Rhapsody in Green and Orange – EPILOGUE

Scroll down to see, if you haven’t seen it already, my two-part tribute to Universal Pictures’ King of Jazz (1930). This epilogue is for the benefit of Cinedrome readers who live within traveling distance of Sacramento, Calif. I’ve got big news, and the news is this:

The February 22 screening at Sacramento’s Tower Theatre is ON!

Kudos to the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society for sponsoring this screening. They’re not only bringing this brilliant restoration of a truly one-of-a-kind historic picture to Sacramento audiences, but they’re stealing a march on San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and every other city on the West Coast except Los Angeles (where KOJ screened at Cinecon in September). This is a real feather in Sacramento’s cap — and in the Jazz Society’s.

I urge anybody who can make their way to the Tower at the corner of Broadway and Land Park Drive in Sacramento by 7:00 p.m. on the 22nd of next month to nail their tickets down right away — seating is limited, and it may be a while before the inevitable Blu-ray makes its way to market. It seems that clearing the music rights to all the songs used in King of Jazz is proving quite a challenge; unlike MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount and other studios, Universal never had their own music company. And besides, in 1930 nobody foresaw the need to secure video — or even television — rights. Somehow this issue didn’t arise when Universal issued their “bastard” VHS version in the 1980s, but it’s here now: the rights have drifted off into the (possibly unknowing) hands of diverse relatives, survivors and heirs and are proving quite a can of worms to track down.

Theatrical rights, however, are another matter, of course — Universal secured those in perpetuity back in 1930, and they’ve guarded them closely ever since. (The Los Angeles County Museum of Art walked into a humiliating buzzsaw back in 1970 when they announced a screening of an incomplete print borrowed from a private collector without securing the necessary rights. Universal lowered the boom, the egg-faced Museum had to back down, and the thing only blew over when they offered to surrender the print to the Library of Congress. The hapless collector was out of luck.)

Fortunately, there’ll be no such problem at the Jazz Society’s upcoming benefit screening. They’ve secured rights, and in fact Mike Daruty, NBCUniversal’s Senior V.P. for Global Media Operations, is tentatively scheduled to join us all at the Tower and introduce the picture.

So spare no effort and do yourselves a favor: Get your ticket(s) now, either by clicking on the link above to the Jazz Society’s home page, or by clicking here to go directly to their ticket site. King of Jazz may have been a financial debacle for Universal back in the day, but believe me, of all the studio revues of the early sound era, there isn’t another one that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. And in its newly restored form, it certainly doesn’t look like an 86-year-old movie.

I hope I’ve persuaded you; the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society is doing a tremendous public service by sponsoring this screening, and they deserve to benefit to the max from it. Meanwhile, here are another couple of links for your enjoyment and edification:

A YouTube post of My Pal Paul, a black-and-white Walter Lantz cartoon produced by Universal as a cross-promotion; and

A Vimeo clip with a three-minute trailer for the picture. Unfortunately, it’s from a 16mm print with badly faded color; trust me, the picture looks much better now (and for that matter, it sounds better too, with a cleaned-up monaural soundtrack). This link is generously provided by my friend Matías at Matías Bombal’s Hollywood.

A Holiday Treat (I Hope!) for Cinedrome Readers

The story goes that writer Philip Van Doren Stern once wrote a little story he called “The Greatest Gift”. He worked on it from 1939 to 1943, then, when he felt it was ready, he found himself unable to interest anyone in publishing it; there was a healthy market among magazines for 4,100-word short stories in those days — but not, it seemed, for “The Greatest Gift”.  So Stern had 200 copies printed in a little booklet and sent them out to family and friends as his Christmas card that year. In time, the story came to the attention of Hollywood, and eventually, after a few false starts here and there, director Frank Capra made it the basis for his 1946 picture It’s a Wonderful Life with James Stewart and Donna Reed.

Taking a leaf from Philip Van Doren Stern, and in keeping with the spirit of the season, I’m offering a little story of my own as a sort of Christmas card for my Cinedrome readers. Not because I ever expect anyone to make a great picture out of it; in fact, it’s nothing to do with movies or Hollywood at all. Just a tale told to me by a wise and wonderful older person I once knew.

It’s called “The Sensible Christmas Wish”, and you can find it on the drop-down menu under Jim’s Fiction at the top of the page. Just click on the title and there you are.

If you like the story, feel free to share it with friends and family. Please remember, though, that like everything else here at Cinedrome, it is under copyright, and all rights are reserved.

Happy Holidays!

Jim

Rhapsody in Green and Orange, Part 2

official-photo-girls02If John Murray Anderson had been on board from the get-go, and if production had begun promptly once Paul Whiteman was signed in October 1928, King of Jazz might have caught the crest of the studio-revue wave as talkies came in, instead of sinking in the undertow as the wave rolled out. At the very least, the picture’s astronomical costs would have been only a fraction of what they were — even with Technicolor and Herman Rosse’s spectacular sets (which won him an Oscar for 1929-30). That in turn would have made King of Jazz‘s profit threshold a lot lower; in all likelihood, the picture would have cost less and earned more. But such was not to be. King of Jazz’s big splash turned into a belly-flop, and it sank like a rock.

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And that might have been the end of it, had it not been for something that almost nobody in 1930 foresaw: Bing Crosby became a star. In King of Jazz he got only seventh billing — and at that, not even by name, but as one of the Rhythm Boys (with Al Rinker and Harry Barris), the scat-singing piano and vocal trio that toured as members of Whiteman’s band. If anybody had been making predictions at the time, they probably would have picked Harry Barris as the one who was going places. But instead it was Bing, first on records, then radio, finally in movies with 1932’s The Big Broadcast at Paramount (where they wasted no time putting him under contract). He wasn’t yet the national institution he would become (and remain to his dying day), but he was definitely hot, and his popularity was a factor in Universal’s decision to reissue King of Jazz in June 1933. (Another factor was the return of musicals to audience favor in the wake of 42nd Street, Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933 over at Warner Bros.)

This reissue was a substantially different movie from the one audiences saw (or more often, didn’t see) in 1930. The order of the sequences was changed and the running time slashed from 104 minutes to 65. Production numbers were shortened, at least one whole song eliminated (“I’d Like to Do Things for You”, sung by pert little Jeanie Lang to Paul Whiteman, then reprised by William Kent and Grace Hayes, then again by the dance act Nell O’Day and the Tommy Atkins Sextet). All but one of the comedy blackouts were cut, while three that had been shot in 1930 but never used were added. Bing’s appearances with the Rhythm Boys were all retained, of course, and he was given star billing in a new set of opening credits.

Also substantially different had been the foreign market versions of King of Jazz that had played overseas during 1930 and ’31. The United Kingdom got the same picture as the U.S., but foreign language versions dispensed with all the comedy blackouts and added new introductions for the musical selections, shot with native-speaking hosts in Spanish, Czech, Hungarian (one of the hosts here was the as-yet-unknown Bela Lugosi), Swedish, Portuguese, German, Italian, French and Japanese.

rhapsody-intro-whiteman02So let’s recap: By the end of 1933, there had been a total of some 11 distinctly different versions of King of Jazz (or El Rey del Jazz, Král jazzu, Der Jazzkönig, La Féerie du Jazz, Kingu Obu Jazu, etc.) playing somewhere on the globe at one time or another. This confusing plethora of source material would present quite a challenge 80-plus years later, when NBCUniversal undertook to restore the picture in 2015.

But first would come decades of obscurity — partly because, while movie musicals managed to regain favor with audiences, revues never did, and partly because Technicolor’s perfecting of their three-strip process in 1934 rendered King of Jazz‘s two-strip Tech obsolete (and, in the eyes of the Technicolor Corp., a bit of an embarrassment). King of Jazz was never released on 16mm for non-theatrical markets, nor was it in any of the packages released to television — the customary routes for movies to find their way into the underground world of film collecting. Among movie buffs the picture gained the status of wistful legend, a movie that few could remember seeing, nobody could even guess at where or how to find, and only trivia connoisseurs had ever even heard of. By 1954, it was commonly assumed that nothing survived but the picture’s trailer.

Then in the 1960s bits and pieces began surfacing here and there, snippets unearthed at various archives and distribution centers. There was even a “reconstruction” in 1965 that managed to combine a mute copy of the image from the French La Féerie du Jazz with soundtrack discs from the Czech Král jazzu. That was no doubt a strange animal indeed — but it was the only King of Jazz anybody knew about.

That is, until a nearly-complete nitrate print surfaced in the late ’60s, a print whose origins are still a little cloudy. One story, probably apocryphal, claimed that it was found among Benito Mussolini’s effects after his execution in 1945, and it was known in some quarters as “the Mussolini print”. But that’s hardly likely; if Mussolini had anything, it surely would have been Il re de jazz.

In 1968, British broadcaster and film collector Philip Jenkinson gained access to this “Mussolini” print and made his own dupe negative from it, which he used to strike 16mm prints for discreet trading among collectors. As additional footage became available (and Jenkinson did have his connections), this version grew from 88 to 95 minutes by 1975.

Finally, long story short — again, pick up James Layton and David Pierce’s book for the full fascinating story — Universal licensed King of Jazz for selected festival screenings, and they made preservation elements from the original nitrate camera negative, which miraculously survived in the studio’s vault (albeit only in the 65 min. reissue version; cuts had been made in the original negative and all the trims discarded). The picture was released to cable TV in March 1983, and on VHS cassette later that year.

frame23-rhapsody-piano-bandstand03aIt’s this VHS version that has been in circulation for 33 years (never available on DVD except in various bootlegs), and on which my own fondness for King of Jazz has always rested. (The picture here, and the shot of the Russell Markert Girls in Part 1, are frame-caps from it.) Now I learn that this was (in Layton and Pierce’s words) “a bastardized version…a mishmash of the 1930 and 1933 releases compiled to create the longest possible cut.” And at that, it still runs only 91 minutes.

Worse, the Universal home video department, in a (possibly) well-intended but (definitely) misguided effort to make the color more natural-looking to modern audiences, tinkered with the two-strip Tech — e.g., cranking up the blue, a color to which the process was blind. You can see it in this picture.

(As an aside, this kind of thing was common in those early days of home video, though it never sparked the outrage that attended the colorizing of black-and-white movies, since people had nothing to compare it to. Case in point: Warner Bros.’ Mystery of the Wax Museum. That one was long believed lost until a 35mm nitrate print surfaced in 1969 — by some reports, in Jack L. Warner’s private collection. I saw that print projected in a Midnight Halloween screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1970. The palette was limited, of course, but the color was delicately gorgeous, a far cry from the pallid, harsh, high-contrast image on every video release I’ve ever seen. Those releases all derive from the print I saw, the only one in existence, and I’m here to tell you they’re all absolutely wrong.)

The source material used for that VHS release of King of Jazz was highly variable, and some of it was pretty badly battered, with high contrast and washed-out color. In restoring the picture, NBCUniversal reviewed 16 different surviving picture elements of varying lengths, ultimately using four of them and coordinating with a complete 104 minute copy of the original soundtrack. I was going to scan some of the images from the restoration (as published in Layton and Pierce’s book) and post them here with frame-caps from the VHS for comparison, but there’s an even more dramatic demonstration available at the Two-Strip Technicolor site on Tumblr. Click on the link to see before-and-after crossfades from the VHS to the digital restoration (including the image immediately above).

official-photo-band-in-piano02Seen today — and I speak, of course, from familiarity with the “bastardized” VHS release — King of Jazz remains an embarrassment of riches. Some, admittedly, are richer than others, while some are chiefly of historical interest as examples of the kind of comedy and novelty performances that died with vaudeville. Several of the more impressive set pieces — for example, “My Bridal Veil”, a pageant of wedding attire from different historical eras from the 1550s to the 1920s, and “Rhapsody in Blue” itself — are film versions of shows John Murray Anderson staged for Paramount Publix Theatres. As such, they are of keen interest to those of us who know about such prologues only from what we can see in Footlight Parade. To see these extravaganzas in the flesh must really have been a knockout; to see them now in Technicolor is a real trip in the time machine.

It must be said that the movie gives short shrift to the African American contribution to the birth and development of true jazz — a contribution that was, of course, commanding, overwhelming and absolutely dominant. In the picture’s spectacular finale, “The Melting Pot of Music”, the roots of American popular music are traced to influences from England, Italy, Scotland, Germany, Ireland, Spain, Russia, and France. Conspicuous by their absence are elements from anywhere other than the continent of Europe — nothing from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean or Native America. But King of Jazz is a product of its time, and it never pretends to be an analytical documentary. It’s best that we judge not, lest we be judged and found wanting 90 years hence. Within the limits of its day and time, King of Jazz is a sumptuous spectacle and an impressive achievement.

Made even more impressive, one trusts and evidence suggests, in the new digital restoration so lovingly chronicled in King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue. As restored, the picture now runs 99 minutes; a few minutes, alas, seem irretrievably lost. Selected screenings are being scheduled worldwide, and a Blu-ray release must surely be on the table at some point. If you happen to be within driving distance of Cinedrome’s home in Sacramento, California, you may be in luck: A screening is tentatively scheduled (awaiting signing of contracts) for February 22, 2017 at Sacramento’s Tower Theatre, as a benefit for the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society. Personally, I’m counting the days; I can hardly wait to finally see this movie I’ve always liked so much. (UPDATE 12/3/16: The February 22 screening at the Tower Theatre is now confirmed. There will be one showing only, and tickets should become available around January 1. Watch this space for further details. — jl)

Rhapsody in Green and Orange, Part 1

poster03eI’ve always had a tremendous fondness for King of Jazz (1930).

Partly, this is because of my fascination with the early days of sound, when the carefully compiled rule book of how to make motion pictures went flying out the window and everybody had to start over again from Square One. (I insert here a plug for Scott Eyman’s The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930, the definitive chronicle of those chaotic years and one of the indispensible books on movie history. If you haven’t read it, do. You can thank me later.)

Looking back on those days when silent moviemaking went doggedly on even as part-talkies and all-talkies were becoming more and more dominant, we can see that the silent pictures of those transitional days, almost without exception, were vastly superior to the halting, lurching, lumbering experiments with sound that were coming out at the same time. Yes, they were better — but it didn’t matter. Audiences simply wouldn’t have the old stuff; they wanted talking pictures, and Hollywood had damn well better get with the program.

It was, in a way, an illustration of the old saw that said if you’re being run out of town, get out in front and make it look like a parade. While more and more picture houses, starting in the big cities and spreading out inexorable through the smaller markets, became wired for sound, the studios ransacked the theater world not only for talent but for ideas.

The 1920s on Broadway were the Golden Age of the Musical Revue, those hybrids of vaudeville and book musical comprised of singing, dancing, comedy and specialty acts, with no story but united under some all-encompassing theme. There were Florenz Ziegfeld’s annual Follies, of course, but also his Midnight Frolics, Earl Carroll’s Vanities, the Shubert Brothers’ The Passing Show, and a host of other annual productions and one-offs. In 1920, out of 55 musicals produced on Broadway, 16 were revues; in 1925 it was 15 out of 67; in 1929, 15 out of 63. The pattern holds for the entire decade: in any given Broadway season, no fewer than one in six musicals, and often as many as one in three, were revues.

Hollywood adopted the revue concept with alacrity. At MGM The Hollywood Revue of 1929 promised to be the first of an annual series (though it wasn’t); Warner Bros. came out with The Show of Shows, Paramount with Paramount on Parade, Fox with Happy Days.

At Universal it was King of Jazz, one of the first productions announced but, because of an expensive series of delays and false starts, the last one released. I’ve always found it the best of the bunch — sprightly, light on its feet, and in its way as daringly experimental as Citizen Kane. But as much as I’ve always liked King of Jazz, I now realize that I’ve never actually seen it.  

koj-book-72dpi02aThis disconcerting knowledge comes to me courtesy of a sumptuous, stunning new book, King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue by James Layton and David Pierce. (Full disclosure: I contributed $100 to the Kickstarter campaign to underwrite the book’s publication.) Layton and Pierce are the authors of the equally sumptuous and stunning The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915 – 1935, which was essentially a history of two-strip Technicolor, the process that was King of Jazz‘s second most important ace in the hole. (Its first was director John Murray Anderson, but I’ll get to him in a moment.)

Layton and Pierce’s book chronicles the back story of King of Jazz, beginning with the founding of Universal Pictures and progressing through the studio’s venturing into sound picture production by signing a contract with superstar bandleader Paul Whiteman; the picture’s checkered production history; its brutal box-office reception; its decades of obscurity and near-lost status; gradual rediscovery beginning in the late 1960s; and its eventual election to the National Film Registry in 2013, which spurred Universal to undertake a digital restoration in 2015 (completed earlier this year).

This restoration, which premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last May, brings King of Jazz (for the first time in 85 years) to within a few minutes of what audiences saw in 1930. And high time, too, because those of us who treasure King of Jazz have been basing our opinions on a “bastardized” version that first appeared on VHS in the 1980s.

whiteman01bI refer you to Layton and Pierce’s book to get the story in every fascinating detail. Here’s just a rough outline. In 1928 Universal signed bandleader Paul Whiteman to appear in the studio’s first all-talking picture, to be called King of Jazz — the sobriquet that had stuck to Whiteman, especially after he commissioned George Gershwin to compose “Rhapsody in Blue” for a 1924 concert at New York’s Aeolian Hall. (Note: I am indebted to the family of the late Jack Fulton, trombonist with the Whiteman band, and to Matías Bombal of Matías Bombal’s Hollywood, for this portrait of Whiteman, which the bandleader inscribed to Fulton in the 1920s.)

Actually, Whiteman was not (and did not pretend to be) a true jazz musician, but he knew a good hook when he heard it. Besides, he admired jazz and its practitioners, and he incorporated jazz styles and ideas into the carefully crafted arrangements that made his kind of music so wildly popular throughout the 1920s. The term “jazz” in those days encompassed the genre we’d call “pop” today (cf. the play and movie title The Jazz Singer, which is really about a pop singer); in that sense its application to Whiteman is fitting: he was, in his day, the true King of Pop — probably the first one, in fact.

Once Universal had Whiteman signed — on terms highly beneficial to the bandleader and his musicians, with perks that included the entire band’s salary and a special lodge built for them all to rehearse and relax in on the Universal City lot — the studio proceeded to…well…dither over exactly what kind of picture King of Jazz should be. The portly Whiteman was adamant that he was no actor (a point he would go on to prove in his later movie guest appearances) and he nixed any approach that would attempt to make him a romantic figure. With Hungarian emigré director Paul Fejos attached, story ideas were floated: a conventional biopic; a romance centering on two (fictitious) young people attached to the band, with Whiteman as a sort of father figure to the young lovers; and so on. Nothing jelled, and nothing met with Whiteman’s approval. Months passed; the band idled on Universal’s dime (except for their weekly radio show for Old Gold Cigarettes, which was broadcast from the West Coast) and the picture’s cost mounted without a single frame of film passing through a camera.

anderson01aFinally, exit Paul Fejos and enter John Murray Anderson. Anderson, 43 in 1929, was one of the acknowledged masters (perhaps even the preeminent one) of the musical revue, having first made his mark with The Greenwich Village Follies, which moved from Sheridan Square to Broadway in 1919. The show packed ’em in for months and led to annual sequels for the next six years, then a final edition in 1928. Anderson’s hallmarks were taste, artistry and technical innovation on a modest budget.

In 1925 Anderson signed with Publix Theatres, the distribution wing of Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players-Lasky Corp. (which owned and operated Paramount Pictures) to produce stage presentations for Publix theaters across the country. These “prologues”, designed to play before the main feature in motion picture houses, would be produced in New York and packaged to tour the Paramount circuit. (The practice was popular for years, but it would eventually wither with the changing economics of movie exhibition. Today its memory survives mainly in the premise of Busby Berkeley’s Footlight Parade of 1933; in fact, James Cagney’s character in Footlight Parade, Chester Kent, was probably inspired by Anderson).

After three years and over 50 shows, Anderson and Publix parted company over “creative differences” — i.e., Publix bridled at the shows’ increasing costs and Anderson resented Publix’s bean-counting. Anderson moved on to another Broadway revue, Murray Anderson’s Almanac, an ambitious project that folded after a disappointing run of only 69 performances.

By September 1929, with his Almanac in the process of flopping (it closed on October 12), Anderson was at loose ends. Fortunately, Universal came calling. They had abandoned the idea of making King of Jazz a story picture and now planned it as a revue. Their first choice to produce it, Florenz Ziegfeld, turned them down, so Whiteman suggested they approach Anderson. Anderson said yes.

After extensive consultations with Whiteman and Universal’s 21-year-old production chief Carl Laemmle Jr. (son of the studio’s founder), and preparations with set designer Herman Rosse (a longtime colleague of Anderson’s, with whom he had worked on Greenwich Village Follies and at Publix), production began on November 15, 1929 and concluded on March 20, 1930. The final product was, as Layton and Pierce aptly put it, “effectively a ‘greatest hits’ of John Murray Anderson and Paul Whiteman, mixed with the best elements of Broadway and vaudeville.” It featured musical performances by the Whiteman band and a variety of vocalists: John Boles, Jeanette Loff, Jeanie Lang, the Brox Sisters, and, in their screen debut, Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys: Bing Crosby, Al Rinker and Harry Barris. Interspersed with these were comedy blackouts performed by such studio contract players as Walter Brennan, Slim Summerville, Laura La Plante, and Glenn Tryon, plus Broadway import William Kent.

frame38-happy-feet-markert-girls02There was dancing, too. Most prominent in this area was a group of 16 high-kicking precision tappers then known as the Russell Markert Girls; in time this ensemble would come to be known as the Rockettes — first at New York’s 5,900-seat Roxy Theatre, then at Radio City Music Hall, where the group continues to this day. King of Jazz was, for them as for Bing Crosby, their movie debut.

In addition to these proto-Rockettes there were the singing and dancing Sisters G (aka German-born Karla and Eleanore Knospe, who took the “G” from their stepfather Georg Gutöhrlein), two sweetly sexy lookalikes with Louise Brooks haircuts and impish European charm; and Al Norman, an eccentric “rubberlegs” hoofer who danced a specialty during the “Happy Feet” production number, where Sisters G and the Markert Girls also had their chance to shine.

From the start of production, it was understood that Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” would be on the bill somewhere — a Paul Whiteman movie without it was simply unthinkable. Gershwin accordingly demanded a pretty penny for the rights — $50,000 — and got it. But a more intransigent challenge was the fact that two-strip Technicolor couldn’t photograph blue; it could handle red and green, and various combinations thereof, but that was it.

Anderson and Rosse took a two-pronged approach: (1) they interpreted the title as meaning “blue” in the sense of “melancholy” or “singing the blues”; and (2) as Anderson described it in his autobiography, “Rosse and I made tests of various fabrics and pigments, and by using an all gray and silver background finally arrived at a shade of green which gave the illusion of peacock blue.”

Universal released King of Jazz with all the fanfare they could muster in April 1930, and early returns looked promising. Alas, once the picture moved beyond its early road-show engagements in the big cities, it tanked. The long shilly-shallying over what kind of picture it should be had been its undoing — it had run up costs while the Whiteman band bummed around Universal City and Los Angeles doing nothing much, and worse, it allowed the public to become bored with the whole revue genre. Universal, in effect, waited to strike until the iron was cold.

In Europe, which was behind America’s curve on sound and where musical revues hadn’t yet worn out their welcome, King of Jazz did much better than at home. But not well enough: the final take worldwide was $1.7 million and change, against total costs of a hair over $3 million; Universal lost over $1.2 million (as I’ve mentioned before, multiply these numbers by 100 to get an approximate idea of the value in 2016 dollars). Only the simultaneous bonanza of All Quiet on the Western Front saved the studio from disaster.

Next time: Whither King of Jazz after 1930?