Christopher Machell Criterion

Criterion Review: King of Jazz

★★★☆☆

Costing a pricey-for-the-time $2 million, John Murray Anderson’s 1930 film was a Technicolor extravaganza but an almighty flop on release. Like a live-action, jazz precursor to Disney’s Fantasia, King of Jazz forgoes narrative in favour of big-screen spectacle and musical numbers.

Setting out its stall in the opening minutes, we are treated to an animated segment about the unlikely story of how Paul Whiteman, the film’s band leader and one of the most successful jazz musicians of the era, became the “King of Jazz”. There’s an instant charm to the slightly creepy creatures as their cartoon forms shift in sync with the music, and the prologue’s free form, bandy-legged style is indicative of an era not yet settled into the anodyne morality or narrative coherence of later animation periods. It’s a perfect thematic fit for the ensuing live-action segments.

A lengthy introduction of Whiteman’s band utilises virtually every cinematic trick in the book, including forced perspective, key lighting, and dissolves. The brand spanking new Technicolor, still in its infancy, seems to straddle the line between colouration and the more sophisticated, grounded colour of mid-century Hollywood. The unnaturally vibrant red and green hues grant the film a deliriously hyper-real quality, in which the service of banal reality is temporarily suspended.

King of Jazz is at its strongest when it embraces the strange and surreal, and its strongest sequence is a heady rendition of the catchy tune ‘Happy Feet’. Beginning with a ghostly pair of stop-motion dancing shoes superimposed in front of the band. It’s a dizzying riot of music and imagery, a literal melting pot of 1930s iconography, pop culture, and political aesthetics – all to the syncopated rhythm of that swing time beat. The dreamlike shot of two disembodied women’s heads kaleidoscoped into four – both adorned with Louise-Brooks bobs – singing in English and German, surely deserves rehabilitation as one of the era’s truly great images.

Sadly, the film cannot maintain these moments of genius, and too often feels like a filmed variety show, with static, stagey cameras and uninspired skits. The lack of narrative proves a double-edged sword – if one bit isn’t working, then no matter, another will be along soon enough. But equally, it’s difficult to fully invest in the whole when the parts are so diffuse. Moreover, many of the weaker segments have dated badly – particularly the comedy skits, which more often than not play as uninspired sub-Chaplin gags and pratfalls. The strongest among these is undoubtedly the all-too-brief women journalists’ bit: its depiction of contemporary gender politics paradoxically cringe-inducing and subtly subversive.

It’s not hard to see why King of Jazz flopped on its first release. As mainstream cinema, it’s incoherent and as variety entertainment often dull and unsophisticated, even for the music-hall tastes of 1930s audiences. Yet to dismiss the film as one for mere historical interest would be to miss the inspiration and innovation within. Indeed, in its best moments, King of Jazz offers a glimpse at the joy of cinema as spectacle.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell