Discoveries and Restorations from Universal Pictures at MoMA, beginning with King of Jazz
Dave Kehr, the curator of MoMA’s fascinating series of recently rediscovered and restored films from Universal Pictures, has decided to bookend the month-long event with musicals, the last genre most people would associate with the studio that produced Dracula and Frankenstein. It begins with the much-anticipated premiere of the restoration of King of Jazz (released April 19, 1930), a musical revue dominated by the expansive figure of Paul Whiteman, the band leader, today best remembered as the patron of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The audiences at the two sold-out screenings this past Friday and Saturday—at least on Saturday, when I was present—applauded with a warmth that went beyond the aesthetic or the historical. Each one of the twenty individual acts in the movie received its own applause, as if we were back in a vaudeville house of yesteryear. We even laughed at the jokes, some of which were decidedly musty.
I’ll begin, however with an earlier film, Broadway, released on May 27, 1929, which was shown later on Saturday. This was only a little over a year after Carl Laemmle, Jr. (known as “Junior” in Hollywood) assumed the position of Head of Production at Universal, as a twentieth birthday present. The founder’s son immediately showed his extravagant ambition and flair for offbeat talent by hiring the Hungarian scientist (bacteriology) and director Paul Fejos (Pál Féjös) on the basis of an experimental film he hadn’t even seen and by paying a very large sum of money for the rights to a legitimate drama by Philip Dunning and George Abbott which had run for over a year on its eponymous Broadway. The decision was made to make the film version a musical but to keep its dramatic character. Fejos planned to build the film around an enormous set which represented the entertainment space in the night club where the action transpires. In order to explore the entire set with a freely moving camera, he devised a crane which could raise the camera up fifty feet or more in the air. None of the stages at Universal had floors that could support the monster, and a new one was built with the requisite concrete foundations. This was all typical of Junior’s flamboyance, drive for originality, and disregard of costs.
Paul Fejos is something of a legend in film history—an elusive one, since so many of his films are lost. Some, it seems, were ordinary and others brilliant and innovative, and he seems to have been a restless wanderer in his work. After his impressive start in Hollywood he returned to Hungary and made a few films there. Later he took up an interest in archaeology and anthropology and achieved distinction in them in his latter career. Broadway itself, I believe, survived only in fragments until a complete silent version was discovered in Hungary. This was used to reconstruct the sound version we saw at MoMA. (This or a version of it is available on a Criterion Collection Blu-Ray/DVD disc of 2012, featuring another of Fejos’s works, Lonesome, which was expertly revueed by Dave Kehr in his earlier incarnation as DVD critic for The New York Times—and of all their arts writers the one whose work I enjoyed and respected the most.)
According to Kehr’s revue the set and the crane survived at Universal for many years, although never used as creatively as in Broadway, which is a delight for those of us who appreciate the mobile camera. The source print is really very good in some places, but not good enough—at least in that one viewing—to appreciate fully the work of the focus-puller during the amazingly rapid and fluent camera movements over dizzying trajectories. The dance floor on the set is ovoid in shape and extends back to the art deco curtain through which the entertainers enter it. Passages through this curtain are significant markers in the story, since the entertainers pass out through it to perform, and they and the gangsters and police go back through it into the private lobby which joins the owner’s office and the artists’ dressing rooms. In this way Fejos leads us back and forth between the musical fun and the serious story of a gangland killing and the revenge of the victim’s lover.
As ingenious and unique as the giant crane was, it was Fejos’s skill in interweaving different threads of action that makes the film stand out. (His first experience in Hungary was on the stage.) He brought engaged, characterful performances from each of his actors in the dramatic segments and transitioned them smoothly into the musical turns in his grand set. For others, the musical thread dominates, but I personally thought that Fejos stuck steadfastly to the dramatic thread, using clever technique and artistry in letting the musical part make its full impression but remain in the background, if subtly. I did not count how many song and dance numbers were shown in their entirety—perhaps one or two, perhaps none. We saw most of them in fragments, as the film cut back and forth between them and the main story line. I’m eager to get the Criterion Blu-Ray and to study the details of how this was done. In this Fejos remained true to the play, which showed the appropriate and inappropriate (cat fights!) activities of the chorus girls, as they danced on and off stage. In any case, all the cinematic values were resplendently present, from spectacle to intimacy. And the film strikes many notes of character, from the Irish-American detective’s insistent but ultimately humane drawl to the inexorable determination of the murdered gangster’s fiancée.
Broadway was well received upon release, but not well enough to bring the project’s overall finances into the black. Fejos was the obvious choice to direct Universal’s next grand musical, King of Jazz, but after much labor he couldn’t quite get it. It was to be a revue, not a narrative, which is the only way he could conceive it, and after some months of work, it was passed on to John Murray Anderson, who was a Broadway man, experienced at musical revues of the sort. (Some of Fejos’ work made it into the finished movie, however.) Wisely, it seems, Paul Whiteman insisted that he was engaged for music, not as an actor. revues of this sort had a brief season of popularity in Hollywood, but only enthusiasts and scholars know them today. Standard procedure was to tie the numbers together in some sort of backstage story. In this case the sequences were mostly connected by Paul Whiteman’s scrapbook, which was over two stories high.
The theme housed within the scrapbook is Paul Whiteman’s pre-eminence as the King of Jazz, which is explained in an introductory animated sequence. Traveling in Africa, Whiteman encounters a lion, who is getting ready to eat him, but, Orpheus-like, he charms the beast with a jazzy tune on his violin. Monkeys, a chorus-line of natives, caricatured as you might expect, also fall under the spell of the American’s jazz, almost giving the impression that it was Whiteman who brought jazz to Africa. The premises of this cartoon culminate in the finale, which celebrates jazz as American music—a melting pot for the musical traditions of the world. It turns out that all of these are European, with special representation of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Of course France, Italy, and the Netherlands are present and correct, but Germany is notably inconspicuous, represented indirectly through a Viennese waltz. The music and dance become jazzified about three-quarters of the way through. It is interesting to reflect that around the time King of Jazz was released, the French, not to be outdone by the British, who had celebrated their empire in the Imperial Exposition of 1926, were preparing their own Exposition Coloniale Internationale, and the grand revue at the Casino de Paris, Paris qui Remue, was in the works, starring the American jazz dancer, Josephine Baker, among others. There was more jazz to be heard there than in King of Jazz.
This glorification of Whiteman as the “king” of a Europeanized jazz, cleansed of any associations with Africa or African-Americans, is only the most prominent bizarrerie of a film which contains many of them. There is actually not much music in King of Jazz that we would recognize as jazz today. Even the edited version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, arranged so aptly by his top orchestrator, Ferde Grofe, is given a classically-inclined performance, with strict time and rather cold, virtuosic playing from the Whiteman band pianist, Roy Bargy. A voodoo dancer appears in the sequence, but this hardly brings more freedom to the music-making, whatever it might suggest. Whiteman’s orchestra was known for its precision and virtuosity, and that is what comes to the fore in King of Jazz. In other segments we hear operetta, vaudeville novelty numbers, dance music (the area in which Whiteman started out), and so forth. Nonetheless, some of the great names in jazz appear among the orchestra, for example, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, and Whiteman and his orchestra came closer to jazz in performances outside the movie. None other than Duke Ellington affirmed that Whiteman fully deserved his royal title, in spite of the many critics and musicians who questioned it.
From the opening cartoon about King Paul, through the introduction of the orchestra members, through a demonstration of the King’s tap-dancing prowess, the film maintains a tongue-in-cheek tone, carefully avoiding any hint of pomposity or self-aggrandisement—an easy trap for Whiteman and his band to fall into, since they were all about bridging the gap to classical music through their fundamental excellence as musicians and precision as an ensemble. There is no trace of the Hollywood clichés about “long hair music” or any need to avoid it. Whiteman and his band comfortably assume a place in the world of popular, genteel entertainment. To enjoy them, one would put on evening clothes and go to a nightclub or a concert-hall. The music was contemporary. One number separates their music-making from the past with an affectionate, but mocking resurrection of a music-hall sing-along with lantern slides. The punch line comes when the “projectionist” erroneously displays the refrain in Yiddish, but he corrects his mistake and the audience gets their chance to sing along in English…and many of the folks at MoMA did just that, with great pleasure.
There is vast pleasure and fun in immersing oneself in the lost and rediscovered byways and classics of the silent and early sound era, as more materials come to light—not to mention the satisfaction of scholarly curiosity. The experience of a full-length film produced on this high level in two-strip Technicolor is exciting enough in itself. The colors of this restoration are splendid—impressive in the accuracy of skin tones (usually heavily rouged) and surreal in the absence of blues. The dominant color for Rhapsody in Blue is a sort of teal shade. To continue with the technical, the sound is excellent throughout. Whiteman summoned engineers from RCA to assist in the recording, which, in the musical numbers, was done before the filming. The performers mouthed and danced to the pre-recorded music, in some cases with considerable virtuosity, when the patter got really fast.
Part of the fascination of King of Jazz, which no one has been able to see in any form that does justice to the original, either in length or visual quality, has been the effort that went into it as one of the most ambitious productions of its time. Unfortunately it was so ambitious that it came out late—after the brief vogue for musical reviews had vanished—and it was not a success with audiences. It took its place among Laemmle Junior’s expensive money-losers. However, judging by the response of the MoMA audience and the cult that surrounds it as a partially lost film, it should attract much exposure in revival houses and on Blu-Ray/DVD. Its time has come at last.
The series will include other aspects of Universal’s early sound production—excluding horror, which is already familiar to audiences. Many of these films fell prey to the dreaded, ridiculed Production Code. After its institution quite a few of the films in the series were unexhibitable, for example the one I most recently viewed, Back Street (1932), by John M. Stahl, the director of several films in the series. Based on a Fannie Hurst novel, it showed a sympathetic portrait of a charismatic, talented woman who allows a selfish, self-absorbed member of a Jewish banking dynasty to use her as a mistress for most of her adult life. The bitter irony is that the heroine loses her chance to marry her beloved because her half-sister blackmails her into helping her out of an emergency, then later assents to a one-way relationship in which she gives everything to him with nothing in return except an often-forgotten dole that even his once-hostile son considers shockingly cheap. We would call it a drama of co-dependency today. Although Fannie Hurst earned her place in the pantheon of schlock writers even before she wrote Back Street, there is a poignant truth in her psychology, sensitively managed by Stahl and his writers. Joseph Breen denied permission for a 1928 re-release, saying that it had “become a symbol of the wrong kind of picture.” The print was superb, showing wonderful details of lighting and design, especially in the earlier scenes, and Stahl’s mastery of pace was hair-raising, especially in the very slow scenes as the story drew to its sad conclusion.
According to the press materials Junior had a taste for tough, hard-hitting movies, either from their depiction of the world of American crime or social issues. (Is there any film more grim than Freaks?) The work of James Whale is also well-represented in drawing room and women’s pictures, as well as Showboat, the musical, which might well be his masterpiece, if not the more personal Bride of Frankenstein. Remembered today mostly for his horror films, he came to Universal from a background on the English stage, desirable for his experience in directing dialogue. He came to America to direct R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End on Broadway, which he had first directed in a London theatre club with a very young Laurence Olivier as the lead. As the play developed into a great hit, Colin Clive replaced him. It eventually became urgent to produce a sound film of it, but there were as yet no sound stages in England, and Gainsborough Pictures filmed it in Hollywood. After directing dialogue for a sound adaptation of Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels, Whale began his career at Universal with Waterloo Bridge, with Mae Clarke, as a prostitute who seeks death rather than disturbing the life of her naive and genteel lover, who wants to marry her. Among the MoMA offerings, Remember Last Night? is one of the oddest and the best, as well as By Candlelight and The Kiss before the Mirror. The Road Back, a sequel to Universal’s classic, All Quiet on the Western Front, had an important, tortured history, re-edited at the insistence of Nazi diplomats, as well as by the new owners of Universal, who acquired the company in a hostile takeover, following the financial failure of James Whale’s Showboat. These are all more than worth the effort to see, but I must say I was disappointed that Universal and MoMA chose not to offer Whale’s film of John Galsworthy’s One More River, which is impossible to find and reputed to be outstanding, as a powerful story of marital abuse.
Click here for a schedule of the screenings.