If you’re wondering why there are shouts of jubilation from film buffs and aficionados of pre-swing-era music it’s because the Criterion Collection has released a beautiful Blu-ray and DVD of King of Jazz (1930), The movie features Bing Crosby’s first appearance onscreen, as part of the Rhythm Boys trio, jazz giants Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, and a spectacular rendition of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” by Paul Whiteman, the orchestra leader who commissioned the piece just six years earlier. Impossible to see for decades, unearthed in the late 1960s (with foreign-language subtitles), then given desultory release on VHS, this pioneering early-talkie in two-color Technicolor has finally been made whole. I wrote about the West Coast premiere of its restoration at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2016, but was told that very night that its release on home video was unlikely because of music-rights issues.
Fortunately, those hurdles have been cleared and Criterion has given King of Jazz the treatment it deserves. The brilliant jazz critic and scholar Gary Giddins and esteemed musicologist (and performer) Michael Feinstein appear on-camera in separate interviews to explain Paul Whiteman’s place in American music and the broad use of the term “jazz” at that time. They also provide context for the revue format, consisting of song numbers, vaudeville acts, and comedy skits, devised and directed by Broadway veteran John Murrray Anderson. David Pierce and James Layton then narrate a series of video essays that provides historical background on the lengthy, troubled gestation of the film, which was one year in the making at a staggering cost of $1.5 million. (If you have any affection for, or interest in, the movie you should own a copy of their lavish coffee-table book King of Jazz, still available at www.kingofjazzbook.com.) Giddins joins Gene Seymour and bandleader Vince Giordano on a full-length commentary track which is especially valuable if you love music of this era as I do. Vince keeps that music alive with his band The Nighthawks and knows more about Paul Whiteman and the period than almost anybody on the planet; he studied with the band’s arranger Bill Challis and what’s more, he can (and does) identify virtually every musician on screen.
As if having the film, with its infectious musical score and engaging performances, weren’t enough, Criterion has included three blackout sketches that didn’t make the final cut of the picture and several rare short-subjects of the period, all in pristine condition: two Oswald the Rabbit cartoons (My Pal Paul, featuring a caricature of Whiteman, and Africa) produced by Walter Lantz and Bill Nolan, a fascinating 1933 two-reeler starring columnist Walter Winchell called I Know Everybody and Everybody’s Racket that sports a cameo appearance by the bandleader, and an eye-opening Paramount short from 1929 called All Americans that reveals the genesis of John Murray Anderson’s melting-pot number in King of Jazz. (I don’t mean to sound greedy instead of grateful, but I can’t help wishing that more studio shorts like this were available on DVD and Blu-ray.)
Having lived through the dark ages when King of Jazz was officially missing in action—never released to television or the non-theatrical market—then seeing it resurface, first in a worn, Czech-subtitled print from Eastern Europe, then a videocassette where some well-intentioned engineer tried to artificially pump color into its limited palette, it gives me enormous satisfaction to own a copy of this beautiful restoration. There is no little irony in the fact that at first, the Library of Congress planned to undertake this process after nitrate specialist George Willeman found a 35mm print in the Raymond Rohauer collection. Spurred on by such avid buffs as David Stenn and the late Bob Birchard, momentum built toward the idea of saving this important film. I was among the voting members who helped place it on the Library’s National Film Registry. Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project even volunteered to provide original Vitaphone discs so the soundtrack could be restored from a first-hand source.
Ultimately, Universal scoured its own holdings and discovered that they had the original 35mm camera negative and two nitrate soundtrack negs, one from the shortened 1933 reissue version. These vital elements were sitting in a Kearny, New Jersey vault all along! With this material and the Rohauer print as backup, they were able to produce a nearly-complete 4K digital restoration, with stills and frame enlargements filling brief gaps in continuity.
No one would call King of Jazz a great movie but it is a vivid time capsule with some truly inventive staging, dynamic camerawork (utilizing the legendary “Broadway crane” built for the studio’s 1929 production of the same name) and tuneful music. Comparing it to the other studio revues of the period, William K. Everson wrote in a 1969 program note, “Its spectacle naturally suffers from comparison with the later Busby Berkeley material, but even so it’s still impressive; how much more impressive it must have seemed in 1930, when its huge and often imaginative sets were contrasted with the limited theater-stage environs of [Warner Bros’] The Show of Shows.”
Just hearing violinist Joe Venuti and guitarist Eddie Lang play together, watching rubber-legged eccentric dancer Al Norman strut his stuff, or enjoying the ebullient Rhythm Boys as they perform “So The Bluebirds and the Blackbirds Got Together” is worth the price of admission, as far as I’m concerned. And I’ve always loved the fact that Ferde Grofé’s orchestration of “Rhapsody in Blue” included a part for banjo virtuoso Mike Pingatore, a Whiteman stalwart. Can you tell I’m happy about this new DVD/Blu-ray release? It’s been a long and winding road, but King of Jazz is finally here.