This product was provided to us by Criterion for the purpose of this review. All opinions are our own.
King of Jazz is a particular type of musical that existed for only a brief time in Hollywood. The revue, a variety show without a conventional narrative, was popular in the late 1920s and early 1930s as a kind of canned theatre that was fairly easy to produce as the spectacle of sound (and, in the case of King of Jazz, early color) were in demand by American audiences. Of course, once the pure spectacle of sound wore off, comedy and melodrama had to join the fray to keep audiences interested, and the revue was left in the dustbin of history.
However, Criterion now returns to us one of these revues in King of Jazz, one of the few two-color Technicolor films of the time and an example of the kinds of artistry being done at the infancy of two technologies in Hollywood history. Indeed, looking back, it is not surprising that King of Jazz won an Oscar for art direction in its day. The way color is painted across the frame, in particular through costumes, will stand out to any student of film history.
Though perhaps what is more impressive for the time is how much editing is going on. So many musicals of the ’30s and ’40s rely heavily on long takes that rarely move to show either the breadth of dancing abilities (e.g., Astaire and Rogers) or the way full bodies can move in unison from above (e.g., Busby Berkeley). Here though, there are a surprising number of moving shots and cuts to odd angles or close-ups emphasizing the physicality of the dancing and singing.
On another note entirely, it is very odd seeing classic crooner Bing Crosby in technicolor glory at the ripe age of 27 in his first film role. While he has that wonderful charm for which he became known, here he’s just another “Joe” with a sparkle in his eye as a part of The Rhythm Boys, a trio that would only last another year as Crosby’s career took off.
What will really shock a modern audience (especially one that loves the Fantasia 2000 version of the Gershwin standard) is the performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Here the scene is elaborately set with an entirely blue-coded production design following pianists and musicians of all kinds around the sound stage to highlight the complexity of the music.
One pianist sitting in front of a grand piano is superimposed on a giant grand piano filled with other musicians ready to fill out the orchestration as the music expands. It’s a wonderful sequence for fans of Gershwin’s music to see how even early musical cineasts tried to do justice to the soundscapes with such visuals.
The film’s final sequence in particular makes moves to go beyond the standard musical revue fare with moments that verge on the surreal in their avant-garde aesthetic, as well as dance numbers that still seem remarkable in their creativity today.
At the same time, despite all this praise I have to heap on the film, it is hard to watch the new Criterion King of Jazz restoration and not be wishing for similar releases of the Golddiggers musicals, 42nd Street or Footlight Parade. While I feel obligated to wonder whether the images were so crystal clear in 1930, today this transfer makes the classic musical feel fresh and almost transgressive in its aesthetics.
And on the note of the Criterion specific contributions, King of Jazz contains all the usual amenities, including interviews, video essays and commentaries. But standing out here are early versions of some of the sequences in the revue. Because this film is already so scantily seen, this Blu-ray release operates as its own historical object that contains enough content for you to understand why this film, of all the old Hollywood revues, got the Criterion treatment.