborate head pieces and beaming child attendants. At the end, the camera cuts to Loff on her wedding day atop a giant staircase, trailing behind her the largest veil I have ever seen, with dozens of busy bridesmaids in tow to manage it. In the theater, the audience giggled bemusedly at this sketch. The “It Happened in Monterey” number, performed by John Boles in an extremely stiff and formal style, also garnered some chuckles.

But the finale took the cake. In it, the host explains that the United States and, by extension, jazz are melting pots of American culture. Accordingly, a giant steaming pot appears atop a staircase set, and one at a time, a group of performers in traditional European garb sing and dance along the stairs to the clichéd music of their particular culture, then are lowered into the melting pot. We see Scotch, Irish, Italian, Dutch, Russian, and Austrian performers submerge themselves in this way; no non-European cultures are included (interestingly, I also noted the absence of Germans). I have never much cared for the idea of the melting pot—having never wanted to climb into one literally, I cannot get accustomed to the idea of climbing into one figuratively, even for the benefit of my country. I think the image of individual cultural representatives actually descending into a boiling, bubbling cauldron while eerily grinning underscores how misguided this metaphor is.

Strange details like these aside, the film is a great opportunity to hear and see the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. You may or may not agree that the impresario Whiteman was the king of jazz, but then admittedly, even the movie has a bit of fun with this claim in its opening cartoon, where Whiteman is shown earning the appellation when a monkey drops a coconut on his head—it leaves him with a bump that morphs into a small and throbbing crown. Whiteman certainly was an important figure in jazz. He was not only responsible for commissioning the jazz-age “Rhapsody in Blue” from George Gershwin and for debuting this seminal work in 1924; he also discovered and nurtured some of the most important performers in early jazz. Among others, his line-up included violinist Joe Venuti and at one point legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, although the latter left Whiteman’s orchestra shortly before King of Jazz was made. Even without Beiderbecke, the orchestra’s performances in the movie are polished and lively, but unlike much of their recorded work, I would not call the majority of what they perform on screen jazz. Most of the songs, while syncopated, evoke Tin Pan Alley and fall under the category of popular commercial music. On the whole, evidence must be sought from outside of the film to make the case for Whiteman’s membership among jazz royalty.

Even if you are not fond of the music, seeing the movie just for its production values would be worthwhile. The art direction is gorgeous. Unlike other early two-strip Technicolor films such as the Eddie Cantor musical Whoopee! (1930), King of Jazz costumes its performers only in the shades of green-blue and red-orange that its limited Technicolor palette will pick up. Part of what makes the movie so impressive is that it is really the first two-strip film I have seen that looks as if it has deliberately chosen and is enthusiastic about its restricted color scheme. The quality of the costumes, from fabric to spangles to fringe, is conspicuously high, and the result is a production that looks very deliberate and expensive. Upon its release, the film was actually criticized in The New Movie for costing too much, which may have been true, but interestingly, we can actually see its (for the time) extravagant $2 million budget on the screen, and that is a treat.  King of Jazz, like so many of the early sound and color revues, is not about limitations but rather is a celebration of the possibilities of a new era, and its zeal is infectious.

A comprehensive list of the musical performances can be found here.