Jazz is jumping on home video. Music fans, movie buffs, and anyone with a nostalgic streak will find much to enjoy in "Hollywood Rhythm," a new four-cassette series from Kino Video. It's devoted to the rich trove of musical shorts produced by Paramount Pictures in the late 1920s and early '30s, when sound was still a newcomer to the motion-picture scene.
Sound movies were born around 1925, when new technologies allowed theaters to begin showing music-filled shorts as preludes to their silent main attractions. These brief musicals remained popular during the early years of "talkies," and Paramount became a leader in this field. "Hollywood Rhythm" presents more than 30 of them, attesting to their range and variety as well as their entertainment value.
The first volume, "Radio Rhythms," spotlights the importance of radio as a breeding ground for audience-pleasing talent. Rising stars like Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee make early screen appearances in items like "I Surrender Dear" and "Radio Rhythm," and cartoon superstar Betty Boop plays a part in "Musical Justice."
The cassette called "Jazz Cocktails" features more of the African-American performers linked with jazz. Highlights include Fats Waller in "Ain't Misbehavin' " and Duke Ellington in a minidrama cued to his composition "Black and Tan Fantasy," directed by Dudley Murphy with striking visual imagination. White stars also appear, including a lively turn by Ginger Rogers in "Office Blues."
Blues stay center stage in the third volume, "Blue Melodies," where Bessie Smith sings her heartfelt "St. Louis Blues" and George Dewey Washington does a musical meditation on "Ol' King Cotton." The last cassette, "Rhapsodies in Black and Blue," includes Cary Grant's screen debut in "Singapore Sue" and Eddie Cantor's over-the-top humor in "Insurance."
Besides toe-tapping tunes, this series also offers a valuable lesson in American cultural history - including negative aspects, such as racist attitudes in Hollywood. Viewed today, a movie like "Black and Tan Fantasy" seems like an almost surrealistic mixture of inspired art (Ellington's sophisticated music and dignified performance) and demeaning stereotypes (self-insulting farce by a black comedy team).
All of which makes "Hollywood Rhythm" as revealing and instructive - sometimes in unsettling ways - as it is amusing, engaging, and fun.
Jazz and the American Cinema
Moviegoers interested in the musical side of Hollywood history can learn much from "Jammin' at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema," a new book (University of Chicago Press) by Krin Gabbard, who counts both film and jazz among his areas of expertise.
It's just coincidence that "Jammin' at the Margins" has arrived at the same time as the "Hollywood Rhythm" video set, but Gabbard writes eloquently about some of the same movies featured in the Kino series. If the blend of high-culture dignity and low-culture racism in "Black and Tan Fantasy" seems unaccountably bizarre by current standards, for instance, Gabbard explains how conflicting representations of jazz reflected conflicting agendas within the sociocultural marketplace - some committed to portraying jazz as "instinctive" music with "primitive" roots, others regarding it as a modern "art form" as expressive and sophisticated as any other.
Ranging from bygone classics like "The Jazz Singer" and "Young Man With a Horn" to forward-looking films like "New York, New York" and "Short Cuts," the book employs a variety of critical tools to tease out undertones and overtones. Although much of Gabbard's analysis goes to the interplay between filmmaking formulas and African-American musical careers, white artists like Kay Kyser and Annie Ross also get a fair share of attention.