Jeff Sultanof On An Important Film Reborn
May 25, 2018 by Doug Ramsey 2 Comments
Composer, arranger, educator and jazz authority Jeff Sultanof occasionally honors Rifftides with his insights. This is one of those happy occasions. Jeff has seen a restoration of King Of Jazz, a pioneering film from the days when motion picture studios had decided that sound was here to stay.
King Of Jazz: A Guest Review By Jeff Sultanoff
Until 1926, the only sound the movie-going public heard in a theatre was the accompaniment of a piano, organ or symphony orchestra if they went to one of the big movie palaces. There were experiments with sound, but most audiences hadn’t been exposed to them, although if you are a jazz fan, some of them have got into circulation.
Here is Ben Bernie in 1924 via DeForest Phonofilm
Few theaters could run these films, and there were various technical problems. This film actually looks and sounds better than it did back then. But Western Electric came up with a method for film with sound, and convinced Warner Bros. to buy into the concept; the process was called Vitaphone. The first Vitaphone program featured Don Juan as its main attraction, a motion picture with sound effects and symphonic orchestra accompaniment, but the best parts of the program were the short subjects – vaudeville acts and ensembles of all sizes. By 1929, Vitaphone filmed such bands as the Ben Pollack Orchestra with Jack Teagarden and Benny Goodman (this film is currently undergoing restoration from the original negative).
And Red Nichols with Pee Wee Russell and Eddie Condon:
The musicians were Red Nichols, cornet; Tommy Thune and John Egan, trumpet; Herb Taylor, trombone; Pee Wee Russell, clarinet; Irving Brodsky, piano; Eddie Condon, banjo and vocal; and George Beebe, drums. It has become a very well known film that is all over the internet, but here was an excellent-quality version—for a change.
In that same year, Hollywood studios were churning out revues featuring their biggest stars. Such films as The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (M-G-M), and The Show of Shows (Warner Bros.) are pretty dismal affairs for the non-historian and are hard to sit through today; most people featured in them were stars in silent films; many couldn’t adapt to the new talking pictures and couldn’t sing very well. Paramount on Parade (Paramount) is the best of that early bunch; unfortunately, it exists only as a torso, as several sections are missing their soundtracks.
Universal Pictures signed Paul Whiteman (pictured left) in October of 1928, but didn’t know what to do with him. He had script approval, and told anyone who would listen that he wasn’t an actor and wasn’t going to be part of a romantic plot. The Whiteman band waited in Hollywood while Universal came up with scripts that Whiteman rejected. They finally returned to the east coast, and this resulted in one of the great missed opportunities in jazz history: Bix Beiderbecke (pictured right) would most certainly have been featured if the film had been made during this period. When the men returned, Bix had been replaced. But Whiteman had several other notable performers in the band: Harry ‘Goldie’ Goldfield, Wilbur Hall, Frank Trumbauer, and the Rhythm Boys, one of whom was Harry “Bing” Crosby.
By that time, it was agreed that Universal would make a revue. John Murray Anderson was hired to produce and direct the film. Even though he’d never made a movie, he was one of the great producer/directors of stage musicals. Anderson brought his noted designer, Herman Rosse, with him, and together they created incredible sets and costumes, all shot in early Technicolor, at that time a red and green process. One problem was that Technicolor could not reproduce a realistic blue, and leaving out “Rhapsody in Blue” was out of the question. The end result was Rhapsody in Teal!By the time the picture was ready, Universal had spent $2,000,000 on this lavish entertainment, but audiences had already tired of movie musicals and stayed away from them. The initial reaction by preview audiences to The King of Jazz was mixed, and some tinkering was done by removing some of the comedy sketches. It didn’t help. For many, this movie was simply a rehash of earlier revues and didn’t offer anything new by the time it came out. It also didn’t help that Universal’s version of All Quiet on the Western Front played to huge crowds and garnered excellent reviews, so the publicity men at the studio spent their time heavily promoting that picture.
King of Jazz played at the prestigious Roxy Theater in New York with Gershwin himself playing the “Rhapsody” on stage with Whiteman for the first week. While Gershwin brought in theater patrons, this diminished the effect of the filmed “Rhapsody.” By the second week, the movie’s attendance tanked.
The film’s failure resulted in a great financial loss for Universal. It was severely recut and reissued in 1933 and did eventually make a profit. After that, it was quickly forgotten. In the mid-1950s, Technicolor asked the studios whether they wanted their two-color negatives back for safekeeping. Since the two-color process was no longer in use, the negatives were unprintable, and except for Universal all of them simply asked Technicolor to junk them, one of the reasons why many Technicolor films from that era don’t exist or can be found only in poor prints. The resurrection of King of Jazz is chronicled in an excellent book by James Layton and David Pierce.
Once it was voted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2013, this prompted NBC/Universal to restore it. Details of the extensive restoration were originally kept quiet; one source was Ron Hutchinson, a founder of the Vitaphone Project which oversees the preservation of early sound films in which the sound was on disc and had been physically separated from the negatives years ago. Ultimately the negative of the complete soundtrack, and the original camera negative of the 1933 reissue were combined with an original print found in England which had been bootlegged over the years and used for a videocassette release in the early 1970s. Where footage was still missing, stills were used. Only one sequence was never found.
On May 13, 2016, a packed house at the Museum of Modern Art watched this restored version of King of Jazz. The audience included relatives of many of the performers. Audience reaction was overwhelming, with applause at the end of each number. The film was soon shown in other venues to sold-out crowds.
Discussion on social media soon began about whether this film would be issued on DVD and Blu-ray. Was there a sizable enough audience for this very special film, and how much would it cost to clear the music rights? No doubt a sizable sum. The likely candidate for such a release was The Criterion Collection, a company owned by Janus Films, that originally started issuing laserdiscs of classic films with cool extras like interviews and commentary; Criterion releases were the model for the modern-day special edition that most DVD/Blu-ray buyers now expect in releases of both new and older films. Sure enough, on March 27 of this year, King of Jazz appeared as a Criterion edition on store shelves and the internet.
What makes King of Jazz special are the appearances of the Whiteman musicians, several now considered legends. “Meet the Boys” was a presentation that Whiteman performed on the road, and features several Whiteman personalities. Such names as Roy “Red” Maier, Chester Hazlett, Wilbur Hall, Harry “Goldie” Goldfield, Roy Bargy and Mike Pingitore can be seen and heard on screen. But perhaps the most priceless part of this section is Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang playing “Wild Cat.” Here is a still from the film.
This was one of five filmed appearances by Lang, who later became Crosby’s accompanist. Lang passed away suddenly at the age of 30 after a tonsillectomy and both Crosby and Venuti never fully got over his loss. Seeing him and Venuti play together is indescribable.
While the presentation of “Rhapsody In Blue” drew mixed reactions from audiences and writers, seeing and hearing Roy Bargy and the Whiteman ensemble play this classic work is amazing when you think that this ensemble premiered the work six years earlier, and Bargy was one of the earliest pianists to perform it, playing it many times over the radio and on recordings. While Whiteman and Gershwin had a falling out because of Whiteman’s tempo alterations, the work is well performed here. But perhaps the most important footage belongs to Crosby. Even though he was a member of the Rhythm Boys at the time, he has many standout solos and the camera absolutely loves him. In glorious Technicolor, his appearance will be the high point of the film for many.
This is probably the finest example of this early form of Technicolor, simply because it is one of the few original negatives extant, and the printing was aided by sophisticated computer software. At the time of release, Technicolor prints were either excellent or shoddy, crisp and clear with glorious color or blurred and washed-out, part of the reason why Hollywood studios stopped using it. This release makes a good case for the process. At its best, the color has a pastel, shimmering quality, albeit with no blue registration. The sound is excellent, partly thanks to Whiteman’s insistence of pre-recording the music and then shooting to a playback. In 1930, many studios recorded the music live during shooting, and the sound was often badly balanced or distorted.
Anyone interested in pre-swing-era jazz and pop music must see this film. The extras are great too; an audio commentary features Gary Giddins, Gene Seymour and Vince Giordano, who knows more about this era of music than almost anyone. An interview with Michael Feinstein, a visual essay by James Layton and David Pierce using photos and other artifacts reproduced in their book, two Oswald the Rabbit cartoons (there is a cartoon at the beginning of <em>King Of Jazz</em> that may very well be the first color cartoon made), a 1929 short of John Murray Anderson’s “Melting Pot” presentation that is similar to the one in the movie, and a rare 1932 Walter Winchell short which stars the Whiteman ensemble (this is an expecially great find; the short is not even mentioned in Don Rayno’s encyclopedic Whiteman biography). Ironically, the music in this film was shot live, on set.
P.S. – Barnes & Noble usually has a 50%-off sale of Criterion releases at around this time of the year.
(The Rifftides staff is grateful to Jeff Sultanof for illuminating yet another major development in our culture.)
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