“You will be the second audience to have seen this film in a close approximation to its original form since 1930,” film curator Dave Kehr told a capacity crowd at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Saturday.
The movie about to screen was KING OF JAZZ, a Universal musical re-edited by the studio not long after its initial release and only available since then missing one-third of its original running time. It’s recently undergone an extensive (and costly) reconstruction, much to the delight of film buffs – including the 800 or so of us lucky enough to be at MoMA this weekend. The digital restoration brings this seminal film back to full-length for the first time since the Hoover administration.
“It’s something,” Kehr deadpanned. And brother, is it ever.
To demonstrate how excited those of us in attendance were to share this moment, we all applauded in unison at the opening title – before anybody played a note, sang a song, danced a number, or told a joke. And all of that varied performing artistry is on display in this Technicolor revue, headlined by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra (the most popular dance band of the 1920s) and featuring a “spectacular array of screen, stage and radio stars,” including the dance troupe that would become the Radio City Rockettes. Universal contract players like Laura LaPlante provide comic relief in blackout sketches, 26-year-old Bing Crosby croons with a trio called the Rhythm Boys, and there’s even a cartoon by Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz explaining Whiteman’s origins as “king” (it involves a lion and an Al Jolson imitation).
It’s all brilliantly staged by New York theatrical director John Murray Anderson, who first collaborated with Whiteman on live musical “prologues” for Paramount’s Publix Theaters circuit. (Anyone who’s seen Jimmy Cagney in 1933’s FOOTLIGHT PARADE knows what these are.) I was shocked to hear that KING OF JAZZ was Anderson’s first and only film, considering its inventive camera placement, use of double exposure, and elaborately choreographed overhead shots that pre-date Busby Berkeley. This is particularly notable at a time when musical numbers and dance sequences were often shot in static wide shots, with few variations in camera placement or focal length.
“There are really no films like what we’re going to see,” film historian and author David Pierce said in his introduction to the screening. “I’ve seen a lot of Technicolor films, both two-color and three-color, and you never see anything like this, because it’s so carefully thought out from a stage aesthetic.”
When it comes to unique uses of Technicolor, Pierce knows his reds and greens. He and MoMA’s James Layton are the authors of Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935 and the forthcoming King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue, a crowd-funded book on the film’s troubled history and redemptive restoration.
“Between the mid-1930s and the early-1960s no one was able to see KING OF JAZZ. It was effectively lost. It was not until a collector in England uncovered a nitrate print and copied it to 16mm that the film became accessible again,” Layton told me in March. “Later, Universal identified the two-color Technicolor camera negative in its collections, but it was only 65 minutes long as it had been cut down for the 1933 reissue. It was these two elements that were used for the 1980s VHS release.”
That nitrate print and Universal’s truncated camera negative were used for the restoration, along with an un-cut soundtrack negative from 1930. Missing footage was cobbled together from archives around the world, with a handful (five, by my count) of bridging introductions ostensibly lost forever and recreated with still pictures. (One other musical segment remains lost, and several skits added to the 1933 reissue were excluded, since they didn’t appear in the original release.) The end result is an eye-popping 98-minute film in the original running order replacing the shopworn cut-down that’s circulated for generations. And it likely looks better today than it did for original audiences 86 years ago.
But, according to film historian and preservationist Ron Hutchinson, the rescue of this seminal piece of film history almost didn’t happen.
“This restoration, three years ago, was dead as a doornail. There was absolutely no interest,” he told me at MoMA. “The turning point was, about two and a half years ago, a bunch of film buffs including me were able to convince all of the voting members on the National Film Registry that KING OF JAZZ ought to be on the Registry. And it was unanimous. Because of that, you can immediately start clocking progress.”
And it seems that Universal has caught a case of Restoration Fever, thanks perhaps in part to positive response for this effort. And that’s great news for classic film fans, considering that the studio controls both its own library and most of Paramount’s pre-1948 releases. (I talked with the Los Angeles Times‘ Michael Hiltzik about this last October.)
“Not only did they do KING OF JAZZ, I think they’ve done 39 other film restorations. They’ve done the five Marx Bros. Paramount films and some silent films. They have a nice sizable group now doing film preservation and restoration,” Hutchinson said. “So, you went from very little being done three years ago, to this being the cornerstone of getting Universal to really recognize the wealth of stuff they have.”
There’s much to love in KING OF JAZZ, from Whiteman’s impish charisma, to performances by renown jazz artists like Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, and Henry Busse, to vocalist John Boles’ rousing anthem “The Song of the Dawn,” to acrobatic dance numbers like “Happy Feet” and “Ragamuffin Romeo,” to a rendition of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” staged ironically with a green palette (owning to the limitations of the Technicolor’s two-color process at the time). Each number got enthusiastic applause from the MoMA audience on Saturday, which included granddaughters of two of The Brox Sisters, who perform “A Bench in the Park” in the film with Crosby and The Rhythm Boys.
And unlike other restorations that make use of stills or supplement master material with lower quality footage, the final assembly is mostly seamless. And much of the music is studio quality, owing to Whiteman’s decision to pre-record and perform to backing tracks in the film (which was common in later musicals, but almost unheard of in 1930.) The lush soundtrack and vivid, restored picture (screened at MoMA on DCP) make the film look and sound unlike any early Talkie I’ve seen.
But will physical-media-loving classic film collectors get a chance to add KING OF JAZZ to their home video libraries, considering the potential complication of music clearances? Hutchinson thinks that may be “a year or two away,” but added that “music clearances aren’t going to prevent something this beautiful” from getting what could be an “award-winning” home video release.
In the meantime, film fans are encouraged to ask their local art or revival house to book the film. (KING OF JAZZ is being distributed by Universal in DCP, so screening venues must have digital projection capability.)
“It’s available to any venue in the world now,” Hutchinson said. “There will be screenings in Rome, New York at Capitolfest and it’s going to be at CineCon (in Hollywood) and Film Forum (New York) in the fall.” (There’s also one more show at MoMA in June, and James Layton tells me other engagements are in the works.)
Hutchinson added, “I think it was gratifying for the Universal restoration people to see the turnout at two sold-out shows.”
As someone who saw at least two people wipe away tears while the closing credits rolled, I can attest that the audience at MoMA was pretty gratified, as well.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Layton told me via email, as his book on KING OF JAZZ continues to garner support weeks after surpassing its fundraising goal. “A lot of people really love this film and they probably never thought they’d get to see it like this.”
For more information on MoMA’s “Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries, 1928-1937” click here. To support the Kickstarter for King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue and get a copy of the book, click here. The Nitrate Diva’s coverage of KING OF JAZZ is here and Lou Lumenick’s is here.
Update 8/24/16 – King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue will be published on November 21, 2016. You can pre-order a signed copy here.