In 1929 Universal Pictures began work on what was to become their most ambitious project yet, and one of the most ambitious productions of its time. The film was the musical revue “King of Jazz” which starred bandleader Paul Whiteman and his orchestra—it’s important to note that during this time, the term “Jazz” was something of a catch-all that referred to dancehall music, pretty much anything that wasn’t classical. Universal intended “King of Jazz” to be a prestigious film for them, a screen dazzler that would cause lines around the box office months. Screen dazzler it is, the film flopped upon its release—which was most distressing as the film cost—in 1930 money $2,000,000 to make (adjusted for inflation this is roughly $29.5 million today).
In a strange way, “King of Jazz” flopping at the box office was something of a blessing in disguise for us modern movie freaks. Unlike Universal’s studio turn around successes of just a year later, “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” “King of Jazz” didn’t have it’s original negative overprinted into dust. Two years ago, Universal Pictures began work on a 4K digital restoration of “King of Jazz” using the original 35mm nitrate camera negative, and three 35mm prints of the film to create an amazing restoration of a landmark film from the early days of the musical.
I had never heard of “King of Jazz” until this restoration was announced in 2016, the online classic film world quickly became geeked up over the news that this film was getting restored to as intact a form as possible—a re-release trimmed the film and much of that cut material hasn’t been seen by audiences since the 1930s. This amazing restoration comes home on a wonderful new blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection, which I sat down last night and watched. “King of Jazz” is, without question, one of the most lavish, most gloriously over the top films I have ever seen.
“King of Jazz” today serves as a great document of stage and vaudeville talent of the era, that otherwise would be just names on a piece of paper. It also serves as a look into what mainstream pop culture was at the time. This film has sets that are overwhelming in their size—designed by Universal art director Herman Rosse, who would also create the gothic art design of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.”
There’s the first Technicolor animation early on the film, designed by Walter Lantz (who would create Woody Woodpecker) and William Nolan, vocal group The Rhythm Boys that features a 27 year old Bing Crosby, 16 chorus girls, a rubber legged dancer that will make your jaw a drop, and a man wearing a suit, scuba fins, and playing “Hooray for the Red, White and Blue” on a bicycle pump. I always don’t like to say “they don’t make them like they used to” but that VERY much applies to “King of Jazz.”
The Criterion Collection’s blu-ray of “King of Jazz” shows off the 4K restoration beautifully. The film looks stunning. You can tell what material was sourced from the 35mm nitrate negative as it has a clarity that few films of the 1930s have when scanned for HD. There are some softer shots where material from the 35mm prints are used to fill in missing negative material, and some missing parts where only the audio survives are gapped with still photos—but those are few and far between.
Extra features on this blurry include a superb introduction to the film by jazz and film critic Gary Giddins—he helps bring a great deal of context to the film that I found helpful in appreciating “King of Jazz.” Giddins also appears on a commentary track alongside critic Gene Seymour and bandleader Vince Giordano. An interview with musician Michael Feinstein, four video essays by archivists James Layton & David Pierce, Deleted scenes and an alternate opening sequence, plus two short films from the era, and two Oswald The Lucky Rabbit cartoons that use animation and music from “King of Jazz.” An essay by critic Farran Smith Nehem rounds out the special features.
“King of Jazz” is mind-blowing in his audacity and ambition. A huge, lavish film that shows some of the most popular musicians and talent of the era. It’s a fascinating film to watch, and often will dazzle your senses. The film looks stunning in this 4K restoration, and this is one that everyone who is interested in the history of the Hollywood musical should give a look at.
See you next week.