White Jazz

We came to William Dieterle’s SYNCOPATION with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, partly explained by the fact that we’d recently watched the same director’s THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (not quite as turgid as we’d feared, but mis-structured and turgid ENOUGH). This one is a history of jazz, and the unspoken question on our lips was how white it was going to be. The earlier KING OF JAZZ, magnificent two-strip abomination that it is, has precisely one mention of Africa, and then, at its climax, shows jazz being the product of America’s melting pot, with ingredients inclusing Dutch clog dancers and Scottish pipe bands, but absolutely no Black folks.

SYNCOPATION, for all the limitations of a 1942 RKO production, is much better than that! It’s totally in the mode of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER in terms of expressionist flavouring. TDADW was building on CITIZEN KANE’s innovations and so here we have a big screen-filling title appearing in total silence. And the credits are just a list of names of people who collaborated on the picture, “in front of” and “behind the camera!: communism!

And then we’re in Africa. The drums, of course, are beating. White traders arrive. They open a treasure chest. It’s full of — dramatic orchestral stab — MANACLES.

And now this is happening. It’s bold, I tell you.

The dissolve emphasises the compositional similarity: the box frame, the imprisoned people with their arms wrapped around their knees echo the shape of the manacles. The conditions in this ship are BETTER than in reality they would have been, but the shot is built to create an impression of horrible confinement.

J. Roy Hunt (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) shot it and John Sturges cut it.

The dots are joined: we see not only where the slaves are going but what they’re going to do there. This is no Roots and that aspect of the film is now over, but I give Dieterle and writers Philip “the front” Yordan, Frank Cavett and Valentine Davies serious props for their opening.

This promising start must be betrayed as soon as possible, so the film introduces New Orleans blueblood Adolphe Menjou and his daughter. But there are two major Black characters, little trumpeter Rex Tearbone and his mother (Jessica Grayson), maid to Menjou, effective mother to his daughter. The object is to show jazz — Black people’s “trouble music” — being passed on to white musicians.

It’s somewhat to the film’s credit that the black characters stay on past the first act (and that Menjou gets essentially nothing to do), but disappointing that they’re eventually written out. And Tearbone, who grows up (from a child whose name seems not to have been recorded, despite the IMDB listing about ninety cast members) into Todd Duncan (the original stage Porgy), which means he starts out younger than the other principles and winds up older but never mind, gets no romance or particular ambitions of his own, once his mother consents to allow him his jazz career. He’s something of a Magic Negro figure… but not completely.

The little rich girl is Bonita Granville and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks is Jackie Cooper. And they’re both very sweet: she can move her shoulders skillfully to suggest piano playing (a real art) and he seems actually to be able to blow the trumpet. And the movie absolutely trashes Paul Whiteman (here Ted Browning, so his name isn’t as hideously apt as the real-life model), not quite as mercilessly as BLUES IN THE NIGHT lambasts Kay Kyser, but close. Being forced to play the same notes night after night gives Cooper a JAZZ BREAKDOWN.

The movie doesn’t have any villains, is bravely trying to string its story through the history of jazz from Dixie to swing, and it only sort-of HAS a story to string. It’s able to climax with a wholly non-diegetic performance by a jazz supergroup of Gene Krupa, Joe Venuti, Jack Jenney, Harry James, Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnet, “selected from the leaders of The Saturday Evening Post poll.” They’re all white, of course. I guess if you ask the readers of The Saturday Evening Post… but then someone at RKO has selected these guys, and we’re not allowed to know what criteria they used.

It is nice that one of the folks carrying on the baton of jazz is a girl, though the idea of Bonita having an actual career is rejected by Menjou and we hear no more of that. But she joins in on piano for the last-but-one number.

So… the movie is charming, the music is good, it excels unexpectedly in a few places, falls down predictably and grotesquely in others, and manages to stay engaging despite unresolved narrative and characters — the story of jazz, mistold and bowdlerised though it is, really is what holds it together, more than the thin but likeable characters. A whole different form of Hollywood movie, and it actually works.

Except at the box office, perhaps. Dieterle’s next employer was MGM and his next film was a hagiography of impeached president Andrew Johnson. Which I suppose I’ll have to watch.

SYNCOPATION stars Walter Burns; Perry White; Nancy Drew; Marshal Curley Wilcox; Joe Doakes; Mayor Cotton; Jimmy ‘Fergie’ Ferguson; Daniel Stone; Sheriff Bledsoe; Mr. Tuerck; and Charles Foster Kane III.

11 Responses to “White Jazz”

  1. What strange fate propelled Annie Ross to jazz stardom while her brother plunged into Carry On Abroad?

  2. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Bernard Herrmann later in life claimed that William Dieterle alongside Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray were the only directors he worked with who had good musical culture and sensitivity. So I wonder if Dieterle’s interest in music led him to this.

    I wasn’t even aware that Hollywood made movies trying to claim that African-Americans didn’t create Jazz. I mean there was never a point in my cultural reference that Jazz wasn’t black in origin and culture. Duke Ellington (who appeared in BLACK AND TAN, the best Jazz short film of the classic era), Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis among so many others.

    I recently saw Basil Dearden’s ALL NIGHT LONG which is an Othello allegory with a white Iago trying to control and dominate a Jazz group…so that might be a commentary on this tendency.

  3. All Night Long is interesting… any movie that has Richard Attenborough AND Charles Mingus…

    Jazz only got appropriated by the movies when it became successful enough, and then the movies needed white stars. So things are always compromised, right through to The Cotton Club. Round Midnight had to be a French film.

    But King of Jazz is the weirdest attempt at erasure by far!

  4. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Clint Eastwood’s BIRD is an exception, maybe you have to be center-right in politics, to have enough clout to be woke. Though of course, BIRD does downplay a lot of the racial issues that Parker had to deal with to deal with him instead as an artist with an aesthetic struggle.

    Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown skirts the issue by dealing with a white guitarist’s inability to compete with Django Reinhart, a Romani-French jazz guitarist. Recently of course you had that La La Land movie, which got accused of playing into a “white guy trying to save Jazz” (which was also a subtext of Whiplash). La La Land was a remake of New York New York but even that as Scorsese said featured a white male lead trying to be a great Jazz guitarist.

    Bit ashamed to realize so late, how widespread this kind of erasure really is, the attempt by white artists to not face up to Jazz not having white America as protagonists of its story.

  5. bensondonald Says:

    To modern eyes, “Birth of the Blues” is a weird celebration of appropriation. Yes, it credits black folk with creating jazz. But the main story is how it took upstanding white musicians to make it respectable and marketable. Eddie “Rochester” Anderson is Bing Crosby’s manservant, unpaid but loyal … and there to assure us the black folk are honored and thrilled by Crosby’s efforts.

    “A Song is Born” doesn’t erase, but smudges. A musical version of “Ball of Fire”, in which encyclopedia writer Danny Kaye suddenly discovers jazz and recruits a bunch of name acts to help him write about it. One of the acts is Louis Armstrong, so points for that. But a melting pot production number insists it wasn’t JUST black.

    “Star” has a very strange bit: Gertrude Lawrence can’t loosen up to sing the Kurt Weill number “Jenny”. Her boyfriend takes her to what seems to be the Cotton Club. Watching an off-camera floor show, Gertrude suddenly Gets It. And this was in the 60s.

    Finally, Disney’s “The Aristocats” manages to mash up a whole bunch of stereotypes in its jazz number (Scatman Crothers is the trumpeter cat; Phil Harris the crooner; Paul Winchell the Siamese):

  6. David Ehrenstein Says:

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

  8. I must put JOASD on soon, it’s the summeriest thing ever. The Scottish summer needs all the help it can get.

    I must admit I enjoy The Aristocats, especially that scene. I generally lean towards letting Disney show his racism, it mostly flies over the heads of kids, but serves as education about the bad old days to anyone who catches on. The trouble is, the bad old days are still here.

  9. john burke Says:

    That next Dieterle project was “Tennessee Johnson,” ehich was thye object of furious denunciation in the Left-wing press of the day–the Daily Worker organized picket lines outside theaters where it was shown. The objection was that the film glorifiedAndrew Johnson, who did his best to undo the political consequences of the Civil War

  10. A very MGM movie. Dieterle seems somewhat incoherent politically, but it’s noteworthy that when his dream movie finally got made, it was a stodgy biopic of Wagner…

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