June 11, 2018  (Web Review)

King of Jazz

Criterion, 100 min., not rated, DVD: $29.99, Blu-ray: $39.99

Reviewer rating: 3.5/4

Paul Whiteman and his Band was the most popular musical attraction of the 1920s, headlining the biggest venues in the U.S. and selling millions of records. This 1930 film is lavish revue featuring musical acts, dance numbers, comedy sketches, and even an animated cartoon (created by Walter Lantz, the father of Woody Woodpecker), all presented around performances by the Whiteman band. There is no story—the entire project is framed by “Paul Whiteman’s Scrapbook,” a giant prop with pages turned as title cards for each act—and the comedy bits (featuring Laura La Plante, Slim Summerville, and a young Walter Brennan) are corny at best. And apart from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (which Whiteman’s band debuted a couple of years earlier) nothing is even close to jazz in this collection of popular dance tunes and novelty songs. But it’s a surprisingly entertaining project, thanks to the inventive and innovative presentation by stage director John Murray Anderson that serves up a terrific time capsule of popular acts of the era, including the film debut of Bing Crosby (in the vocal group The Rhythm Boys), the dance team of Marion Stadler and Don Rose doing the startling “Ragamuffin Romeo” number, kewpie doll singer Jeanie Lang, and The Russell Markert Girls (who became The Radio City Rockettes). The early two-strip Technicolor process has a limited color palette dominated by teal and peach, which is deftly worked into the production design by Anderson. King of Jazz is a unique entry in film history and deservedly part of the National Film Registry (incomplete for years, the film was restored in 2016). The copious extras include an introduction by film critic Gary Giddins, audio commentary (by Giddins, cultural critic Gene Seymour, and musician/bandleader Vince Giordano), an interview with musician Michael Feinstein, visual essays by authors and archivists James Layton and David Pierce on the film, deleted scenes and an alternate opening sequence, short films, “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” cartoons, and an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme. Highly recommended. (S. Axmaker)