If you';re at all interested in the history of American movie musicals and American pop music generally, you have to see "King
of Jazz." Rent it now, and enjoy it, and not just for historical reasons, but also because it's still in part damned
entertaining, even now, three-quarters of a century after its original release.
The film was one of the first Technicolor musicals, though consisting only of two colors - colors that have faded considerably
over the years. It was the very first film to include a cartoon sequence with sound, and that sequence, which opens the film,
is as well done as any animation you'll see today.
The film is a review built around the highly popular orchestra of Paul Whiteman who, despite the title, was definitely
not a jazz musician. Whiteman did, however, employ some of the great jazz artists of the day such as Bix Beiderbecke and two
men who appear in the film, violinist Joe Venuti and guitarist Eddie Lang . There are seven review numbers plus some comedy
sketches and blackouts and song and dance numbers by individual performers.
There are some pretty bad 1930 moments. The comedy sketches are, well, the only word is corny - very corny. Except for
one that's genuinely funny even in today's social climate, though I'm not saying which one.
You'll likely cringe, as I did, when one of several slick, patent-leather haired, rouged and lipsticked tenors of the
day steps forward to sing a soulful, oh so terribly sincere ballad. The female soloists are as stomach-achingly bad. But even
those treacley moments include lavish production numbers of the sort later associated with famed choreographer Busby Berkeley.
Lots of leggy, wonderfully synchronized chorus girls, lots of unusual, fast-shifting camera angles.
There also are a couple of very good solo dance numbers and among other highlights, a terrific staging of George Gershwin's
Rhapsody In Blue which Whiteman, of course, originally introduced at a storied Carnegie Hall concert.
The real star of the film, even though he appears much too briefly, is Bing Crosby - he and the other members of Whiteman's
featured vocal group, the Rhythm Boys, Harry Barris and Al Riker. Their harmony, rhythm, jazz sensibility, their very voices
are among the best things you'll ever hear (or see) on film, or anywhere else. They do only a few numbers, but those numbers
alone make "King of Jazz" a must-see film,.
Until Crosby came along, pop singers were all of the variety featured in the film's other vocal numbers. Crosby's crooning
changed that, and the film offers a great opportunity to see the difference, and to understand - and appreciate - why the
shift was made from tenors to crooners.
Copyright © Dick Meister