William Dieterle’s ‘Syncopation’ on DVD: Bending Notes and Jazz History
Motion pictures and jazz were both born around the dawn of the 20th century. But did Hollywood ever get the music right? Take “Syncopation” (1942), a snappily titled, wildly ambitious jazz chronicle that might be the last thing you’d expect from Warner Bros.’ German-born workhorse, William Dieterle (1893-1972).
Best remembered for plodding prestige pictures like “The Life of Emile Zola” (1937), movies James Agee characterized in The Nation as a “high-minded, high-polished mélange of heavy ‘touches’ and ‘intelligent’ performances,” Dieterle has been typecast as a snobbish martinet. Still, he has a few surprises in his lengthy résumé, and “Syncopation,” out on Blu-ray and DVD in a beautiful digital restoration from Cohen Media, is one.
Filmed during Dieterle’s brief period as an independent producer at RKO (when his anti-fascist politics and friendship with German refugees made him a person of interest for the F.B.I.), “Syncopation” belongs to a cycle of movies — begun just before the United States entered World War II — that sought to integrate jazz into mainstream American culture. What sets “Syncopation” apart from “Blues in the Night” and “Birth of the Blues” (both 1941) is its emphasis on jazz as an intrinsically African-American art form and what Sidney Finkelstein, who wrote on jazz for Daily Worker, would call “a people’s music.”
Thus, “Syncopation” begins with a vivid montage that segues from a West African village to 1906 New Orleans by way of the slave trade, the Middle Passage and the cotton fields. Well-meaning, if condescending, the movie establishes a particular lineage. The music’s founding father is modeled on King Oliver and played by an uncredited Rex Stewart (a cornetist with the Duke Ellington orchestra); his hot solos inspire a young boy (who grows into Todd Duncan, Porgy in the original Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess”) and, through him, the inevitable white protagonists, Jackie Cooper and Bonita Granville.
Jazz is America singing. Granville’s character, who establishes her intellectual bona fides, as well as Dieterle’s, by her oft-cited appreciation for Walt Whitman, is busted for playing boogie-woogie piano at a Chicago rent party. In the movie’s nuttiest scene, she’s put on trial and, managing to have her piano introduced as evidence, soon has the court doing the time step. Although “Syncopation” tries to inoculate itself by mocking a society orchestra modeled on Paul Whiteman’s, it abruptly abandons its black musicians before jazz reaches New York’s 52nd Street and mutates into swing or what, writing on jazz in Partisan Review, Agee would term “pseudo-folk.” The final sequence features the singer Connie Boswell and winds up with a frantic cameo by a combo of white all-stars (Benny Goodman, Harry James and Gene Krupa among them).
The finale is doubly depressing in that Dieterle hoped to justify his title with a genuinely offbeat (and it would seem far longer) movie. Philip Yordan, who worked on the screenplay, remembered Dieterle’s seeking to twin “the rise of modern architecture and the rise of jazz.” The writer found the idea nonsensical, although it was commonplace in the 1920s. (John Alden Carpenter’s 1927 jazz ballet “Skyscrapers” is only one example.) Even so, a few heroic montages aside, no such thinking remains in the movie. Two months before “Syncopation” was released, Dieterle screened it for his friend Bertolt Brecht, then in Hollywood. According to Brecht’s journal, Dieterle bemoaned the power of his financial backers, “forcing him to cut out as many negroes [sic] as possible” in favor of more “boy meets girl.”
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Although “Syncopation” eventually de-emphasizes the African-American centrality of jazz, the disc redresses the situation somewhat with nine vintage shorts, three starring Ellington. Treated with relative dignity, Ellington plays himself as a working composer. “A Bundle of Blues” (1933) and “Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life” (1935), both made by Paramount, include performances by Ivie Anderson and Billie Holiday. The independently produced “Black and Tan Fantasy” (1929) is a mini-melodrama featuring Fredi Washington as a doomed nightclub dancer. Artier than the Paramount shorts, it was directed by Dudley Murphy, who several years earlier collaborated on “Ballet Mécanique” with the French painter Fernand Léger, and also directed the majestic Bessie Smith in “St. Louis Blues” (1929) — an essential artifact despite the unpleasant spectacle of her being forced to dramatize her own humiliation.
No less offensive but also more astonishing, Paramount’s “Rhapsody in Black and Blue” (1932) is a showcase for the young Louis Armstrong, bare-chested and cloaked in leopard skin on a Deco set representing the Kingdom of Jazzmania. Through sheer force of personality and musical genius, he triumphs over the degrading premise and dubious quality of his material — one way to characterize the power of jazz.
Another artifact, reveling in a later form of jazz exoticism, “The Connection” — Shirley Clarke’s 1962 adaptation of Jack Gelber’s Off Broadway blockbuster — has been released by Milestone on Blu-ray and DVD. Clarke’s notably self-assured and elaborately self-conscious first feature made a splash at the Cannes Film Festival and became a cause célèbre back home, banned for using an obscenity, here as a term for heroin.
As originally staged by the Living Theater, “The Connection” was a hip “Waiting for Godot” in which a group of histrionic heroin addicts and a rehearsing jazz combo hang around a cold-water loft anticipating the arrival of their daily fix. Ms. Clarke framed her movie as a fictional documentary of the scene, complete with clueless filmmaker; it’s notable both for documenting the original production and the quartet assembled by the pianist-composer Freddie Redd. Interviewed at length for one of the disc’s bonus supplements, Mr. Redd gives a pithy account of the movie’s making and his own life as a jazz artist.
EXPOSED Combining backstage interviews with onstage performances, the downtown director Beth B documents the New Burlesque as a liberating form of performance art. “There is also a great deal of joy, and while these lubricious entertainers are making political points by pulling American flags from unlikely locations, or dancing a beautiful dark ballet with a severed hand, they’re mostly just interested in showing us a really good time,” Jeannette Catsoulis wrote in The New York Times in March 2014. Available on DVD. (Zeitgeist)
ROPE OF SAND One of William Dieterle’s last Hollywood movies (and possibly the craziest) is a violent film noir from 1949 set in the Kalahari desert. Burt Lancaster heads a cast that includes three veterans of “Casablanca”: Peter Lorre, Claude Rains and Paul Henreid, outstanding as the movie’s crypto-fascist villain. On Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Instant Video. (Olive)
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TRAITORS Sean Gullette’s first feature, shown at film festivals but never released here, concerns the leader of an all-female punk-rock band who finances her recording session by bringing a shipment of drugs from the Rif mountains to Tangier. On DVD and Amazon Instant Video. (Film Movement)
THROUGH A LENS DARKLY Thomas Allen Harris’s history of African-American photography is both a chronicle of and testament to the power of self-representation. “Mr. Harris’s film is a family memoir, a tribute to unsung artists and a lyrical, at times heartbroken, meditation on imagery and identity,” A. O. Scott wrote in The Times in August. On DVD, iTunes and Netflix. (First Run Features)
WHIPLASH The title of the writer-director Damien Chazelle’s dynamic second feature might describe J. K. Simmons’s Oscar-winning performance as the scariest instructor in a Juilliard-like music conservatory. “The long, intricate final scene transcends psychological drama with a surge of pure musical inspiration, pushing the audience’s response from curiosity to empathy to awe,” Mr. Scott wrote in The Times in October. On Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Instant Video. (Sony Pictures Classics)
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