Saturday, 8 October 2016

All my colours… King of Jazz (1930), BFI, London Film Festival

From a marketer’s perspective there are two major USPs for the London Film Festival one is based on timing – the first chance to see – the other on rarity – the only chance to see (in cinema at least). There are exceptions but given lack of infinite time and resource pone is driven either by one or the other.  So it is that I plump for the old rather than the new with patience being its own reward for most of those modern talkies. In a festival a little light on “archive” the focus is on quality and today’s gem more than delivered on that front.

I’m sure I saw King of Jazz a long time ago on TV, in black and white and far from complete. I was struck by Paul Whiteman and his evident status as the titular monarch of all he conducts – a phenomenon from another reality. It was an emphatic statement of a powerful pop culture a million miles away from my own and a lot brighter than we Bunnymen fans (ask your Dad!) in our dark donkey jackets and black-suede Robot shoes.

The boys in the band
Watching this stunning restoration on the big screen I’m still knocked out even with a greater familiarity with the period’s filmmakers and by the personality of what jazz critic Gary Giddins calls “a Rosetta stone of early American pop”. Some of it is corny as hell but none of it lacks in verve or skill - from the frankly-unhinged Jack White with his song about wanting to sell fish to a punky Bing Crosby and a giant piano impossibly-played for a decidedly green Rhapsody in Blue.

King of Jazz was filmed as a silent with a pre-recorded soundtrack, insisted upon by Whiteman for quality purposes, being matched to performances unfettered by the need to stay close to microphones. Thus liberated, the cameras float around and above the action on a giant stage appropriately controlled by theatre director John Murray Anderson with some uncredited support from Paul Fejos (who had directed the previous year’s revue spectacular Broadway).

The action is a series of sketches, skits and songs all taken from Paul Whiteman’s giant jazz scrap-book all regularly performed by his band, singers and dancers – including Gershwin’s Rhapsody which was written for Whiteman in 1924.

Paul Whiteman - big book, big band!
After the introduction from MC Charles Irwin and a proto-silly symphony cartoon explaining how Paul Whiteman came to be crowned King of his particular blend of heterogeneous Jazz we get introduced to his band it quite thrilling style. There are close ups of all the players from various angles as one by one they show their chops. In the Darwinian world of the big band, only the fastest, fittest and most-musical thrived and these boys can play.

By the same token… only the most versatile and – let’s be honest – leggy dancers could make Whiteman’s troupe and we meet them too - all sixteen sat in a row arms aloft in unison and frills on show for the Dads in the front row.

32 legs
The pace drops for a really slow song about brides which features a lot of processing and the world’s longest bridal train… another age in which marriage was a literal stairway to heaven – well, there was a lady who was sure.

A few sections are still missing and where possible stills feature over the audio. We miss one sketch featuring Laura La Plante but another features her as a newspaper editor demanding coverage of stories as soon as, if not before they happen. She could easily be an online editor and her haircut is a razor-sharp thing of yellow-tinged platinum: colour brings us that little bit closer to the monochrome age.

Talking of which, Bing sings with two others (Al Rinker and Harry Barris), as The Rhythm Boys and let me tell you, this kid (he was 26 at the time) will go places. Apart from the voice, Crosby has the extra zip to pull your eyes towards him in any ensemble: here’s one of the greats in his first film appearance, muscling his way forwards.

Young Bing
Next to these Boys, songs about lost love in Monterey tend to pale although it’s good to see the source material for many of BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing’s cheese.

Then some madness about selling fish from Jack White (yes, I know… is it in the name?!) with Whiteman’s crew, including Bing, as the audience. White has the look of a genuine maniac and is so one the edge he helps put the whole show in better context: this lot were hip they knew what was cool and what was not.

Rhapsody in Green is magnificent and you can see an excerpt on YouTube right now. The kitchen sink is involved in the film’s emotional high-point both in terms of visuals as well as compositional integrity. It opens with a quite outstanding ballet as a black dancer (probably…) dances on a huge drum to illustrate the origins of jazz in the “voodoo drums of Africa”. Cringing conceits aside he’s a fantastic dancer.

Dream on Elton, Liberace...
Happy Feet is enlivened by a contortionist dancer and there’s Nell O'Day and the Tommy Atkins Sextet, a troupe of men who, literally, throw their blonde lead female around – she is spun 180 degrees and only their extended hands catch her and prevent her landing face-first on the boards… How many rehearsals went wrong before this all went right?!

Then there’s The Sisters G (Eleanor and Karla Gutchrlein), a couple of Brooks’ bob-toting twins – also seen in God’s Gift to Women with Louise – who dance and sing with German accents… the faintest echo of Weimar cabaret.

One of the naughtiest skits is entitled All Noisy on the Eastern Front as a French woman keeps all her soldier boy lovers apart until the wall crashes down to reveal fifty or more hidden away.

Eleanor and Karla
We even see Paul Whiteman dance and he is extraordinarily good… until the dancer’s false moustache is removed and – ta-dah! – he’s revealed as not Paul!

Now for the big finale in which a host of national musicians come to play and contribute to the great American Melting Pot from which Jazz is cooked. Sadly, the sounds are entirely European – England, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, France… and the true origins of jazz are obscured by the racial sensitivities of the time. England is represented by D’Ye Ken John Peel and fox hunting (did I hear a boo or two…?) whilst Scottish bagpipes are always welcome.

They used to call it entertainment
A film to lighten your step and an amazing work of restoration that is covered in a new book from James Layton and David Pierce - King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue - of which more details are available here. Sounds like an ideal Christmas present.

It is a compelling pop document and to see the nods and winks in such colourful detail blows the history away as you connect with the live context that much more. The big screen is the place to be truly impressed though so, hopefully, this won’t be one of the “onlys” from the Festival and there’ll be a wider release.

There's an act-by-act breakdown of the film by Dennis Pereyra on his King of Jazz website - a fascinating labour of love.


  1. I am making a trailer fro this film and would like to use your observation "such colourful detail blows the history away as you connect with the live context that much more. The big screen is the place to be truly impressed" with other critics remarks superimposed over the balletic part of the Rhapsody in Blue sequence. I would like to know which name to attribute the quote to and your official outlet. Best, Matias Bombal

    1. Hi Matias - that would be my pleasure: love this film!

      Paul Joyce, IThankYou would be my tag line.

      Very best wishes.