#137) King of Jazz (1930)

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#137) King of Jazz (1930)

OR “Whiteman Can’t Jump”

Directed by John Murray Anderson

Written by Harry Ruskin

Class of 2013

The Plot: Plot? What plot? “King of Jazz” is a revue showcasing Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. Featured along the way are musical numbers, comedy sketches, and even a cartoon! Plus, be on the lookout for a young Bing Crosby.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “[a] sparkling example of a musical in the earliest days of two-color Technicolor.” There’s also a pretty by-the-numbers essay by Swedish film historian Jonas Nordin.

But Does It Really?: Well it gets by on “Belloq film” status, and the new restoration looks great, but man is this thing tough to get through. “King of Jazz” is very much filmed vaudeville, with little if any attempt to make it cinematic. Audiences didn’t care for it in 1930, why should I care now? I can’t believe the deleted “Magnificent Ambersons” footage is gone forever, but this thing lives on.

Shout Outs: One of the sketches is inspired by “All Quiet on the Western Front”, which premiered the same week as this film!

Everybody Gets One: Paul Whiteman was one of the most popular bandleaders of the ‘20s and ‘30s. He helped introduce jazz to a white audience (though it was really orchestral jazz, and white people definitely didn’t invent that). Among his career highlights: He was the first to conduct Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. It was his version that made the National Recording Registry in 2002.

Wow, That’s Dated: References to jazz as “new music”, as well as one character remembering Prohibition. But the main takeaway is the final “Melting Pot” number with some of the whitest dancer I’ve ever seen. I’ll just take this time upfront to apologize to every nationality.

Title Track: Paul Whiteman’s nickname “the King of Jazz” is said only twice at the very beginning of the film. The cartoon by Walter Lang is about how he got the moniker.

Seriously, Oscars?: “King of Jazz” was nominated for and won the Oscar in one category: Best Art Direction. Truly this is Hollywood’s way of saying “At least the sets looked nice.”

Other notes

  • The cartoon sequence is notable for being the first animation in two-color Technicolor. And for a cartoon set in the jungles of Africa, they really don’t utilize that much color.
  • Surprise guest appearance by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
  • While introducing the band, the pianist plays a few bars of “Nola”. It’s been done.
  • When I think of chorus girls I think of them sitting down and only moving their hands. Could none of them actually dance?
  • All female reporters in the first sketch. How progressive.
  • And to think one of the Rhythm Boys would one day win an Oscar and sing a Christmas duet with David Bowie.
  • Where’s the giant vaudeville hook when you need it?
  • Oooh, overhead dancing shots that predate Busby Berkeley. How do like that?
  • One of the blackout sketches is referred to as “Another Quickie”. Ahem.
  • “Rhapsody in Blue” is entertaining, but “Fantasia 2000” did it better.
  • Between the rag doll number and the finale, I guarantee at least one on-set injury occurred.
  • “So help me Bob”? Who’s Bob?
  • That’s future three-time Oscar winner Walter Brennan as the front of a horse.
  • Listen closely to the father in the proposal sketch. Sound familiar? That’s Otis Harlan, the voice of Happy (of the Seven Dwarfs).
  • At one point my notes simply read “WHAT IS HAPPENING?”

Legacy

  • “King of Jazz” pretty much killed the film musical until “42nd Street”.
  • The film’s only real legacy is giving Bing Crosby the exposure he needed to become a star.

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