Saturday, November 23, 2013

The King of Jazz (1930)

Director: John Murray Anderson                       Writers: Harry Ruskin & Charles MacArthur
Music: George Gershwin                                 Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline
Starring: Paul Whiteman, John Boles, Laura La Plante and Bing Crosby

If you can overcome the racism of the almost complete and total dismissal of African Americans as the creators, and finest purveyors, of jazz--and I’m not even suggesting that you should--then this is an absolutely fascinating film. The King of Jazz is a two-strip Technicolor talking picture from Universal, which was a small company in those days that primarily produced low-budget and genre films. Every year, however, they would make a “Super Jewel” picture, a big-budget extravaganza, like their Academy Award winning version of All Quiet on the Western Front. This film has no story, instead it’s a review of music, comedy and cartoons, a sort of summation of all that could be done with film at that point in time. What makes it so fascinating, aside from the technical aspect, is how it can be so utterly dismissive of blacks with a straight face. It’s said that Disney’s Song of the South is racist. This film makes the Disney film look like it was produced by the NAACP.

It starts with a Walter Lantz cartoon showing how Whiteman got his label of the “King of Jazz,” in Africa, no less. And while it concerns his cartoon-self running from a lion, the implications are clear, either he took what was to be had from Africa and turned it into jazz, or there was nothing there to begin with. From there we proceed to see miniature band members crawling out of his bag in an impressive display of special effects. The band members are also impressive in their ability to play their instruments--they’re just not playing jazz. This is followed by dancing girls that sit on chairs in a fairly impressive pre-Busby Berkeley display, and then ghostly images of women who have worn a particular wedding dress down through the generations. The singing is dated, to be sure, but in a sense this film is a summation of the twenties. And when Bing Crosby makes an appearance as one of the “Rhythm Boys” it becomes just as clear where the future lies.

There are a number of comedy skits to break up the musical numbers. The only thing they really have going for them is that they’re incredibly short. The real centerpiece of the program is “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin, which Whiteman claims was first performed by his orchestra in 1924. Now, while Gershwin’s famous number is certainly jazz influenced, it can hardly be called actual jazz, and this is the big difference between jazz and what Whiteman was playing. He does make one backhanded reference to blacks by saying that jazz was born in the African jungle, but only in terms of the drums, and there is a one minute dance number by an apparently black dancer on a giant drum where, ironically, the “music” consists of a single beat that gradually speeds up until the end of the dance.

The finale, in which it is implied that jazz came from Europe, is perhaps the most insulting of all to blacks. Dance numbers from all over Europe are featured and, in the end, Whiteman is seen stirring a boiling cauldron of “music” with his baton and emerging with this new musical form. I can’t even imagine what blacks thought who watched this in theaters at the time. As a spectacle of what film art could do at the time, the film is quite a feat. As a time capsule of dominant white culture in the twenties, a filmic representation of the end of vaudeville, The King of Jazz is an incredible experience. But as far as Jazz goes . . . it is nowhere to be found.

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