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KING OF JAZZ
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Paul Whiteman, John Boles, Laura La Plante, Jeanette Loff, Glenn Tyron, William Kent, Slim Summerville, The Rhythm Boys, The Tommy Atkins Sextette, The Russell Markert Girls
Director: John Murray Anderson
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Full Screen 1.37:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 100 Minutes
Release Date: March 27, 2018

A good show, like a good sauce, requires just a little dash of spice...”

Film ***1/2

There’s really nothing like being transported back to a different era, and King of Jazz provides that experience to the fullest extent. Musical revues/variety shows are mostly known through their television incarnations, like Donny and Marie and so forth. But in 1930, Universal took a gamble to bring such a format to movie houses in lavish Technicolor, which was in its early stages at this point.

Financially speaking, it was an unfortunate bust. Universal put in a budget of $2 million, which was risky in those days. The problem was simply bad timing, as audiences felt bombarded by musicals, which were in huge supply ever since the birth of the talkies.

Fortunately, though, time has been very kind to King of Jazz, as an enormous appreciation for this rarity in film has grown amongst film and music lovers. And thanks to the fine folks at Criterion, this nearly 90 year old film has been brought to viewers in the most beautiful way imaginable. More on that later...

The headliner of the event is the titular king of jazz himself, Paul Whiteman. Along with his elaborate band, Whiteman brings to vivid life musical numbers and various sketches (including a nifty animated bit at the opening) for the simple purpose of giving the audience an entertainment package in true vaudeville style! Among the showtopping musical numbers, we get a rousing rendition of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, as well as a performance from a young Bing Crosby, who leads the band known as The Rhythm Boys, and a truly eye gazing rag doll dance number.

And while content-wise, there’s nothing memorably striking here, that is more than made up for in the filmmaking department. There are technical qualities on display here that had never been seen for a 1930s release, which help in making this a distinctive representation of the movie musical. Numerous camera tricks, along with the elaborate props and stage sets are put to absolute grand use to ensure that audiences would get more bang for their buck...which is true today just as it was 88 years ago!

It may have not been a financial success initially, but it is nonetheless one of a kind! King of Jazz is remarkable both as a time capsule piece and a technical marvel. For anyone who’s seeking the type of presentations that they just don’t make anymore, this will satisfy your hunger and then some!

Video ****

Is there anything Criterion cannot do? How often do hear of a 4k restoration being applied to a release from 1930? They have done just that very thing with amazingly wondrous results. The look and feel of the time period remains in tact, while appearing in the most riveting and lushly detailed presentation possible. And this being one of the very first Technicolor releases, that makes it an even more special occasion. And given that there are still segments missing from the final product, the painstaking work that went into the restoration is clear and must be heavily praised as one of the absolute best efforts to date from Criterion!

Audio ***

A PCM mono mix for a 1930‘s release may not sound like ground-breaking, but Criterion does work amazing wonders with a sound presentation that’s more clean and lively than one might expect. All of the musical numbers are masterfully heard, especially the “Rhapsody in Blue” segment! Despite some brief instances of audio distortion that couldn’t be avoided for obvious reasons, this is one of the more all around impressive mono mixes to surface from Criterion!

Features ****

What a package! Criterion has gone all out on the supplements this time around, beginning with a most informative commentary featuring jazz and film critic Gary Giddens, music and cultural critic Gene Seymour and musician and bandleader Vince Giordano. There’s also a introduction by Giddens, as well as an interview with musician and pianist Michael Feinstein. Next up are four video essays by authors and archivists James Layton and David Pierce on the development and making of the movie. We are also provided Deleted Scenes and an alternate opening-title sequence, as well as a short from 1929 titled “All Americans”, which features a version of the “Melting Pot” number that was restaged for the film’s finale. Then there’s another short film from 1933 titled “I Know Everybody and Everybody’s Racket”, also featuring Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, as well as two “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" cartoons from 1930, featuring music and animation directly from the film. Rounding out everything is a booklet featuring an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.

Summary:

Leave it to Criterion to provide a riveting step back in time, as their release of the nearly forgotten King of Jazz serves up one of the studio’s best 4k restorations to date. It’s a fascinating retro piece of entertainment delivered in the absolute best presentation form possible. One of the year’s all around best Blu-ray releases!

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