King of Jazz - hero image
Stories & Ideas

Fri 23 Dec 2016

Eloise Ross

Eloise Ross

Writer, academic and Melbourne Cinémathèque President

Melbourne Cinémathèque President Eloise Ross looks at the restoration of 'King of Jazz'.

I’ve often wondered why I’m drawn to bright, uncommon colours like peach and spearmint. Seeing King of Jazz (John Murray Anderson, 1930), I realised where my fascination came from: two-strip Technicolor. It’s not a technology that I grew up with, but it’s one whose aesthetic influenced productions, images, and cartoons I fawned over as a child. Today, the quaint beauty of the two-strip process is a rarity and of sincere historical interest – the film couldn’t capture blue, for instance – but with peach feather boas and bright emerald suits amongst the treats offered, it’s enough to dazzle any eye.  

James Layton and David Pierce’s new book, which details the fascinating production history of King of Jazz, has been published as an accompaniment to the digital restoration of the film itself. As only the second all-talking feature filmed entirely in colour, the production process went terrifically over budget and failed to impress audiences in Hollywood and New York, which were then being ravaged by the Great Depression. And yet it’s obvious that Universal had a particular glint in their eye. “Music has charms that nothing else has,” is the opening line spoken by the narrator of King of Jazz, and the film is an emblem of music as an utopian antidote to the times. But with all those rosy cheeks, created as much by rouge blush as by the film’s colours, it’s hard to imagine anyone not being even a little delighted by the film. Spurning an overarching narrative, this is a revue-like flip through bandleader Paul Whiteman’s Scrap Book, yet still develops its own contained storyline and set of characters, and recurring performances from Bing Crosby, John Boles, the iconically rubber-limbed Al Norman, and Laura La Plante.

All this makes King of Jazz a unique gem, and its achievements should be treasured now, given the struggle to keep the film alive. What it does with the screen is all spectacle, ranging from colour, choreography, to cinematically enhancing the astounding physical abilities of the human body. Its dance sequences contain a type of choreographed composition than was mastered and popularised by Busby Berkeley at Warner Bros., with some aerial cinematography of bodies mimicking the prismatic effect of a kaleidoscope. In other segments, abstracted, floating body parts are used to choreograph dance numbers, and are even more sophisticated than the same technique in some later films. There’s a fantastic shot of a clarinetist, his face divided by green and red light, and the wall behind him split in line with his clarinet, lit in opposite shades. A sharp camera angle makes it appear that a man is simply a suit with a trombone instead of a head. Grand staircases, palm trees, and fronds made of sparkling glass, surround the Paul Whiteman Orchestra as they play. A group of chorus girls dance delicately through a miniature model Times Square, their own movements complimented by a lively model traffic layout below. If you are familiar with this period – and even if you aren’t – you will most likely recognise some of its stylistic markers, but it’s an entirely unique experience to have them all assembled in one magnificent display of cinema’s technical and musical grandeur on the big screen.

King of Jazz 2.jpg

A still from 'King of Jazz' (1930)

This film comes to us, restored thanks to the rigorous enthusiasm of many fans in the past 80 odd years, and the attention of the studio who responded to a campaign by film historians David Stenn and Ron Hutchinson. King of Jazz is proof that fans and cinephiles invested in the historical relevance of art have voices to be heard, and of the joy of preserving films at risk of disappearing. The threat of disappearance is embedded in this restoration, too, which has a few disconcerting moments where several frames have been lost and the image pauses, but the sound – which was recorded separately in 1929 – is continuous. Nevertheless, while this is an extremely important document it contains some very harmful racial stereotypes, and also frames a style of music while barely acknowledging its roots. The programmers at ACMI make no excuses for the anachronisms, acknowledging that some of the representations belong entirely to a more limited era of social and cultural awareness. That is not at all to suggest the film should be cast aside. Its restoration is, truly, a celebration of the rhythm of cinema and a gift to film history. 

– Eloise Ross