February 17. 2015
“The kind of jazz we know is dead. Count me out as a pallbearer.” – Johnny (Jackie Cooper), in Syncopation
Syncopation (1942) tells the history of jazz through the story of two white kids, so its limitations are obvious. But it is a fascinating film for how aware it is of the histories that are being left out. The film acknowledges the music’s roots in black America, and begins with a pocket history that traces its path from Africa through slavery and the development of jazz that began in Congo Square in New Orleans. A Louis Armstrong avatar, here named Rex (Todd Duncan), seems to be a leading character, his friendship with the jazz-mad white girl Kit (Bonita Granville) the early focus of the story. But his character is essentially erased as it moves along, focusing instead on Kit’s relationship with struggling (white) hot jazz trumpeter Johnny (Jackie Cooper). Johnny learns from Rex, co-opts his music, and starts the swing music fad. But Johnny is extremely self-conscious about his artistic debt, worrying that what he is doing inches from influence to theft. The film forgives and endorses his actions, but the fact that this doubt is opened up at all is unusual for such seemingly whitewashed material.
The Cohen Media Collection released Syncopation in a beautiful Blu-ray last week, restored in 2K from an archival fine grain 35mm from the Library of Congress. What makes this an essential purchase for jazz fans are the bonus features – classic shorts previously available in muddy prints on YouTube, here now in HD, including Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan (1929), Bundle of Blues (1933), and Symphony in Black (1935, with an appearance by Billie Holliday), as well as shorts featuring Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Hoagy Carmichael, Jack Teagarden and Artie Shaw.
Director William Dieterle had just completed The Devil and Daniel Webster, which he developed with his own production company, and had distributed by RKO. On Syncopation Dieterle again had a producer credit, indicating some manner of control over the material. A competing project was already underway, with Bing Crosby’s The Birth of the Blues being made at Paramount, directed by former composer Victor Schertzinger. It was a loose biopic of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and was a success after opening in November of 1941, while Syncopation was still shooting. There was a market for pop biopics, it seems, and RKO must have been encouraged by that films returns. Syncopation originated as the story “The Band Played On” by Valentine Davies, who would go on to write and direct The Benny Goodman Story (1956). Dieterle brought on his own people, getting Philip Yordan and Frank Cavett to write the screenplay. Dieterle had seen Yordan’s first play, the off-broadway Any Day Now, and invited him to Hollywood. Yordan would go on to have a remarkable career in Hollywood, writing scripts for The Man From Laramie and The Big Combo, while also agreeing to be a front for many Blacklist-era writers.
During the scriptwriting process, the German Dieterle would send his scripts for notes to his friend Max Horkheimer, the famed philosopher and sociologist of the Frankfurt School. According to David Jenemann’s Adorno in America, Dieterle sent an early draft of the Syncopation script to Horkheimer, who then passed it along to their mutual friend (and fellow member of the Frankfurt School) Theodor Adorno. Adorno’s comments on the Syncopation script survive, and Jaenemann reports that he wrote, “My private opinion that it will be a flop again because of lack of clarity of music issue. Praise basic idea of advocating jazz in its boldest form.” He argued for further prominence of the Rex character, and that he should win the jazz contest that closes the script (not in the finished film). Adorno was antagonistic to jazz in his published writings, but here pushes the improvisational approach represented by Rex.
The movie begins with Rex, a poor black trumpet prodigy in New Orleans sick of learning Bach in school, so runs off with juke joint elder King Jeffries (Rex Stewart, a cornetist for Duke Ellington) instead. While he hits the steamboat circuit, his jazz-mad white friend Kit (Bonita Granville, the first screen Nancy Drew) moves to Chicago, where she is set to marry Paul, the son a family friend. She finds a local white juke joint with the help of struggling musician Johnny (Jackie Cooper), where she introduces them to the New Orleans style of swing. She hooks Johnny up with Rex, who teaches him how to play hot. At this point Rex disappears from the plot, cut out by the antsy RKO editors. It’s clear that Johnny’s anxiety of influence should build to a battle of the bands between Rex and Johnny, one that legitimizes Johnny’s talent — but it never happens. Instead WWI comes and robs Kit of her fiance, and she takes up with Johnny, and they bite and claw their way through the white jazz establishment, battling against the “sweet”, popular stylings of “Ted Browning’s Symphony of Jazz”, a clear swipe at the Paul Whitemans and Guy Lombardos who tried to give jazz classical airs to make it palatable to middle class white America. The film has something to say about passionate, talented white musicians earning their way into the black jazz community, but it’s all left on the editing room floor. The film doesn’t build to anything so much as smash cut to an all-star jazz band chosen by the Saturday Evening Post, said to represent the future of jazz. They are the very talented and very white group of Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Jack Jenny, Gene Krupa, Alvino Rey and Joe Venuti.
There is a distinct possibility that a much more interesting movie was left in the editing room. Early reviews cite the appearance of Robert Benchley as a kind of narrator (absent from the final cut), and early drafts of the script posit Rex as a competitor to Johnny through the final scene. An early assembly of the film was 146 minutes, and the one released by RKO was 88. This was an A-picture chopped down to programmer status, costing over half a million, but released on a double bill and buried, taking a loss of $87,000. Critics were understandably unkind. At the New York Times Bosley Crowther called it “shoddy, stylized pretense….A bang-up film about early jazz has yet to be made.” While Billboard magazine’s Dick Carter said “it fizzled like a soggy firecracker”, and the stinging closer, “Birth of the Blues was better.” Syncopation was released into theaters on May 22nd, 1942. That month Dizzy Gillespie recorded a solo with Les Hite’s band that did not follow chord changes. At the same time Charlie Parker was playing with Jay McShann’s band, after inventing bebop at after hours clubs across New York City. The music was changing yet again, and Hollywood would have even less of a clue of what to do with it.