Home Video Hovel: King of Jazz, by David Bax

Somehow, it seems like it would sound diminishing to refer to John Murray Anderson’s King of Jazz from 1930 as a “technical marvel.” It is just that but years of cinephiles dismissing films as “style over substance” (a baffling criticism that ignores how substantial a cinematic ingredient style is) makes one wary of praising a movie from that angle. But, the fact remains, film is an art form that depends a great deal on technical know-how and one whose history is marked with and often divided by technical sea changes.

King of Jazz, a musical revue revolving around band leader Paul Whiteman with interludes of animation and comedy sketches, was made in the two-strip Technicolor process which, despite being the industry’s norm for color for more than fifteen years, seems to have produced very few films that have stuck around in the public consciousness. Not having all three primary colors with which to work, these films were limited to hues along a spectrum from red to green. Anderson wisely treats this as a strength and leans heavily toward the green, with most sets and costumes dominated by a seafoam-like shade. The meticulous use of color, along with camera tricks like double exposure and post-production techniques like optical printing, lead to a final product that is a magical visual wonder.

It’s a marvel to look at in more traditional, non-technological ways as well. Anderson’s sets, a different one for each musical number, are massive and ingenious. The visual device that links the segments, for instance, is a book roughly three stories tall. And perhaps the film’s most iconic image is a row of pianists sitting at the keys of a piano so massive the entire rest of the orchestra plays on top of it. Toss in the clever use of forced perspective and a mess of giant bird puppets and it all adds up to some flapper’s absinthe hallucination.

In a genre-based category system, you’d file King of Jazz under “Musical” but it counts just as much as a comedy. The songs themselves are dominantly funny, like a virtuosic violin rendition of “Pop Goes the Weasel,” but the sketches in between them, such as an ode to goldfish, are consistently hilarious and hold up surprisingly well, even if the many jokes about war could only have been made during peacetime. In one such instance, a soldier on a battlefield ask his dying comrade to tell him his name, “so I can tell your mother.” “Why, you darn fool,” the dying man replies, “My mother knows my name.” If you find that funny (and how could you not?), King of Jazz is for you.

The booklet included with the Criterion Blu-ray suggests that the film was both scanned and restored in 4K from a mix of the original negative and some supplemental prints. The effort is apparent, as this looks crisper and brighter than the handful of clips of King of Jazz I’d seen in the past. There is some missing footage and frames, though, replaced where necessary by stills. The mono audio is also crystal clear, the importance of which cannot be overstated in this case.

The copious and exhaustive special features include a new commentary by critics Gary Giddins and Gene Seymour along with musician Vince Giordano, a new introduction by Giddins, a new interview with musician Michael Feinstein, four new video essays by archivists James Layton and David Pierce, deleted scenes, an alternate opening, two short films, two cartoons and an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.

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