Director Lloyd Bacon and choreographer Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street has rightfully been heralded as a masterpiece, but less can be said for the film that inspired it: John Murray Anderson’s King of Jazz (1930). One of the last of the early revues, it was lost in the shuffle as the Hollywood musical’s first iteration gasped its last breathe.
By 1930, the musical genre was DOA. A year after the release of Harry Beaumont’s poorly staged, poorly recorded, poorly acted, yet undeniably groundbreaking The Broadway Melody of 1929, the novelty of musical pictures had worn off for most audiences and critics. Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of a string of awful musical revues—exhibitions of musical numbers, vaudeville acts, comedy bits, and dance sequences with no plot to speak of—that swamped the market. Audiences were so exhausted that the musical wouldn’t recover until three years later with the kaleidoscopic 42nd Street which blended the best of Broadway showmanship with cinematic pyrotechnics: bird’s eye shots, crane shots, weird frame compositions, geometric dance choreography, and more.
A revue centered on Paul Whiteman—the most popular bandleader of the 20s and early 30s, The King of Jazz is an at times uneven yet inspired milestone in the evolution of American cinema. Filmed in luscious two-strip Technicolor, it boasted the largest and most expensive indoor set yet made, complete with a gigantic moveable platform operated by hydraulic pillars. It was tonally inconsistent, chaotic, and at times downright bizarre. And yet from this maelstrom came a film from which Bacon and Berkeley took almost all of their artistic, technical, and aesthetic cues for 42nd Street. Thanks to a recent rerelease of the film by the Criterion Collection, there has never been a better opportunity for a new generation of audiences to familiarize themselves with this lost classic.
The King of Jazz focus on Paul Whiteman as a jazz master might seem strange to modern audiences; a chubby, avuncular white man leading an all-white orchestra doesn’t seem a proper reflection of the genre’s African roots. Nowhere is this more apparent than the film’s final sequence, a lengthy and absurd celebration of jazz’s “global” influences which sees musicians from every European culture imaginable being literally lowered into a giant Melting Pot. (Apparently balalaika-playing Russians and harp-playing Irishmen were more important to the birth of jazz than any spiritual-singing African.) But as jazz critic Gary Giddins explains in one of Criterion’s many essential special features, in the 20s and 30s “jazz” was considered to be any kind of music that a) wasn’t classical, and b) had a beat. It was taken for granted that jazz was the production of a predominately white culture. From here we can understand the sanitized approach to jazz’s history, and considering Whiteman’s real-life efforts to employ and collaborate with black composers and his heroic yet failed attempts at integrating his orchestra, it’s plain that the film’s exclusion of black performers wasn’t malicious. In fact, Whiteman went out of his way to include a tribute scene to jazz’s “African and voodoo ancestors” with a stunning sequence of a black performer dancing on top of a drum. One wonders how this part played in the south.
If one can look beyond its troubling historical context, one finds a stunning compilation of musical and theatrical talent. Two massive sequences pay special tribute to Whiteman’s orchestra. The first is a ravishing number spotlighting his various musicians for lengthy solos, including legendary collaborators Joe Venuti on violin and Eddie Lang on guitar. The second is a performance of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a piece originally commissioned by Whiteman and used throughout his career as his theme song. This segment is particularly gobsmacking in its use of opulent colors, impressive sets, including a massive piano played simultaneously by 5-6 pianists, and one of the definitive recordings of one of America’s definitive pieces of music. Another highlight is a scene featuring Bing Crosby in his first onscreen performance as part of The Rhythm Boys, a vocal trio who sang bouncy jazz standards. Watching it, you can see in Bing’s babyfaced brow a sure-fire star champing at the bit for solo stardom. And there are several memorable dance sequences, most notably an infamous Ragamuffin Romeo routine featuring a contortionist lady in a very short skirt who gets tossed around and tumbled like a rag doll.
Not all of the film holds up. Much of it was specifically designed to appeal to older, more conservative audiences, particularly a lifeless section near the beginning about a daydreaming bride that’s only salvaged by some impressive dress porn. Most of the comedy is delivered in cut-away interludes which fail to hold up—one of Walter Brennan’s first sound performances is wasted in a confusing piece of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shtick. Additionally, a sloshed souse’s shaggy dog story about two air-breathing goldfish is so transcendentally, hilariously awful one wonders if it directly inspired Andy Kaufman.
But for all its faults, The King of Jazz is better than the sum of its parts as a sprawling, brave, experimental extravaganza of sound, movement, and imagery. The film was almost lost to time, as its commercial failure led to its being neglected for decades. Many reconstructions were attempted over the years to patch together the footage that survived various edited rereleases. But now the Criterion Collection has released arguably the definitive one: a sumptuously restored edition that’s so clean and clear much of it seems like it was recorded yesterday on an iPhone with a grainy Instagram filter. This is an essential release of an essential film; every serious movie collection needs a copy.