Researching and restoring Universal’s King of Jazz (1930): an interview with James Layton and Crystal Kui

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1930 saw the release of a film that Universal Pictures expected to be a smash hit: King of Jazz, a musical revue starring Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra. Shot in two-strip Technicolor, King of Jazz featured a grand set-piece in the performance of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, as well as the first animated Technicolor sequence, a pre-recorded/post-synced soundtrack, and the first screen appearance of Bing Crosby.

James Layton and David Pierce, the team behind last year’s excellent publication The Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935, have again joined forces to bring the story behind King of Jazz to the public. As with Dawn of Technicolor, King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue will draw upon an extensive body of documentation and visual material to illuminate the film’s origins, production and release, as well as describing the film’s recent restoration. The book is currently the subject of a Kickstarter, to be found here. I spoke with James Layton and Crystal Kui about their work on King of Jazz, with a particular view to the archival research undertaken for this project.

Hi James and Crystal! I’m looking forward to the book, it looks wonderful. Can you give a brief overview of King of Jazz, and how your interest in this film developed?

James: Hi Katherine! Thanks for having us!

King of Jazz is a 1930 musical revue made entirely in early Technicolor. It’s one of 18 all-colour musicals produced during the genre’s first boom in 1929 and 1930, but it stands out from the rest as one of the most artistically accomplished and ambitious of the bunch. The film is a fascinating anomaly in film history—a mix of popular music, theatre, and cinematic expression. The star was Paul Whiteman—the proclaimed “King of Jazz”—who was one of the most widely listened to band leaders of the 1920s; and the director was John Murray Anderson, who had never made any films before, but was one of the top directors of revues on Broadway.

Having always had a keen interest in motion picture colour, I initially tracked down King of Jazz because it had been made in two-colour Technicolor. I first saw it on a washed-out VHS (released by MCA in 1983), and later on 16mm when I was studying at The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. My classmate Kyle Westphal (of the Northwest Chicago Film Society) and I had requested to see the film print to compare the colour reproduction with the muted VHS release.

Since then, King of Jazz has been a film that has woven in and out of my subsequent research, most particularly for the first book David Pierce and I wrote, called The Dawn of Technicolor. In that book we included a short discussion of some of the film’s color design.

John Boles singing “Song of the Dawn”

John Boles singing “Song of the Dawn”

What made you and David Pierce decide to make this a fully-fledged research project?

James: To promote the release of The Dawn of Technicolor, David and I gave many presentations about early Technicolor at festivals, conferences, and special screenings. One of these was at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood in March 2015. It was fantastic to be able to share our research and rare film clips with classic film fans, but it was also a wonderful opportunity to present our knowledge to our peers from other archives and studios. Among the crowd that day at the Egyptian Theatre were several of the folks from Universal’s restoration department. They got in touch soon after and told us about their new digital restoration of King of Jazz. That set the wheels in motion on our second book, which we’re finishing up right now.

This book draws together many elements: studio history, film technology, musical and theatrical history. Yourself and David carried out intensive archival research involving a wide range of media. I’m very interested in hearing more about your research processwhat was the starting point?

James: For years film historian and Rutgers professor Richard Koszarski had been telling us about the research he and his wife, Diane Koszarski had done into King of Jazz in the 1970s. At the time, Richard had been commissioned to write a short book on Universal’s history for its 65th anniversary in 1977, and Diane had written a paper on the film for her Masters programme at New York University under Jay Leyda. The pair were given full access to Universal’s studio files in New York and Los Angeles, and they made many photocopies and copious notes. Sadly, most of these studio files no longer exist, but we are really fortunate the Koszarskis kept all of their notes! Richard and Diane had also interviewed several people in the 1970s who had worked on King of Jazz. One of the best was a 70 minute interview with Technicolor cameraman Ray Rennahan for which the sole subject of discussion was the KOJ.

David and I were originally planning to write an article about King of Jazz to give further context to Universal’s restoration, but Richard and Diane convinced us the subject deserved a book-length study. They continued to be very supportive of our research and we were delighted when Richard came on board as the book’s editor.

So we started our project with a cache of very rich primary research, but it told the story primarily from one perspective—that of the studio. We then had to start filling in the blanks. Like many fans of the film, we thought we already knew a lot about the film. But we were wrong!

With any research project, you have to first map out the narrative you want to tell. It is usually a good idea to prepare a chronology of events. For US cinema of this time period, the best sources for this day-to-day information are trade journals like Variety, Film Daily, and Motion Picture News. Luckily, David’s Media History Digital Library has been able to digitize these periodicals and make them accessible for free online. For King of Jazz, we were also able to consult the studio’s own journal, Universal Weekly, which was created to promote Universal product to exhibitors. Crystal Kui and I spent several weekends at the New York Public Library looking through old microfilm of UW to find every relevant article. Of course, David has since been able to track down many original copies of this magazine and has scanned them for MHDL.

From there, we were able to plan out our chapters and start exploring archival collections around the U.S. We knew from the start that in addition to telling a production history of King of Jazz, we also wanted to give context to some of the major players, so we have chapters dedicated to Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra, Universal Pictures and Carl Laemmle Jr., and the film’s director John Murray Anderson.

Re-release advert from Universal Weekly (1933)

Re-release advert from Universal Weekly (1933)

Can you talk about your experiences in working with archives and collectors—encounters, challenges, serendipities?

James: We were very fortunate that two significant archival collections related to King of Jazz were located at the same institution. Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts holds both the Paul Whiteman Collection and the Herman Rosse Collection. Rosse was the production and costume designer for KOJ, and won an Academy Award for his work on the film. The archivists at Williams College were hugely supportive of our project and allowed us to make many reproductions from the collections for illustrations in our book. Among the Rosse papers were all of his original production designs for the film, and invaluable Rosse correspondence from throughout the film’s production from Hollywood back to his family in New York.

One important lesson we learned while doing The Dawn of Technicolor was that many valuable research resources can’t be found in archives and libraries. Some are still with family members, and many others are spread around with private individuals. Of course, the existence of these private collections is not well documented. So it was really important to discuss our project with other historians and collectors to learn about what’s “out there.”

Both The Dawn of Technicolor and our new book about King of Jazz are very rich visually. We try to present the narratives both through our historical research and writing, but also through many varied illustrations. Perhaps I’ll hand over to Crystal Kui now to discuss what types of visual materials we utilised.

Crystal: James has already mentioned Herman Rosse’s production artwork at Williams College. These sketches and drawings were not only amazing illustrations, they enriched our understanding of the film. Both James and David were able to describe how costumes, designs and sets were conceived, and they could trace the evolution of stage shows that were adapted into the numbers and sketches we see in the film. The Paul Whiteman Collection at Williams College was another invaluable resource for rare photos of the Whiteman band members before their Hollywood debut.

As with The Dawn of Technicolor, our priorities for the selection and presentation of images were to tell a compelling visual story in parallel with the book’s narrative, and to highlight the archival research undertaken by the authors. Original scans from nitrate prints are shown alongside frame grabs from Universal’s 4K digital restoration. Production stills illustrate important scenes in the film, and offer a behind-the-scenes look at the cameras, personnel, sets, and resources that went into making this tremendous production. Original handwritten sheet music by Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s arranger, give evidence of the musical numbers that were planned for the film but never used. High-resolution magazine ads from Media History Digital Library demonstrate how King of Jazz was promoted and received by the public.

We have undertaken a thorough search within archives, libraries, and private collections across the world. These are images you have not come across on the internet and are not published in other books.

Production artwork from the Herman Rosse Collection

Production artwork from the Herman Rosse Collection

Your research also involved consulting a large amount of physical film material elements. What material was available and how did you approach it? Was it widely distributed, geographically? Were you inspecting film elements yourself?

James: We have found that working with film archives directly can be a great supplement to historical research. For King of Jazz specifically, we tell the story of its conception, right up to the present day with the film’s new restoration. An important part of this story is what happened to this film after it was released. It was effectively “lost” or impossible to see for over thirty years, then it started reappearing again from a number of sources in the 1960s. It was vital to work directly with archives and film collectors to learn more about these elements that survived.

One great example is our work with the Národní filmový archiv in Prague. They had undertaken a fascinating reconstruction of KOJ in the 1960s that is almost completely undocumented in English and probably hasn’t been seen outside of the Czech Republic in the last 30 or more years. This was done at a time when the film was still lost. The Czechs had access to a mute French print of the film (with a French host), but they could only locate the sound discs for the Czech version of the film! So they created a hybrid version that had French host André Cheron mouthing French dialogue, but the words coming out of his mouth were Czech. This didn’t affect the musical numbers, which remained in English, just the introductions to each number. Our friends in the Czech Republic helped provide frame enlargements from this reconstruction as well as locate and translate Czech articles into English.

I’m particularly interested in the restoration of the film and what that workflow looked like. Were the original negatives available, or were the team working from print sources? How did your research tie into Universal’s restoration work?

James: I’m glad you asked about the restoration because it’s fascinating. I’ll be concise here as the full details will be provided in our book. Yes, the original camera negative for King of Jazz does survive, but it was significantly cut down for a 1933 reissue of the film and approximately 45 minutes was excised. Luckily several incomplete prints of the 1930 version are in archives around the world so the digital restoration staff at NBCUniversal were able to reconstruct much of the original version. David Pierce and I helped Universal to locate film elements that were not well documented before.

The workflow was entirely digital. The negative was scanned at 4K resolution by Cineric in New York. This is the first time that a two-colour Technicolor film has been digitally recombined from the negative colour separations, and the results are phenomenal. These scans were then combined with scans from three different print sources, which filled in many of the gaps. As the complete audio survives for the 1930 version, the restorers at Universal were able to recreate some of the remaining missing scenes with stills or freeze-frames running over the dialogue. We can’t wait to see the end result on the big screen at The Museum of Modern Art on May 13th.

As with Dawn of Technicolor, yourself and David Pierce are the principal authors of King of Jazz. Can you talk about your research and writing partnership and how the collaboration works, even just on a practical level? For example, do you take on different aspects of the work according to your individual strengths?

James: This is a great question. David and I live in different states about 230 miles apart so we don’t see each other that often. Over the past five or six years we have developed a good system for collaborative research. It relies heavily on digitising our research (scanning or photographing) and then uploading it to a shared Google Drive folder. For the latest book on King of Jazz, we’ve gathered about 8,500 pages of research so far. We try to leave no stone unturned in our research, gathering and consulting everything we can in order to draw the conclusions we do in the book. Luckily, Google Drive automatically makes most of these documents word searchable, so our Google Drive folder ends up being a smaller version of David’s Media History Digital Library, only with a more focused topic.

As for writing, we tend to divvy up the chapters once we’ve made our initial outline based on each writer’s strengths and interests. For The Dawn of Technicolor, I took much of the middle of the book and David wrote the chapters at the start and end. On the latest book, we have a more interleaved approach. But saying this, we do collaborate very closely throughout the writing process, often discussing and reworking each other’s text as the research and writing is ongoing. We interrogate each other’s research and share our latest findings almost daily. It’s quite an efficient system that is very rigorous.

Aside from yourself and David Pierce, Richard Koszarski and Crystal Kui also contributed to the publication. Richard’s involvement as editor is touched on above. Crystal, can you talk about your contributions to the project? How did you get involved, and what kind of research/writing/etc did you undertake for King of Jazz?

Crystal: From the very beginning James and David decided they wanted to self-publish. In order to increase the exposure of their work, the book’s release date had to coincide, as closely as possible, with the completion of Universal’s restoration. This meant there was a limited time to write, produce, and print the book. Given this tight deadline, I joined the team to oversee the production, which involved things like image research, sourcing a printer and distributor, working with the designer on layout, and managing the budget. Although self-publishing is a huge amount of work, it really allowed us to have greater artistic and creative control.

I also compiled a detailed Appendix in nine parts. It includes filmographic information, a production chronology, information about the different release versions, a listing of scenes that were shot but not used, production costs and box office returns, archival holdings, and a selective discography. Working on the appendix gave me an opportunity to wrap my head around the film’s complicated production and exhibition history. I hope that readers will find it to be a useful reference for the book.

The “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence

The “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence

Finally, since this blog is focused on silent films, I am honour-bound to ask you about your interests in that direction. The timeline covered The Dawn of Technicolor primarily fell within the silent eracan we expect a future research project that looks at a different aspect of silent cinema?

James: Before we started our King of Jazz book David and I had been planning a book on an entirely different subject: early widescreen and giant screen cinema. It’s a topic not too dissimilar to early Technicolor, that explores the initial developments of technologies that would later have a big impact on the film industry. Like The Dawn of Technicolor, our focus would have been from the 1910s into the late 1930s. It’s a period of transition that we are particularly fascinated by. I’m sure we’ll return to this topic down the line.

Thanks for inviting us on your blog and for asking such engaging questions!

Thank you both very much!

You can contribute to The King of Jazz Kickstarter here. And those in the New York area will have the chance to see King of Jazz on the big screen at MoMA on May 13th and 14th, and again on June 14th. 

– – –

James Layton is a preservationist and researcher who is currently Manager of MoMA’s Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center. He is a graduate of the Selznick School at George Eastman Museum, and has previously worked at Eastman Museum and the East Anglian Film Archive. His publications include The Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935 and the Image Permanence Institute’s informational poster Knowing and Protecting Motion Picture Film (2009).

Crystal Kui is a film archivist and researcher. She has curated several exhibitions as the former owner of an independent art gallery in Long Island City, NY and was a Collections Management Assistant at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition to writing The Dawn of Technicolor’s filmography, Kui has contributed an essay on The Wedding March (1928) to the National Film Registry website, and has written program notes for several film festivals.

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2 Responses to Researching and restoring Universal’s King of Jazz (1930): an interview with James Layton and Crystal Kui

  1. Tom says:

    Thanks for all your articles on those Silents!
    I hope you might enjoy my article on the King of Jazz animated prologue:
    http://cartoonresearch.com/index.php/the-once-and-universal-king-1930/

    Liked by 1 person

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