The King of Jazz Returns

The musical was a popular genre in the very early days of talkies, but the moviegoing public quickly (if briefly) lost interest in singing pictures.

One movie that fell victim to that disinterest was King of Jazz (1930), a lavish musical-comedy revue that featured Paul Whiteman‘s orchestra delivering an assortment of musical numbers with comedic sketches interspersed throughout.

King of Jazz, made for Universal Pictures, was filmed entirely in an early, two-color version of Technicolor and featured actors and performers such as the Rhythm Boys (Bing Crosby, Al Rinker and Harry Barris, don’t you know), John Boles, Laura La Plante, Slim Summerville, Walter Brennan, jazz legends Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, and the Russell Markert Dancers (who would soon become the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes).

King of Jazz was not a money-maker, and a revamped version released a few years later did no better, so it might well have fallen into obscurity and been forgotten, but over the decades, interest in the film increased. In 2013, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry, and in 2018, a spectacular restoration of the film was screened in a few locations across the country and around the world.

We were present for the restoration’s premiere in New York City, and it proved to be a terribly exciting event. The buzz in the theatre was palpable and the film, which had been beautifully restored, received cheers from the packed house throughout the screening.

We’re pleased to share the exciting news that Turner Classic Movies is airing this acclaimed restoration on Monday, March 4, at 8 p.m. ET. If you listen to Cladrite Radio with any regularity, this one’s right up your alley. We’re calling it a don’t-miss.

To give you an idea what to expect, here’s a clip from the film of a performance of George Gershwin‘s Rhapsody in Blue.

Happy 109th Birthday, Bette Davis!

The singular Bette Davis was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis 109 years ago today in Lowell, Massachusetts. Here are 10 BD Did-You-Knows:

  • Davis’ father was a patent attorney. He and his wife divorced when Davis was 10 and Davis was raised by her mother. Davis’ initial interest as a young performer was dance, but she eventually turned her sights on the stage.
  • After graduating from the Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, Davis made her way to NYC. She wasn’t accepted to Eva Le Gallienne‘s Manhattan Civic Repertory, but she proved to be the star pupil at the John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts, where Lucille Ball was her classmate.
  • Davis debuted off-Broadway in 1923 in a play called The Earth Between. Her Broadway debut, in Broken Dishes, came six years later. In 1930, she was hired by Universal Pictures, where she made her screen debut in a pictured called Bad Sister (1931).
  • Legend has it that a studio staffer sent to pick up Davis at the train station when she first arrived in Hollywood returned without her, saying he hadn’t seen anyone who looked like a movie star. We’ve no idea if that’s true, but if it is, we’re confident Davis made that poor fellow regret his mistake.
  • When she first arrived in Hollywood, it was suggested Davis change her name to Bettina Dawes. She refused, saying the name sounded too much like “Between the Drawers.”
  • In 1932, Davis signed a seven-year deal with Warner Brothers, where she would soon become the queen of the lot.
  • In 1936, Bette Davis refused a role Warner Brothers assigned her, saying it was not worthy of her talents. She scurried off to England, hoping to make pictures there, but Warners enforced its exclusive contract with her. She sued to get out of the contract, and though she lost the suit, thereafter Warner Brothers treated her with more respect and offered her better roles.
  • Davis was nominated 11 times for the Best Actress Oscar over a 28-year span, winning twice (Dangerous [1935], Jezebel [1938]). Five of those nominations (1939-43) were consecutive, an Oscar record Davis shares with Greer Garson.
  • In 1941, Davis was elected the first female president of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She resigned the position after just two months for the putative reason that she didn’t have sufficient time to devote to the position, but there were reports that, in fact, she resented not being given that power she thought the position would carry. She had no interest in being a famous figurehead.
  • Davis played twin sisters in two different pictures: A Stolen Life (1946) and Dead Ringer (1964).

Happy birthday, Bette Davis, wherever you may be!

Bette Davis

Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?

Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen the ads for the TCM Classic Cruises and thought, “That would be fun.”

But then we can’t help but think, “But it would have been much more fun ten or fifteen years ago.” The sad truth is, there just aren’t that many performers left from the 1930s and ’40s and, of course, there are even fewer that date back as far as the silent movie era.

In that latter category, there’s Mickey Rooney and Carla Laemmle (who was never a big star, but did appear in some big pictures, including Lon Chaney‘s Phantom of the Opera and the 1931 version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi).

And then there’s Diana Serra Cary (née Peggy-Jean Montgomery), who was one of the biggest stars of the silent era, albeit at a very young age.

Cary, then known as Baby Peggy, made her film debut in 1921. She went on to make more than 150 shorts for Century Pictures before signing with Universal Pictures in 1923 for $1.5 million a year. Jackie Coogan, the top child star of the day, was growing up, and Universal was hoping Peggy, who would now be starring in feature-length pictures, pick up the slack left by his declining popularity.

Peggy is to have received more than 1.2 million fan letters during her relatively brief time in the spotlight, but by 1925, the bottom fell out of her career. Her father played it tough in negotiating with independent producer Sol Lesser, for whom she had made a couple of features, and Lesser not only declined to work with her any more, he used his influence in Hollywood to see that no one else would hire her, either. She made only one more silent movie, a small role in the 1926 film April Fool, and then began touring in vaudeville.

With the crash of 1929, Peggy’s family fortunes went in the tank. Her parents had spent most of her earnings, and what investments they had made were now worthless. She eventually stooped to doing extra work in the 1930s, but by 1938, at the age of 19, she was through working in pictures.

In later years, Peggy became a writer and author, publishing a number of books about Hollywood, including her 1996 memoir, Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?. She’s still active today, making personal appearances at film festivals and revival houses.

Beginning at 8 p.m. on Monday, December 3, Turner Classic Movies will air a new documentary about Peggy’s life and career, Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room (2012), and four of her pictures (most of which are lost films), three shorts—Carmen Jr. (1923), Peg o’ the Mounted (1924), and Such Is Life (1924)—and one feature, Captain January (1924).