Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

King of Jazz (1930)

While I’m sure that a good number of my readers will at least have heard of Lucille Ball, that may not be the case with Paul Whiteman. He’s the “king” in the King of Jazz, a 1930 multimillion-dollar musical extravaganza that makes Kevin Costner’s Waterworld seem unambitious. It also makes even less sense. This is the movie Federico Fellini might have made had he been born near 42nd street in Manhattan. By the time King of Jazz is over, you need a friend to help you pull your jaw up off the floor. Imagine the 12 days of Christmas gone completely wild: 20 bagpipers piping, 30 drummers drumming, 40 balalaika players a-playing, 50 sax players honking, and a grand piano as big as most music stores. Those of you who have watched the early Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s will have some idea of what I’m describing here. But even Busby Berkeley will not have prepared you for 98 minutes of trick photography, creative lighting, fake mechanical songbirds, bizarre 30-second comedy skits, amazingly synchronized chorus numbers by young women with two-colour Technicolor pink legs, Bing Crosby’s first screen appearances crooning with the Rhythm Boys, Marion Statler and Don Rose doing an insane dance number that even Brasseur & Eisler might think twice about trying, and giant production numbers including one with tenor John Boles leading a huge cowboy-clad chorus in a Halleluiah chorus as giant gates open to reveal the closest 1930s technology could get to a cosmic sunrise. ‘

And that’s just for starters. There’s a musical/comedy act that I’m certain must have been the inspiration for one of my favorite Cirque de Soleil routines, the Depression-era version of the Michael Jackson moonwalk, and a surrealistic little Betty Boop-style cartoon contributed by Walter (“Woody Woodpecker”) Lanz.

You want songs? Boy, have we got songs. How about Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”? Or the Monty Pythoncesque “Has Anybody Seen Our Nellie”? The touching “Ragamuffin Romeo”? Bing singing “Happy Feet” (“Happy feet/I’ve got those happy feet/Give them a low-down beat/And they begin daaaancing ….”)? As for the climax, in which we really learn that jazz represents “the melodies of all nations fused into one rhythm,” if the kitchen sink were a musical instrument I’m sure it would have been featured in there along with everything else. It might be there anyway.

The presiding genius over this madness, jovial Lou Costello look-alike Paul Whiteman, directs a 40-piece orchestra that includes everything from piccolos to banjoes. Run, don’t walk, down to your local video store.



Looking Back & Second Thoughts

Although the two-color Technicolor may have faded, and all we have left are lovely pastels, King of Jazz is still a perfect time machine. This is as close as any of us who weren’t born in the first half of the 20th century will ever get to experiencing the Vaudeville stage in its prime. That was the stage that gave us singing & dancing, the wildest physical comedy, ribald humor, big band tunes, and just about anything else that could be called entertainment. Even, towards the end, cinema itself. King of Jazz throws it all onscreen, amplified a hundredfold by a costume & prop budget that would have rivalled that of several small countries, clever camera effects, genuine talent, and the unfettered imaginations of Universal Pictures’ art directors, set designers, costumers, and choreographers. And I haven’t even mention the star of the picture. Orchestra leader Paul Whiteman led one of the most popular big bands of the 20s and early 30s. Duke Ellington wrote of him, “Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity.” High praise, indeed, from an unimpeachable source.

Sure, some of the picture is cheesy and some of it’s annoying and some of it’s What the hell?, but it’s joyously lighthearted, you’re never going to guess what’s coming next, and every time you think you’ve hit the climax there’s an even bigger number waiting just around the bend. Of course, much of this has little if anything to do with jazz as I think of it—not the risqué opening cartoon by Walter Lantz (the first color sound cartoon), not the wedding gown extravaganza, not Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys, not the Mexican song about Old Monterrey, not the leggy chorines, not the petting in the public park, not the fish song, not—oh heck, you get my drift.

I have to believe that any surrealist watching this film for the first time would take days to recover from the shock. Hollywood could be surreal with the best of them. How else do you manage to squeeze Rhapsody in Blue, Happy Feet, a phalanx of Scottish bagpipers, and a stage set that the Nazis might have cribbed for their 193 Nuremberg rally into the same motion picture? Sentiment & absurdity in equal, walloping measures, delivered with gusto. There was a formula here, but no mad genius would ever mix the ingredients quite like this again. By 1934, the MPAA Production Code would be spoiling everyone’s party.

Movie Information

Genre: Musical
Director: John Murray Anderson
Actors: Paul Whiteman, John Boles, Bing Crosby, Laura La Plante, Jeanette Loff, Al Norman
Year: 1930
Original Review: March 1996


The 100 Best Bollywood Movies

From the people at TimeOut London, an excellent site for Bollywood fans or for those interested in learning more about Indian film. In addition to the “100 Best” list, there are separate lists for favorite Bollywood actors & actresses, best dance scenes, best songs, etc. Also included is a beginner’s guide to Bollywood. From the introduction to the site:

What does Bollywood mean to you? India, music, romance, song, drama, dance, comedy, action? All of the above…and more? Here at Time Out, we’ve already found the best comedy movies, romantic movies and horror films. Now we celebrate the best Bollywood movies: the films that have been entertaining audiences in India and across the globe for more than six decades.

To find the 100 best Bollywood movies ever made, we asked a select group of Indian, British and American Bollywood experts to share their favourite mainstream Hindi movies. Then we used their choices to refine our list of great Bollywood movies – films that feature actors and actresses adored by their fans and songs and dances often more famous than the films themselves.

If you want to know more about Bollywood, check out our beginner’s guide. And if you’re still wondering what Bollywood’s about, why not listen to superstar Amitabh Bachchan, who has a simple definition of what Bollywood is: ‘Poetic justice in two and a half hours.’ Enjoy!”

The top 5? Sholay, Mughal-e-Azam, Mother India, Dilwali Dulhania Le Jayenge, Pyaasa. As one might expect, there is plenty of vigorous on-line disagreement with the choices made and the order of ranking. Bonus: The vast majority of these films are available for free or for rental or purchase through YouTube.

What are some of the best Indian movies ever made, and what makes them the best?

From the Quora website, a blended set of responses to the title question. There are enough fan suggestions here to keep you going for a lifetime. Because these are fan responses, there are some eccentric choices (like No Smoking, a 2007 Bollywood neo-noir), but also a lot of overlap with the TimeOut list.

Films Worth Talking About:

Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris), Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), Zemlya (Earth), L’Age d’or (The Golden Age), The Virginian, Abraham Lincoln, The Blood of the Poet, Maria Do Mar, Ojosan (Young Miss), Der Blaue Engel (the Blue Angel), The Love Parade, Such Men are Dangerous, Anna Christie, Westfront 1918, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Dawn Patrol, The Big Trail, City Lights, Morocco, Chacun sa chance, A Lady’s Morals, Africa Speaks, Dangerous Paradise, Holiday, Hell Harbor, Hell’s Angels

The Bigger Picture

Films: early Betty Boop (1930-34)

Music: Recordings of The Paul Whiteman Orchestra


The Word on the Street

Paul Whiteman was a huge star in the 20s with his terrific jazz band. He might have been the original star band leader. In “The King of Jazz” he also shows himself to be a decent comic actor as well. He’s best remembered for his recording of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which is featured in this early revue film.”


“…the parts where the film really shines are the parts that feature the magnificent Paul Whiteman orchestra. This band has been unfairly maligned because although Paul Whiteman was titled “The King of Jazz”, his orchestra was not a jazz band per se. But man, were they ever good musicians! Just get a load of the “Meet the Boys” segment towards the beginning…Harry Goldfield doing his best Henry Busse impersonation, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang playing “Wildcat” in one of their few film appearances, the entire violin section playing a lovely rendition of Caprice Viennois, Chester Hazlett and Roy Bargy doing a pretty rendition of Nola, followed by Wilbur Hall’s trombone virtuosity display on the same number. (And let’s not forget little Mike Pingitore on “Linger Awhile”!)


Whiteman’s greatest contribution may have been the training of the greatest group of musicians ever. At one time or other, the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman, Bix Biederbecke and so many others were members of the Whiteman orchestra. And of course he was the very first band to hire a vocalist specifically for that role. Previously singers were just musicians who just stopped playing and sang a chorus or two.
Whiteman hired a trio, the Rhythm Boys whose lead singer was Bing Crosby. They are prominent in the film and in fact Bing Crosby made his singing film debut here over the opening credits as he sang Music Hath Charms. He was Whiteman’s biggest discovery.”


From the perspective of today, the glaring omission is that the American Negro influence is not given any acknowledgement whatever. In the melting pot scene at the end the American Negro influence is glaring conspicuous by its absence. Although there is certainly a European influence in American jazz music, it is less of an influence than African music or – don’t forget – Mexican music. But the film was of its time, and at that time, the Amrican Negro playing jazz was not officially referred to, and it would be some time before black artists could be spoken of as musical heroes. Funnily enough Paul Whiteman’s star singer Bing Crosby, who appears in this film with the Rhythmn Boys, would have a huge role to play here by his collaborations with black artists like the Mills Brothers.
In spite of all this, we must regard this film in the context of the period it was made, regret the Negro omissions and enjoy the film for its own sake.”


Staggeringly impressive, hypnotically beautiful and uniquely priceless old rubbish.”


[NOTE: There’s so much happening in King of Jazz that this is one instance where the Internet Movie Database “User Reviews” section outdoes itself in providing insights into details that most of us might miss.]