Movie Review: ‘King of Jazz’

KING OF JAZZ
A Film of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra—1930

The movie, KING OF JAZZ, featuring Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, was recently shown on Turner Movie Channel. This 1930 movie was groundbreaking in a number of ways. It was one of the first movies to be shown in the newly developing Technicolor. In fact, it hadn’t been fully developed and some of the scenes have a greenish tint to them. Also, this was the first movie in which animated and live characters interact; Whiteman and an animated character do a — mercifully — brief dance together.

The sets are gorgeous. One of the most impressive begins with a giant grand piano with extended keyboard at which four pianists pretend to perform. Then one hears the sound of the Whiteman orchestra. The giant piano lid opens and one sees the entire Whiteman orchestra within the confines of the piano. There is no plot. It’s more like a vaudeville show; that is, one act follows another—lots of good-looking women dancers in skimpy outfits. All are impressive for the time period.

The backstory also is fascinating. For that time-period, Whiteman’s orchestra was the most successful both musically and economically. Also, most jazz scholars wouldn’t classify Whiteman’s music as strictly jazz; the orchestra hired outstanding jazz performers. Cornetist Bix Beiderbecke had been an off-and-on performer for Whiteman. Alcoholism was a problem with Bix and by the time the movie was finally made, Bix would die of pneumonia and alcoholism in less than a year. Bing Crosby got his start with Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys and he has several appearances in this movie. However, he was absent for part of it, having been arrested and jailed for drunk driving on a downtown Los Angeles street.

Another backstory tale, it took two trips to Los Angeles to make the movie. The band arrived by train and was scheduled for one month in LA to complete the movie. Whiteman had arranged with the Ford Motor Company to supply Model A Fords at discounted prices for the band members to purchase. Each car had Whiteman’s image and logo on the spare-tire cover in back. When the band arrived, there was nothing for them to do for a month except one studio broadcast a week for radio transmission. The rest of the time was devoted to partying with the movie people. And party they did!

On the second trip, of course, the movie was made and distributed. Unfortunately, this expensive movie didn’t make any money because it was released in the early years of the depression.

If you missed the TBS movie recently, you’re still in luck. The Jazz Room at downtown West Florida Public Library has the DVD. Also, there is a large book made to accompany the improved DVD with many superior photographs and details about how the movie was made. Plus, there are two large encyclopedic volumes about Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, which were compiled from many years of research by Don Rayno. Those volumes, of course, do not circulate but are available for reference. Rayno tracked down those musicians still living for interviews in person, by telephone or letter.

Original “King of Jazz” window card featuring Paul Whiteman, 1930.

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