Highlight for me of the 2017 Glasgow Film Festival was the beautifully restored 1930 Universal revue, KING OF JAZZ. Only the second movie to be filmed entirely in (two-strip) Technicolor.(The first being Warners 1929 ON WITH THE SHOW.)
This is the film that introduced the film going public to BING CROSBY and to the most famous band leader of the time, PAUL WHITEMAN.
Paul Whiteman in front of the giant scrapbook which was used to introduce each section if the film. The book was 20 feet high and was designed by Wynn Holcomb.
The scrapbook and Master of Ceremonies Charles Irwin were the connecting threads for the revue.
A giant piano with the orchestra on top.
Paul Whiteman insisted on pre-recording all the songs and music.He felt that a Sound Stage didn’t offer the acoustic control of a recording studio.
The usual approach in the early days of sound was to film musical numbers live in performance , with cameras in soundproof booths and microphones on the orchestra and stage. Plus an engineer mixing the sound during the performance.
For King Of Jazz, all the music and songs were pre-recorded on 35mm film in November and December of. 1929.
Playing the recorded music through loudspeakers on the sound stage allowed JOHN MURRAY ANDERSON to direct action like a silent film director.
The sound and syncronisation are perfect for such an early sound film.
Three technicians show the scale of the prop piano.
The Rhythm Boys, Harry Barris, Bing Crosby, Al Rinker.
Bing Crosby’s first film appearance. The Rhythm Boys were Whiteman’s vocal trio. After the film, they left Whiteman and briefly joined the Gus Arnheim orchestra in Los Angeles, but they disbanded soon after. Bing stayed in Hollywood and became a Paramount star. Universal had had him in their grasp and let him go.
Universal also didn’t hold on to the film’s director John Murray Anderson. KING OF JAZZ was his first and only film. He was known for his ambitious Broadway shows and many of the musical numbers and performers in the film originated in his stage productions.
Technicolor cinematographer,RAY RENNAHAN ,praised Anderson –
“From the film point of view, he knew nothing about it, but he could explain what he wanted….”
Cameraman Jerry Ash had been a magician. Anderson asked him to make a list of trick photography he’d like to try.
Ash staged the intro to the “Meet The Boys” number ( Whiteman introducing his band members)).
Whiteman enters the scene carrying a small valise. He places it on a miniature bandstand and watches as the band members come out of the valise. There is then a dissolve into a full size set. It’s very well done.
The spectacular sets were designed by HERMAN ROSSE who won an Oscar for his work on the film. He designed a moving bandstand which separated in the middle and he used motifs from classical literature.It’s fascinating to see sketches for the bandstand in the book about the film ( see below), and how faithfully the studio technicians brought it to life.
Dancer JACQUES CARTIER ‘playing ‘ the clarinet solo at the start of ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’
Two strip Technicolor was basically red and green colours. Not a lot of blue. A technical advisor suggested that the Rhapsody was an emotion, not a colour!
‘A Bench in the Park’ which was reminiscent of the later Busby Berkeley ‘Pettin’ in the park’ number.
The Sisters ‘G’ (Eleanor and Karla Gutchrlein) , from Germany, were stars of continental revues.They had previously worked for the film’s director, John Murray Anderson.
‘The Song of the Dawn’ was sung by JOHN BOLES, a Universal player.
John’s first talkie was The Desert Song.
Bing Crosby was slated for this song but he was involved in a drink-drive incident and Whiteman gave the number to John Boles.
Amazing dance scene during ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. The voodoo dancer is actually a white Englishman, Jacques Cartier. He had perfected this kind of dance in Broadway revues. He dances on an enormous African drum and his shadow is projected on a background screen. Very dramatic.
Not a single black performer appeared in the movie.
When the film premiered at the Roxy Theatre ( capacity 6,000) in New York in May 1930, the Whiteman orchestra and George Gershwin appeared in a 40 minute stage show 5 times a day for the first week! Wow.
Released at the same time as Universal’ s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, King of Jazz was not nearly as popular with audiences. ‘All Quiet ‘ went on to make a good profit for the studio whilst King Of Jazz lost nearly a million dollars. (Hollywood insiders dubbed it Universal’s ‘Rhapsody in Red’.)
One critic said of Junior Laemmle,
“Thanks to ALL QUIET, his vision has saved Universal, for it is doubtful it would have survived without the success of this picture.”
Seeing a pristine print today, with all its glamour and huge production numbers, you wonder why it didn’t attract larger success.
From what I’ve read, audiences back then much preferred films to have a plot they could follow, with characters moving the story forward. For a revue, they expected big Hollywood names.
The stars of King of Jazz were the skilled performers that John Murray Anderson brought from New York.
All the big studios ,with the advent of sound , had rushed out musicals, using their roster of stars in a series of revues – MGM’s Broadway Melody of 1929; Paramount had Paramount On Parade ( which opened a week after King of Jazz); Warner Brothers had Show Of Shows.
MGM’s big guns included Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton, Marion Davies.
Warners had Myrna Loy, Noah Beery, John Barrymore,Loretta Young, Richard Barthemless. ( but no Al Jolson).
Paramount not only brought out their big stars like Maurice Chevalier,Kay Franics,Gary Cooper,Clara Bow, but also a slew of directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Dorothy Arzner,Edmund Goulding.
Trouble is Universal didn’t have much of a roster. They gambled on the name of Paul Whiteman, the most well known band leader of the 1920s, to sell the film. Whiteman signed a contract in October 1928 which guaranteed him 40% of net profits, with a guaranteed $200,000.
Filming was to start in February 1929. In fact it didn’t start till November and lasted 4 months. (Most production schedules took 5 to 6 weeks.) The budget for the film was one of the biggest ever in Hollywood (2 million dollars), even without a lot of star names.
In November, Laemmle laid off 70 % of regular employees ie everyone not working on the two big films, King of Jazz and All Quiet on the Western Front. Universal were taking a huge gamble on just two films.
The 1929 Stock Crash didn’t help business either.
Publicity shot of the Markert dancers on the giant piano.
The Markert Dancers were from the Roxy Theatre in New YorK. In 1932,they moved to the new Radio City Music Hall and became The Rockettes. Their precision dancing was skilfully choreographed by RUSSELL MARKERT.
Pianist Roy Bargy was the soloist on ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ He looked so like Gershwin, some reviewers said it was Gershwin at the piano. (Even though Bargy’s name was prominently displayed on screen.)
Why didn’t George Gershwin do it? The perfect opportunity to get him on film playing his famous composition.
Gershwin did insist on a $50,000 payment just for the use of his ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, and he also wasn’t happy with the proposed orchestration for the number.
Sad that he didn’t feel the need to be recorded on film playing his famous composition with the orchestra he had first performed it with in 1924.
Carl Laemmle Sr. had started Universal in 1912. . In 1929 he made his 21 year old son, Carl Jr. (1908 – 1974) head of all production at Universal City.
‘Junior’ ( as he became known) may not have been up there with young Irving Thalberg ( who had also worked at Universal) ,but he did oversee King Of Jazz and All Quiet On the Western Front (which was in production at the same time.) Laemmle Sr.gave full credit to his son for purchasing the rights to All Quiet and choosing its director.
‘Junior’ would later bring Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy to the screen. He also produced BACK STREET and IMITATION OF LIFE. He championed director JAMES WHALE and was working on SHOW BOAT when Laemmle Sr. lost control of the studio.His final production, MY MAN GODFREY started shooting during Junior’s final week at the studio.
I really knew nothing about Carl Laemmle’s son until reading about King of Jazz. He had stepped down as head of production in 1934 and formed his own production company at Universal.
He never produced another film after Show Boat in 1936. I would love to know more about him. Maybe not ‘a boy genius’ like Thalberg, but worthy of some attention for the 6 years he ran Universal.
Once Bing became a star, he was featured prominently on any publicity .
Carl Laemmle Jr made at least 9 foreign versions , with a different Master of Ceremonies (Charles Irwin in the English version.)
Bela Lugosi did the Hungarian intros. Nils Asther did the Swedish version.
The movie was more popular abroad than in the States.
The studio tried to recoup some of the costs by reissuing the film in 1933, but they reduced the film’s length to 65 minutes. Some exhibitors advertised it as starring Bing Crosby. Others featured John Boles who had been successful in BACK STREET. By 1933, Whiteman was no longer the star attraction. ( The public are fickle!)
A profit of $100,000 was made.
The next Universal musical wasn’t for two years – MOONLIGHT AND PRETZELS.
John Murray Anderson went back to the stage. He featured ESTHER WILLIAMS in one of his aquacades and later on he staged the spectacular finale of Esther’s first feature, BATHING BEAUTY.
Paul Whiteman was active in radio and live performances throughout the 1930s.
A perfect accompaniment to seeing the film is the 2016 book by James Layton and David Pierce. It tells you everything you need to know about the making of the film and is full of terrific illustrations.
David Pierce is the co-founder of the Media History Digital Library which provides online an excellent selection of motion picture magazines ,free to view.
The story of how King Of Jazz came to be made is in itself a great insight into the early days of sound pictures and how this one picture reached our screens.
I’ve only covered some of what’s in this film. Being a revue, there are sketches ( some funny, some dated), eccentric dancing , an animated cartoon ( first one in color), ‘The Stars and Stripes forever ‘ played on a bicycle pump)! I loved all of it!
Congratulations are due to Universal for restoring this fascinating film, and to James Layton and David Pierce for their excellent history of the film.
Now, let’s have the DVD soonest!
And my thanks to the Glasgow Film Theatre for screening it.