For a number of people I know, the movie event of the year doesn’t involve superheroes or special effects: it’s a restoration of the 1930 Technicolor musical The King of Jazz. This early-talkie extravaganza was unavailable for many years, and when it surfaced there were questions about how authentic it was to the two-color Technicolor process of that era. (After all, the showpiece is conductor Paul Whiteman’s performance of the George Gershwin “Rhapsody in Blue”—in a medium that could only reveal variations of red and green.) What’s more, the print that circulated was a shortened 1933 reissue version.
Now, thanks to a major commitment from Universal, the Library of Congress, and the Vitaphone Project (which supplied pristine soundtrack discs), the movie has been given a thorough—and costly—renovation. I envy my friends who will get to see it this Friday at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
I also can’t wait to see the coffee-table book that David Pierce and James Layton have produced in conjunction with this event. Fortunately,they exceeded their original goal on Kickstarter and have extended the fund-raising effort for this lavish endeavor. You can learn more about it HERE.
The King of Jazz is a wonderful artifact of its time, when bandleader Paul Whiteman was a household name. Billed as a musical revue, it has no plot, just a string of songs, skits, and elaborate production numbers. Whiteman’s vocal trio, The Rhythm Boys, featured a future star in his first screen appearance: Bing Crosby. There is also an animated sequence provided by Walter Lantz that spotlights the great swing violinist Joe Venuti.
I am hopeful that this movie will be screened around the country and, in time, be made available for home viewing as well.
In the meantime, MoMA curator Dave Kehr is using it to kick off a fascinating tribute to Universal called Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries 1928-1937 that focuses on the early-talkie era when the studio was run by Carl Laemmle, Jr., the founder’s son. “Junior” Laemmle, as he was known, took many risks and made a number of daring and exceptional movies. Some, like Dracula and Frankenstein, are classics, but others have gone unappreciated (and largely unseen) in recent times. The MoMA shows seeks to rectify that situation and includes a number of rare titles, many of them restored in 35mm by Universal, others coming from archives overseas.
Just last year I wrote about my interest in The Road Back (1937), the little-known sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front directed by the great James Whale. (read my column HERE) MoMA is showing a longer print than the one Universal reissued in 1939, along with the “butchered” version, although the 105 minute cut that Whale debuted in 1937 is still lost. On the brighter side, there are early films from director William Wyler (including a comedy vehicle for Slim Summerville and ZaSu Pitts), and work by unsung heroes like Edward L. Cahn, Tay Garnett, and John M. Stahl. You can find the calendar listing and Dave Kehr’s program notes HERE.
As my mentor/hero William K. Everson always said, saving a film is pointless if no one gets to see it. That’s why this show is so exciting and so relevant.