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USA 1930
Directed by
John Murray Anderson
98 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

King Of Jazz

If you are a fan of 1920s jazz then you won't want to miss King of Jazz, a revue-style celebration of Paul Whiteman and his orchestra in particular and the Jazz Age in general.  Costing around $2 million to make and Universal’s most expensive production to date it was released six months after the 1929 stock market crash, did poorly at the box office despite being re-cut, and disappeared from view. It has now been restored by MoMA and re-released.

With no narrative as such and based on the revue-style of stage entertainment popular at the time, the film is a mixture of musical numbers, comedy sketches and novelty acts built around the idea of showcasing Paul Whiteman, one of the most popular entertainers of the time, who was responsible for incubating the careers of many white jazz musicians, including Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, as well as Bing Crosby, who appears in the movie as part of the ‘Rhythm Boys’ vocal trio and George Gershwin who plays his “Rhapsody In Blue” is one of the film’s centerpiece numbers with a 'Voodoo' drum intro and the Whiteman Orchestra seated in a giant powder-blue piano.

Despite the title there is little of what we now call jazz music with much of the music inclined toward the disposable end of the spectrum but what is fascinating about the film is that it is an exceptional time capsule of the Jazz Age with its love of artifice (the men are as heavily  powdered and rouged as the women),  novelty and excess, here richly expressed in the costumery and staging. The film’s grand finale, a clearly expensive but rather uninspired production number called “The Melting Pot of Music,” appears to be saying that jazz is the product of British, Italian, Austrian, Spanish, Russian and French influences although its two real primary influences, ‘Negro” and Jewish music, barely get a mention in the entire film.

John Murray Anderson, a Broadway producer and first-time filmmaker is far from being a skilled director and the film relies more on visual special effects than anything else to animate the otherwise quite static staging of the various numbers. Although perhaps a bit much for the casual viewer, as an historical artefact the film is a gem and a must-see for anyone interested in the Roaring Twenties.




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