Paul Whiteman’s revue King of Jazz (Broadway director John Murray Anderson’s lone film) comes to Blu-ray in the most complete form possible, having received a brand new 4K restoration by Universal Pictures. The film is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer disc and has been given a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode.
An incredibly ambitious project at the time, with some estimates on its cost going up to 2 million dollars, the film ultimately flopped thanks to poor timing; audiences were worn out by bad musical revues being released one after the other while the Great Depression was just starting to do its thing. The film was released again three years later in a heavily truncated form (from around 105-minutes to 65-minutes) and then just kind of disappeared after that. It was discovered again decades later in its modified forms and ended up building a cult audience before a VHS was released with what footage was available, bringing the film up to over 90-minutes. This new restoration runs over 100-minutes and has been constructed to come as close as possible to its original release back in 1930.
To reconstruct the film the 35mm original nitrate negative was used as the primary source, while various prints were used to fill in some of the shorter and lengthier gaps. There is a noticeable variance in quality when jumping between sources but that’s only because the segments that use the negative look so unbelievably good, surpassing my expectations by an unbelievable amount. The film was shot using the two-strip Technicolor process, which only made use of red and green, and I admit to expecting a bit of a mess from this (colour separation, lack of detail, washed out colours, etc.) but that is not at all the case. At its best, despite the almost 100-year old technology, it can look decades newer, delivering a shocking amount of detail, little-to-no damage, cleanly rendered colours, gorgeous fine grain, and decent depth. When we jump to an alternate source the image takes on a far more dupey look, appearing fuzzier with coarser grain and washed out colours with some more noticeable separation. Contrast also takes a hit, destroying most shadow detail. These problematic sequences are really outside the norm, though, and I have to say that most of the film looks incredible.
Considering the film’s history and how the restoration called for piecing it all together from multiple sources it should come as no surprise that the film is still not complete. The film is missing footage from a handful of introductions and is also missing a number of frames throughout. To compensate for this and keep the film in synch with the soundtrack photographs of scene participants have been inserted to fill in longer gaps, while the shorter gaps will present a freeze frame that then fades into the next available frame before continuing on. There are sudden blackouts at the end of the skits that may throw some viewers off, but these are by design: Anderson, who came directly from stage directing, used this blackout method to punctuate a punchline and that is how it has been employed here.
In the end there are a handful of things still holding the final image back, primarily due to source materials, but considering everything this film has gone through over the decades since its original release the end result is truly remarkable. Add on the superb encode that renders the grain cleanly and doesn’t show any noticeable digital artifacts and you have one hell of final presentation. 8/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Though the film has its fans I can see where people will come to this completely fresh and be a bit stunned and/or lost once the film ends. Criterion seems to be well aware of this, having the supplements really focus significantly more than usual on the historical importance of the film and this transitional period in Hollywood (moving to sound, working with colour, etc.) along with how jazz was seen by the mainstream. It also, very fairly, addresses a number of problems with the film.
Film and jazz critic—and this film’s number one fan based on all evidence here—Gary Giddens appears in an introduction for the film, as well as in an audio commentary, the latter alongside music and cultural critic Gene Seymour, and musician and bandleader Vince Giordano. In the intro Giddens spends 16-minutes explaining his love for the film before going over its history and its recent restoration. The commentary is, of course, much meatier, with the three discussing in abundant detail the various stage acts and their performers, also talking about jazz up to this point, how it was seen by the general audience (it wasn’t held in the highest of esteem), and how Whiteman and films like this helped bring it more acceptance. Of course this was all at a cost and the three do address the elephant in the room: the lack of African American representation in the film. They address why this would have happened, though thankfully don’t try to excuse it. They do suspect that Whiteman bringing in a little girl at one point (acknowledging that the cloying scene is tokenism to an extreme degree) may have been his way around skittish execs in trying to represent jazz’s origins in a small way, but it of course doesn’t alleviate thing in any way. They are maybe a little too forgiving about other elements of the film, though thankfully don’t let the last “Melting Pot” number off the hook. It’s a fun track and quite informative, particularly in the details about (actual) jazz and the key players, certainly worth a listen.
Musician and pianist Michael Feinstein also shows up for 19-minutes to offer his own thoughts on the film and its value, despite its flaws, since it works as a capsule that captures all of these performances and performers who were in danger of being forgotten.
The best, and most fascinating offering, though, are a group of visual essays by James Layton and David Pierce, based on their book around the film’s production and this new restoration, ”King of Jazz”: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue. This fascinating section is divided into 5 really wonderful sections starting with a great 10-minute intro that goes over Universal’s early days and how this film came to light (and the looooonnnngggg pre-production period) followed by an 11-minute video looking at its production from the two-strip Technicolor process to its sets and to its innovative effects, which were then used in other pictures. There is then a 5-minute piece about the film’s opening animated sequence and a 17-minute video that focuses more on director Anderson and the Broadway influences he brought to the film. This is then all closed off with a small gallery presenting the sheet music for two versions of the animated sequences’ score, written by James Dietrich. It’s a rich and detailed section that has also been wonderfully edited together. A really, really strong addition.
The biggest surprise, considering how the film was almost lost, are three deleted scenes and an alternate opening. The notes mention that these scenes were cut out of the original release of the film but were actually added back into the 1933 rerelease, even though that version was shorter. This, of course, is probably why the scenes still exist, and shockingly they also look to be restored, on par with the best looking scenes in the main feature. The three deleted scenes are actually excised skits, running between 26-seconds and 90-seconds, and easily more risqué (for the time) than what did appear in the original version of the film. I did laugh at the one I’m almost ashamed to admit. The alternate titles ultimately just list the players in a different fashion (with some photos) along with a new introduction by the producer.
Criterion then includes two short films related to the main feature, in one way or the other. The first, All Americans, from 1929, provides an early staging of Anderson’s “Melting Pot” number. It’s fascinating just to see how it would be adjusted for the film but it’s no less grating. It runs a very long 19-minutes.
A bit better is 1933’s I Know Everybody and Everybody’s Racket, starring gossip columnist Walter Winchell as himself, bored and unable to find anything new and interesting to write about, taking interest in a young woman who shows up at the club he frequents, claiming to be a reporter (similar to him) from a small “hick town” trying to learn a thing or two. He offers to show her the ropes though things may not be as they appear. The 21-minute short’s plot is pretty thin though its purpose is to simply showcase a few musical numbers performed in the club, featuring Paul Whiteman and his band. It has its charms (Winchell is game for starters) but does in the end feel more like an ad, for… something… (Whiteman? Winchell? I don’t know.)
Accompanying those two shorts are then two Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons. The two were released around the time of King of Jazz and are related to the film. My Pal Paul features Oswald meeting an animated Paul Whiteman after Oswald’s failed suicide attempt (yep, you read that right) and insanity follows. The second is Africa, which actually reuses footage and (at the very least) similar scenarios from the animated sequence (including the more racist ones) in the main feature, though not in colour.
All of these shorts have been restored and look quite good here.
The release then closes with a booklet featuring an incredibly in-depth essay by Farran Smith Nehme, who even brings up points not really touched on in the other features, like the fact that international versions of the film actually cut in big stars from their respective countries (apparently the film did better overseas as well).
Altogether Criterion has done a superb job with the features. I confess not being too wowed by the film, though I’m admittedly not its target audience (I’m not particularly drawn to revues along these lines), but these features proved to be quite fascinating and did manage to get me to at the film a little differently. A really fantastic effort. 9/10