Hot licks and high kicks in a rare early musical
The King of Jazz is a time machine. This 1929 musical, filmed in Technicolor, preserves a part of America’s musical heritage that few people today know ever existed. The film has no plot, but consists of a series of extraordinary production numbers, with the music supplied by Paul Whiteman, “the King of Jazz,”1 and his orchestra.
Whiteman, unknown now to all but specialists, had a musical career that ran from before World War I into the early sixties. His band was one of the most successful in history – their first hit, “Whispering,” sold two million copies in 1920, about one for every record player in the country.2 It was the first of more than 20 number-one hits that the band would record in the twenties. However, Whiteman made his greatest contribution to American music in 1924, when he commissioned and then premiered George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”3
The King of Jazz contains a complete performance of “Rhapsody in Blue” (Gershwin, unfortunately, is not at the keyboard), but the real star of the film is director John Murray Anderson,4 who pulls off one stunning production number after another, using a collection of delightful though forgotten vaudeville performers. The numbers are separated by short comedy sketches that range from outrageous to abysmal. The film begins with a bizarre and not at all entertaining cartoon (apparently the first color cartoon ever made5). Next we suffer through an introduction of the band members (by instrument, not by name) before finally getting to meet “the girls,” the “Russell Markert Girls,” a group of 16 spirited hoofers. We’re going to see a lot of the girls in the next hour and a half, and they never fail to amuse. Here they do a leggy, sit-down dance number that speaks to the tired businessman in all of us.
Next up is the one brilliant comedy skit in the film, “Ladies of the Press,” featuring the staff of The Daily Meow. Editor Laura La Plante rules with an iron hand: “If we women are going to run a paper, we’ve got to have speed! As long as I’m city editor I want news that’s hot off the griddle!” she says, rejecting any story more than 15 minutes old. Reporters run in with ever more timely scoops until one enters shouting “Woman shoots husband!” When did it happen?” Laura demands. BANG! “That’s great!” says Laura.
Bing Crosby is the sole member of the cast who is still a name today. Crosby, then at the start of his career, was one of the three Rhythm Boys with Whiteman. The boys, clearly the last word in smooth-walking, fast-talking close harmony, rip through “When the Blue Birds and the Black Birds Got Together,” which sounds surprisingly like a paean to interracial romance.
“In the Park,” an elaborate yet effortless “crescendo/diminuendo” number, is first sung for us by a couple sitting on a park bench. We move to three close-harmony flappers (a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead) swathed in a forest of blue ostrich feathers, who later are joined by the Rhythm Boys. Then the camera pulls back to show us the entire park, a hillside covered with strange, large flowers, which sprout legs and turn into the Markert Girls. They dance and then pair themselves off with members of the Whiteman band. As the number moves to climax, we return first to the Rhythm Boys and the flapper trio and then to the couple on the bench. We close with a shot of the Man in the Moon, who winks at us.
“Monterey” is a fabulous dose of Old Mexico kitsch, with the Markert girls up to their old tricks, and a lot of new ones too, featuring castanets, mantillas, yards of black lace, and fans as long as your arm, not to mention the worst fake Spanish I’ve ever heard. John Boles is the hilariously wooden tenor whose indiscreet heart longs for the sweetheart that he left in Old Monterey.
Unsurprisingly, The King of Jazz pulls out all stops for “Rhapsody in Blue.” Whiteman himself introduces the number, which begins with a dancer dressed as a giant black tree dancing on top of a huge drum. (This is supposed to represent “Africa.”) Then we cut to five young gentlemen in white tie and tails, who sit on an outsized piano bench and pretend to play a gigantic blue piano. As the music swells, the piano lid opens, to reveal the entire Whiteman band! Later, the Markert girls, in blue tights and top hats, dance briefly on the piano keys en pointe (not all that well).
“Rhapsody in Blue” suffers a little because, as a classic, it had to be treated solemnly.6 The real pièce de résistance of The King of Jazz is a wonderful up-tempo swinger, “Happy Feet.” The Rhythm Boys kick things off in a suitably rambunctious manner, and then we shift to two lacquer-haired flappers, their heads stuck through some sort of metallic mirror fabric, so that all we can see are their heads and their heads’ reflections. They sing the chorus once more, taking part of it in German, for no discernible reason.
Next up are the Markert girls. They’ve grown considerably since we saw them last, and now stand several hundred feet high. Wearing abbreviated black outfits with white piping, they dance cheerfully through Times Square,7 taking care not to knock over any of the skyscrapers. Later, shrunken in size, they join forces in a chorus line and pound out a furious tap arrangement while the band goes wild. This is entertainment!
Collector’s Choice has recently issued “Paul Whiteman’s Greatest Hits,” a CD with almost all of Whiteman’s big hits from the Twenties. Whiteman is most remembered today because late in the twenties he hired jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke as his lead cornetist. Beiderbecke, who was out of the band and slowly dying of alcoholism when The King of Jazz was made, didn’t get much solo space with Whiteman, but many of the records he cut with the band have never gone out of print. Although Beiderbecke lacked the range of the very greatest jazz musicians, there is a clarity and a logic to his playing that remains unequalled in jazz history. Numerous CD collections exist of his work.8 Beiderbecke’s life inspired a kitschy novel, Young Man with a Horn, which was made into a kitschy movie in 1950, starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, and Doris Day. A bit of a Beiderbecke cult has flourished in Hollywood for years. In Second Chorus (1940), Fred Astaire, playing a trumpeter, claims to have quit Whiteman’s band: “I was losing my individuality. The same thing happened to Bix.” In the 1970 film WUSA, Paul Newman plays an alcoholic jazz trumpeter, clearly drawing on the Bix legend. In the Steve Martin/Lily Tomlin classic All of Me (1984), Martin’s dog is named “Bix.” And in Francis Ford Coppola’s dreary Cotton Club (1984), Dutch Schultz (James Remar) tells Richard Gere to “play that Bix piece. You know the one I mean.” Gere then “plays” Beiderbecke’s famous solo from “Singing the Blues.”
The “Red Hot Jazz” site at redhotjazz.com/musicians.html has extensive information on early jazz musicians, including Whiteman and Beiderbecke. The site lists all the movies that the musicians have appeared in, though it doesn’t tell you which ones are available on video.9 You can download brief videos from the site as well. The videos, on my computer, play not very well in a three-inch square. The site is also designed to allow you to download numerous music clips, but I couldn’t get this to happen. A “Bixography” site gives very extensive information on Bix Beiderbecke, along with an automatically downloading recording of Bix playing his famous piano composition “In a Mist.”
- Whiteman got himself much disliked, not unreasonably so, by black jazz musicians for calling himself “The King of Jazz.” Whiteman didn’t play much jazz, and didn’t even try to. (His name wasn’t much help either.) He was a classically trained who played viola with the San Francisco Symphony prior to World War I. Whiteman had an acutely commercial ear, turning out sentimental, novelty, and “hot” recordings with equal success. [↩]
- Dance critic Arlene Croce, in her Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Dance Book, was particularly offended by the “Herkimer Jerkimer dialogue” assigned to Astaire – lines like “Hold on to your hats, boys, here we go again!” [↩]
- Whiteman continued leading his band through the Swing era, which ran from about 1935 to 1945, although his sound was seriously out of date. In the early fifties he appeared on TV, working as a nostalgia act, sponsored by “milk.” He was still working as late as 1963 in Las Vegas, when he was past 70, something for the Rolling Stones to remember. Like the Stones, Whiteman hardly needed the money. At the height of his career, he had 52 “Paul Whiteman” franchise bands operating around the country! [↩]
- Strangely, and sadly, this is the only film Anderson directed. [↩]
- By Walter Lantz, best known for Woody Woodpecker. [↩]
- Still, it’s interesting to hear the piece in its original arrangement for Whiteman’s band (about 17 pieces), rather than the usual symphonic version. [↩]
- Times Square in 1929 was dominated by an ad for “Dodge Brothers.” The Dodge brothers made cars (Dodges, obviously). They sold out to Chrysler during the Depression. [↩]
- If you get a kick out of the Rhythm Boys, they’re featured on many of the sides Bix cut with Whiteman. “Bix Lives!”, an RCA Victor CD, is dedicated to Bix with the Whiteman band. [↩]
- Whiteman’s band appeared in several other films, but not as the main attraction. [↩]