Thursday, June 04, 2015

Jazz at Film Forum: Syncopation

Kit Latimer could have been a Marian McPartland from New Orleans. She was a proper lady who played a mean piano and married a trumpet player from Chicago. Unfortunately, the Hollywood of 1942 would only give a woman character limited time on the bandstand. While Latimer spends most of the film cheering on her future fiancĂ©, the fictionalized jazz creation story in which she appears is still pretty progressive for its era and swings quite nicely. Jazz musicians get one of their better big screen treatments in William Dieterle’s Syncopation (trailer here), screening in its DCP restored glory this coming Monday, as part of a special day of jazz programming at Film Forum.

As a little girl, Latimer loved New Orleans, especially the music. She could pound out boogie-woogie piano at a tender age and as fate would have it, her nanny is the mother of Rex Tearbone, a trumpet Phenom transparently based on Louis Armstrong. During those early days, the young Tearbone is taken under the wing of King Jeffers, a clear King Oliver analog, played by longtime Ellington band member Rex Stewart.

At first, Latimer resents Chicago, but on her twenty-first birthday a chance meeting with scuffling trumpeter Johnny Schumacher changes her opinion. He takes her to her first rent party, where she hears Chicago-style jazz in its infancy. That rent party nearly ruins Latimer’s reputation, leading to her acquittal in a bizarre “jazz trial.” Regardless, Latimer and Schumacher are meant for each other, but her childhood sweetheart and WWI complicate matters.

It is easy to nit-pick details, but Syncopation deserves credit for getting so much right, starting with the opening montage depicting slavery and the subsequent hardships endured by African Americans. It is an evocative sequence not unlike the Ellington short Rhapsody in Black and Blue, playing as part of Film Forum other special Monday jazz program. One can also discern a good deal of Bix Beiderbecke in Schumacher, who learns how to really swing when jamming after hours with Tearbone, but finds himself stuck blowing in a symphonic so-called jazz orchestra unambiguously modeled on the Paul Whiteman outfit.

The performances are mostly rather earnest and engaging, as well. Jackie Cooper has the right balance of innocence and street smarts for Schumacher (whose solos were mostly played off-screen by the tragic Bunny Berigan), while Bonita Granville’s Latimer makes a glamorous and largely credible hipster (with Stan Wrightsman handling her bluesy piano). Todd Duncan also adds considerable energy as Tearbone, playing him as an unflaggingly cheerful figure, but in a way that is sociable rather than servile. Although not a jazz musician, Duncan the opera baritone will still be of interest to jazz fans for originating the role of Porgy in Gershwin’s opera. Plus, Connee Boswell appears as herself (and convincingly so), sitting in with Schumacher’s band.

Syncopation is a very good film that holds up for contemporary viewers surprisingly well, considering it addresses (albeit gingerly) issues of race in the early 1940s. Granted, the appearance of an all-white all-star band in the closing scene is problematic, but evidently someone made the decision to assemble the winners of a Saturday Evening Post readers’ poll. Frankly, we are probably lucky they voted for legit swingers like Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnett. If only Dieterle and company had used Downbeat instead. Still, the film is quite sensitive and inclusive for its time and swings rather hardily. Recommended for fans of jazz and classic Hollywood, Syncopation screens this Monday (6/8) at Film Forum, along with the Jazz on a Spring Day collection of musical shorts.