TFTMM on… King of Jazz (1930)

Here is my inaugural note in my series of “Thoughts From The Music(al) Man on,” featuring the 1930 movie “King of Jazz.” This movie is a musical revue. Otherwise translated, there is no plot. AT ALL. The movie is a series of songs and dances mainly featuring the music of Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, with brief comedy skits in between some of the segments, and at least one “host” to introduce some of them. The movie was released in 1930, and at that time, it bombed (a combination of behind the scenes problems with directors and what they wanted to do with this film, and the fact that musicals of this nature were out of favor by the time the movie came out). It was re-released a few years later, although substantially cut by nearly 40 minutes.

There are different aspects of the film that might seem weird to everybody now. Most of us are well-used to movies that look and sound great, but this movie is an early sound film, and a VERY early example of a color movie that then used “two-color technicolor.” Because of what that technology could (and could not) do, this movie does not look quite as natural as most of us are currently used to, but the most recent restoration (which is what I have) is a rare exception of a movie that used that technology still surviving, for the most part. Due to the cuts, which were made to the original camera negative (particularly at a time when they did NOT save everything), the movie has been pieced back together over the years from what they have been able to find (currently about 98 minutes out of the original 105). Some moments still exist with sound but no picture (so still images have been used) (most of these are just intros to the segments). There are moments of jumps where frames are missing, and sometimes a brief still is used if a second or two is missing. It can be slightly jarring, but they did the best with what they could.

Now, on to the movie itself. As I said, it is a revue featuring the music of Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. The movie starts with an animated segment (possibly the first cartoon in color), and for those who know who he is, it features a brief cameo of the then Universal-owned character Oswald The Lucky Rabbit (earlier created by Walt Disney, although by this time was out of his hands). The rest of the movie is live-action, featuring a number of singers, most prominently Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys (which counted among its members the then 26-year-old at the time of filming Bing Crosby making his movie debut), and some dancers as well. The dancers best remembered now were the Russell Market Dancers, or as they are known now, the Radio City Rockettes (of course, some of the members have changed in the last 90 years 😉 ).

I personally enjoyed this movie. I do think the mileage anybody gets out of it may vary, but generally I would say that, for most, the first viewing would be to watch the entire movie and then figure out from there what bits and segments appeal to them, and then on later viewings you can skip the stuff you dislike with ease and not miss anything. For me, the comedy bits between some of the segments mostly fall flat, but they are VERY short (which might admittedly be part of the problem, since some of them feel so short as to make you wonder why they even spent the money to film them). The music that the movie centers around is certainly going to affect how everybody enjoys the movie, because obviously if you don’t like Paul Whiteman’s version of jazz, then you may not like the movie (and I have certainly seen some argument as to whether what he did even was jazz). For me in particular, I enjoyed four segments a little more than the others.

One I enjoyed was the first spot that prominently featured the Rhythm Boys. The main allure was Bing Crosby. At this point, I have seen a large number of his movies, and in spite of the fact that he was making his debut here, not to mention that he really wasn’t acting, I could still see some of the charm and style that I have come to see in a lot of the movies he made later. I think I might have recognized one of the other two in the trio from some other movies, but I don’t think he ever managed more than bit parts, if anything.

Another segment I enjoyed featured featured Paul Whiteman’s trombonist, Wilbur Hall. His segment featured him playing on the violin and the bicycle pump. It really has to be seen to be believed, ESPECIALLY how he plays the violin. I think at least some of his performance is on YouTube, so check out if you can.

The “Ragamuffin Romeo” segment was another one I enjoyed. I admit, it is the main evidence of the fact that this is a pre-Code (otherwise translated, before the movies were censored), a fact I am not fond of, although I’ll admit it seems tame compared to what has been done after the movies stopped censoring themselves in the 60s. What I do like, however, is the dancing (I’m still repairing the floors that my jaw went through when it dropped). The lifts are just insane! My own opinion here after watching it is that some of the most interesting dancing in the movies occurred in the thirties (I am not fluent enough in the films of the late 20s, since I have seen very few), and it is generally not the leads who did some of the most interesting dancing, but (I’m assuming) vaudeville performers doing bit pieces for a few minutes (which is sad, since I know vaudeville was dying out about that time due to the advent of sound in movies). There should be a YouTube video, so, again, watch it if you can.

The last segment I enjoyed was the “Happy Feet” song. It featured the Rhythm Boys singing it, some dancing by “Rubber Legs” Al Norman, and of course the Rockettes (excuse me, I mean the Russell Market Dancers for the purpose of this movie). Probably the song I most enjoyed from this movie!

I am writing about this movie based on The March 2018 Blu-ray/ DVD release from Criterion, which uses the most recent restoration of this movie. So far, it is the only disc release of the new restoration, and I know Criterion releases tend to be a bit more expensive, so I would definitely suggest this movie more so as something you either rent or stream (I have no idea if you can buy the digital copy, since the movie is owned by Universal and they licensed it out to Criterion, and licenses rarely come with digital copies). I do highly recommend the movie, though, so if you get a chance to see it, please do!

My Rating: 8/10

Audience Rating:

https://www.amazon.com/King-Jazz-Criterion-Collection-Blu-ray/dp/B078FFX78J/ref=as_li_ss_tl?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1539264816&sr=1-1&keywords=king+of+jazz+criterion+blu+ray&linkCode=ll1&tag=thoughtsfr066-20&linkId=9bb1f0186bf918545e2e4c49fa71997e&language=en_US

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