KING OF JAZZ Gets the Royal Treatment

King of Jazz 1930

Tonight, New York City’s MOMA kicks off its series Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries (1928-1937) which, through June 15th, will highlight gems from Universal’s early sound catalogue. The festivities begin with the revival premiere of 1930’s King of Jazz. It is the first two-color Technicolor film to ever be digitally restored, and will be seen in its entirety for the first time since the early 1930s.  One the eve of tonight’s event, we were delighted to sit down with film historian David Pierce, one of the masterminds spearheading The King of Jazz’s restoration and revitalization

100 years ago, America was on the cusp of becoming what you and I recognize as “modern”. Oh sure, we already had electricity, and movies, and records, and cars, and nightclubs, and on and on. But it wasn’t until America was buoyed into the 1920s, jettisoned by the good ol’ Volstead Act (#sarcasm), that modern technological advances became inextricably married to culture. This symbiotic relationship between tech and taste, which defines our own existence on a daily basis here in the future, came into its own, for the first time, in the 1920s. This first truly modern decade was a white-hot blaze of new ideas on fashion, art, literature, sex, and perhaps most importantly, entertainment. Black and white was suddenly very grey indeed, and thanks to exponential advancements in technology, anything and everything seemed possible—just as it does today. For, if nothing else, the ’20s was a perfect marriage of talent and timing.

The movies, already popular in the teens, swept the world by storm in the 1920s and, by decade’s end, were inching closer toward replacing books as the most popular form of entertainment.  Along with the romantic sweep of celluloid dreams came another art form: jazz. Hot jazz. It was the ultimate one-two punch, for jazz filled the void that the movies couldn’t offer: sound.

paul whiteman orchestra
Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. The most popular band of the 1920s.

The 1920s were an embarrassment of musical riches. Duke Ellington, Jean Goldkette, Bix Beiderbecke, Fletch Henderson, George Olsen, Louis Armstrong, Ben Selvin … and the single most popular bandleader of the decade, Paul Whiteman. The music itself defies logic. Born at a time when America had never been as proper, as proprietary, as perfectly well behaved as it had ever been, jazz … well. Jazz something akin to making love for the first time. In the backseat of a car. (Note: If you’ve yet to dip your toes in the waters of ’20s jazz, beware the riptide. Riverwalk Jazz and The Red Hot Jazz Archive are there to carry you out to sea.)

And this is why it is so vital for us here in the 21st century to take a minute, put down our smartphones, and pay attention to a film that is, tonight at MOMA, receiving a curtain call nearly 90 years in the making. The film is a 1930 two-color Technicolor musical called The King of Jazz. (If you’ve never heard of two-color Technicolor, read on.) And while you won’t find King of Jazz on the AFI list of greatest movies (largely due to the fact that a copy has not been available that reflects the film as originally released), there’s definitely a reason why it was deemed “Historically Significant” by the Library of Congress and added to the Nation Film Registry in 2013. After being “lost” for decades, King of Jazz is once again making its splashy screen appearance and the audience is even riper for it today than it was decades ago.

The Retro Set was delighted to be able to speak with film historian and author David Pierce, ½ of the masterminds behind 2014’s 100 Years of Technicolor extravaganza, who graciously waxed poetic with us on all things talkies, Technicolor, and of course: jazz.

The Retro Set

For those of us who might not be aware, can you give us an historical sketch of what the culture was like in America, leading up to release of Universal’s King of Jazz in 1930?

David Pierce

When you think about it, nearly every genre from the silent era transitioned to sound. There were silent Westerns, there were sound Westerns. There were silent gangster films, there were sound gangster films.  Musicals were the only completely new, unique genre that sound movies brought into being. There was enormous enthusiasm that sound brought to the movies: first, hearing actors speak on the screen, then hearing songs introduced [for the first time], and then seeing full scale musical numbers. I mean, imagine never having seen a musical number ever before in your life! So it’s no surprise that those initial early musicals were huge financial successes. The successes lead to a real surge in the number of musicals, backstage musicals, etc., and then there was a format called the revue.

RS: How would describe a “revue”?

DP: Basically, a revue is a theatrical in which you have large scale musical productions, small scale specialty numbers, novelties, comedy teams. And some were big names, some were just vaudevillians. The first such “revue” was The Hollywood Revue of 1929—it was MGM’s biggest picture of the year. We’re not just talking about a successful film; we’re talking about a movie which was their big—

RS: –The movie that brought home the bacon.

DP: Yes.

RS: Obviously given that fact, there was a lot of money being invested in this genre.

DP: Yes, it looked like a sure-fire thing.

RS: So, just to recap, we have this whole late ‘20s musical craze going on, coinciding with the fact that hot jazz is at its zenith, with Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra being one of the most popular bandleaders on the planet, correct?

DP: Yes. Paul Whiteman’s band was the most popular band in the United States for the whole of the 1920s. Whiteman came from a musical family, his father taught music in Denver, and Whiteman was a very good musician, but he really excelled at putting his finger on the pulse of the music that the public wanted to hear. You can listen to a recording of a song by Whiteman, then listen to the same song by another band, and the difference is just … it’s so obvious. Whiteman hired very good musicians, he rehearsed extensively, and he hired top arrangers to take a tune and make it musically interesting.  He was musically talented, and his musical interests were very sophisticated and cutting edge –for his times. So he started off leading what we would think of as a “dance band,” and when he recognized that he wanted to move up, prestige wise, he rented a concert hall in New York and played a concert of “serious music.” Whiteman even commissioned serious artists– the centerpiece being George Gershwin. Then later in the 1920s Whiteman brought in black composers and arrangers, like Fats Waller, realizing that if he wanted to give the late 20s audience what it wanted, he had to “jazz” it up.

RS: Now, Whiteman has this unique position at the end of the ’20s as the most popular bandleader in the world, and … suddenly he has a movie vehicle called The King of Jazz. How did that develop, what was its genesis? Was he approached by Universal?

Paul Whiteman, right, mugs for the camera during filming of KING OF JAZZ.
Paul Whiteman, right, mugs for the camera during filming of KING OF JAZZ.

DP: Yes, by the end of 1928 the Whiteman band was peak: both in the musicianship, and their popularity in radio and live shows. They were approached by Universal to star in a musical film. Whiteman signed a contract in October 1928, and the film was to be completed by March of 1929.

RS: But…

DP: But, it ended up taking a year and half instead of six months. The film was actually in prep for a full year before cameras rolled.

RS: But, why?

DP: Again, it sounds like a good idea, but, you’ve got this bandleader who is not an actor. Universal gave Whiteman story approval and director approval.

RS: Uh oh.

DP: And Whiteman did not want to be romantic leading man. He did not want to be the genial bandmaster who got the boy and girl together. It took numerous scripts while Whiteman tried to get what he wanted and, as a result, Whiteman and his orchestra basically spent the summer in 1929 in Los Angeles on paid vacation. They had originally been working with director Paul Fejos, who directed the part-talkie Lonesome (1928), which is a fantastic film available on Criterion, by the way, but Whiteman said no.

Universal considered shutting down the picture and pay off everyone. So instead of doing a narrative, built around the orchestra, Hollywood Revue was released and became a hit, so Whiteman recommended a theatrical director from New York who made revues, named John Murray Anderson.

As a result, in October of 1928, Universal changed the direction of the film entirely. Anderson brought his team from New York, including a team of dancers who later became known as the Rockettes, and they went to Hollywood to put on a show. This change gave the Whiteman orchestra the chance to perform some new songs—and there are some really great songs in this film. Something else that’s interesting is that, in most films that feature an orchestra, it’s rare they play the song all the way though.

RS: Right, like all those Tommy Dorsey …

DP: Yes, the bands start playing and then the camera cuts to the stars having a conversation at their table in the nightclub. In King of Jazz, though, Whiteman’s orchestra is the star and plays the songs all the way through, and it’s fantastic.

RS: So with all this money behind the film, and with such a popular headliner, did King of Jazz become the hit Universal was banking on?

DP: Well, after starting filming a year after signing Whiteman, King of Jazz took four months to film at a time when most movies were shot in six weeks. So by the time the film came out in the late Spring of 1930, it had effectively missed the window for musicals. Audiences were tiring of the movie revue; the fad was fading. All the people who worked on the film felt that if it had come out a year earlier, it would have been an enormous success.

So the film was not hugely popular and Universal lost money on it, not a surprise given there was so much cost involved during prep.

RS: Well sure, you’ve a whole band living it up in Hollywood for a whole summer!

DP: Yes, and then all the overhead with script changes, and on and on. But it did do very well overseas. What was great for Universal, though, is that at the same time they were making King of Jazz, there was another film shooting at Universal City called All Quiet on the Western Front. They were in production at the same time and they were released just days apart. Both of those films were quite risky in their own ways, but the risk did pay off for All Quiet on the Western Front. Not so much with King of Jazz.

RS: So the film just slipped through the cracks and was forgotten about?

DP: Well, what happened was that in 1933 musicals came back into fashion, thanks to the huge success of 42nd Street. So two Technicolor musicals from 1930 were re-released to capitalize off it: Whoopee! with Eddie Cantor, and the other was King of Jazz. But the negative to King of Jazz was cut by a third, taking it from 105 minutes to 65 minutes. Also, unlike a lot of other movies, it was never released to television in the 1950s: it was a two-color Technicolor negative that was very hard to make copies from, and the film was basically unseen until the 1970s. The film resurfaced then in some museum showings, and Universal released it to VHS in the 1980s and 90s, but it was the shorter version of the film and the colors weren’t quite right.

King of Jazz
Paul Whiteman in KING OF JAZZ. Still from the 2016 restoration.

RS: So what happened between then and now?

DP: Well, Universal had its 100th anniversary in 2012 and they restored some of their old films and had very good response. And that laid the groundwork for taking a new look at King of Jazz. The film was named to the National Film Registry in 2013. So on Friday, May 13, at MOMA in New York is the premiere of the restoration.

RS: Like you said its been seen before, but this will be the first time it will be seen the way audiences saw it in 1930.

DP: Exactly.

RS: And you and your writing partner James Layton have a companion piece to this restoration in the form of a book, The King of Jazz. Now, I just have to say: you guys knocked the socks off everyone at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival with your Technicolor at 100 presentation. Everyone lost their mind over it, it was so amazing to see these gorgeous clips of two-color Technicolor.

DP: Yes, the audience response at the TCM festival was very rewarding. We wanted to do something special for TCM and we were able to digitize some nitrate prints that no one had ever seen before.

RS: And for those who don’t know, that presentation was created in conjunction with your book, The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915-1935. A beautiful piece of work we had the pleasure of reviewing last year and highly recommend. And so with King of Jazz, you have a similar format with a book being released later this year detailing the production and restoration of the film, which you have a Kickstarter campaign for.

DP: Yes. We cover the entire story of the film, from the background of the people involved through the restoration.

Universal has created the first digital restoration of a two color Technicolor feature film. Instead of a photochemical 35 mm restoration, they decided to do this all digital. And the Kickstarter campaign ends soon, on May 22nd.

John Boles in KING OF JAZZ
Side by side comparison of actor John Boles in the 2016 digital restoration of KING OF JAZZ (left) versus the VHS transfer from the 1980s.

RS: Now, a book of this depth is not something that happens overnight, so when did you and James start working on this?

DP: Well, after the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival presentation last May, I got an email from a friend who works at Universal, who mentioned that they were starting work on restoring King of Jazz. So James and I followed up with the studio and saw how exciting the material was.

RS: And one year later … David, one year is not a lot of time to put something of this magnitude together.

DP: [laughs] No it’s not. We kept coming across more information on the production of the film and there was a point we realized there was enough new information to write a book about the film.

RS: What kind of new information?

DP: Well, on the restoration side, all that information was provided from Universal and our interviews with their team. On the production of the film, we accessed Paul Whiteman’s personal papers at Williams College in Massachusetts, as well as the production designer’s papers, which are also at Williams College. And Richard Koszarski who has written an number of books on Hollywood cinema, including Hollywood on Hudson, had been doing research on Eric von Stroheim and at the same time his wife was researching King of Jazz. So they had created a lot of notes and Xeroxes from their time at the studio 40 years ago, as well as interviews with people who worked on the film. So between all those sources, including the trade magazines and such, we were able to put the entire story together.

Bing Crosby, center, with Harry Barris and Al Rinker in Paul Whiteman's "The Rhythm Boys"
Bing Crosby, center, with Paul Whiteman’s “The Rhythm Boys”

RS: Now, a very young Bing Crosby shows up in this film. Tell us about Bing and his time with Whiteman and his “Rhythm Boys”.

DP. So. The Whiteman band was so successful that afford to hire specialty singers, etc, and he hired Bing Crosby. The Rhythm Boys were a trio and sometimes the did vaudeville, sometimes they were a part of Whiteman’s show, and when Whiteman played on the radio, the Rhythm Boys were part of his on-air family. Early Crosby had a loose style; there were a lot of influences informing his vocals. He was very different than the formal, Rudy Vallee style of singing that was popular a bit later.

RS: And this is his first ever screen appearance.

DP: Yes, he’s in two numbers here, the most famous being Whiteman’s “Happy Feet.”

RS: Love that song! What’s another highlight that people should look out for in watching this film from the first time?

DP: Whiteman pre-recorded all of the musical numbers. He’d been involved in sound recording for ten years and engineers from Victor records were brought in specifically for this film. So the sound in the film is the best you’re going to hear from any of those early talkie musicals.

RS: Ah, it’s not so “tinny”?

DP: Right, it just has a wider dynamic range. And because they’re not playing live on the soundstage there’s a lot more control, so you’re really hearing the orchestra at the top of their game at high quality recording. And there are all these amazing performers from the New York stage and Vaudeville, like the Markette Dancers, interspersed throughout the film.

RS: For those of us who don’t live in New York, how do we see the film?

DP: That’s up to Universal. The film is available for booking at any theater that wants to show it. It’s making the festival circuit right now, it’ll be appearing at Capitol Fest in Rome New York and then Cinecon in Hollywood.

RS: Well good luck to you with it, I’m sure we’ll be seeing it in quite a few places! Now, before I let you go, I must ask you about your Media History Digital Library project! There are so many students of classic film out there who view this resource as being absolutely invaluable. Thank you so much for creating it and I have to ask … how do you do it!

DP: It’s been a very rewarding project. I love the old magazines, and we offer quality scans, can download anything you want, no restrictions. So, we get together with the libraries that hold these materials, and the Internet archive infrastructure does the scanning and holds the files, and then there are some people with financial resources who are willing to support the activity. So with Eric Hoyt, my partner in the project, we have been able to pull those pieces together.

RS: How can we get involved to help support these projects?

DP: The Media History Project has a donate button and if you want more than a PayPal donation, contact me via email and we can arrange something– we are 501 c 3 non profit. And then for King of Jazz, there’s the Kickstarter site, buy a copy of the book which will come out in September, or there are various other rewards.

RS: Thank you so much for your time, David, and thanks so much to you, and James Layton, for continuing to bring to light these forgotten gems from yesterday in such a consistently excellent, compelling, and entertaining way. The classic film community really needs you!

Help support the King of Jazz Kickstarter campaign today! And while you’re at it, take a listen to some of Paul Whiteman’s most classic compositions, available free over on Spotify.

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