Friday, July 15, 2016

King of Jazz - Paul Whiteman's Picture at Last

For years, I was curious about King of Jazz, a two-strip technicolor film made in 1930, centered around the Paul Whiteman Orchestra with the leader serving as the master of ceremony in a revue musical.

Even though I had a VHS copy of the film in my possession, the awfully dim and faded colors, reduced to dirty browns and cheap watercolor reds, prevented me from watching it from beginning to end.

Now, thanks to a stunning and expensive restoration carried out by Universal, the film, which was a commercial flop at the time of its initial release, is back in circulation.

Restoration notes by James Layton and David Pierce:

"After years of being available in only poor quality and incomplete copies, Universal has digitally restored King of Jazz closer to its original form. Using the original soundtrack negative as a guide, the new restoration aims to recreate the film’s 1930 general release. The two-color Technicolor camera negative (cut for a 1933 reissue) was scanned at 4K resolution and then blended with additional footage from multiple dye-transfer prints. A small amount of missing footage has been reconstructed with stills over the original audio. For the first time in close to 85 years, audiences will be able to see and hear King of Jazz in a form more faithful to its original length, running order and visual quality.

King of Jazz was one of the most ambitious musicals ever to emerge from Hollywood...a unique mixture of the stage and screen – with no plot and nearly no dialogue – presenting an unparalleled cinematic interpretation of jazz music and stage spectacle.

At the time Paul Whiteman was at the peak of his celebrity, having recruited the country’s premier roster of jazz performers, including a young Bing Crosby on vocals. The rotund orchestra leader signed with Universal for an extraordinary $200,000, but the studio struggled to find an appropriate story. After two stalled attempts to make the film, first as a biopic, then as a backstage drama, Universal eventually settled on the revue form. At a total expense of $2 million, the film stood no chance of returning its costs. It performed poorly in the US – where musicals were no longer in demand – but found its audiences internationally, raking in $1.2 million."

It must be pointed that the existence of at least two different cuts of the film was due to both a poor box office and also the presence of Bing Crosby who at the time was a couple of years shy from stardom and when later he became popular, the studio decided to re-cut the film and reissue it as a Bing Crosby picture.

But aside from the art of restoration itself, King of Jazz still remains a disappointing, if lavish exercise.

If David Bowie was called "Rock 'n' Roll with lipstick on", this is definitely jazz with lots of lipstick, face powder, and eyeliners. Due to the unusual, experimental technicolor process, everybody has been bestowed with a pair of green eyes, even the blue-eyed Crosby. Furthermore, the Rhapsody in Blue number is materialized in green!

A scene from the restored version, courtesy of Universal Pictures

However, the most ironic thing about King of Jazz is that it has hardly any jazz in it. Most of the musical numbers are Broadway songs with heavy string orchestrations and sweetened arrangements. The exception to this rule is a brief number, showcasing Jo Venuti and Eddie Lang:

This is how the colors look in my VHS copy

Directed by John Murray Anderson, the film is tedious and lacks the entertaining values and the rigorous pace of Hollywood musicals we are accustomed to.

Yet, above all, the film manages to falsify the history by systematically leaving the Afro-Americans out of the picture. Even in an extravagant musical number explaining the melting pot nature of jazz, when every type of music is included (even Russian music and Scottish bagpipe), not a single shot of the creators of what has given the film its title is shown. If rewriting history for the benefit of Hollywood glamour doesn't bother you, you might find some of the numbers innovative and the overall experience fun.

Further reading: J. Hoberman on King of Jazz at the New York Times.

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