William Dieterle (director)
16 March 2020 (released)
20 March 2020
A rather atypical output from former RKO Studios, SYNCOPATION is a homage and stylish jazz chronicle featuring, among others, Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Alvino Rey, Connie Boswell though it should be stressed this 1942 film is not a documentary.
Beginning in deepest, darkest Africa we see footage of tribal dancing before things get darker still and we get to see glimpses of a slave ship deporting captured natives in the direction of the U.S.A. We then find ourselves in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, to be precise in the Congo Square Building which was previously used as a slave market – now transformed into an unemployment office for Afro-Americans. At a nearby musical college (also for Afro-American students) a little fella called ‘Reggie’ Tearbone (Todd Duncan) is struggling to learn Bach on his cornet as he feels more at home with improvising rather than reading music from the sheets. However, Reggies’ part-time job sees him playing cornet at the local church where one of the Congregationalists is King Jeffers (Rex Stewart – one of Duke Ellington’s cornet players) who straight away offers him a job in his band – thus reflecting the relationship between King Oliver and the great Louis Armstrong. Initially, Reggie’s mum Ella Tearborne (Jessie Grayson) who is employed as a housekeeper by an old aristocratic family – the Latimers – is anything but happy about her son playing in King Jeffer’s band but during a gig she realises her son’s potential and allows him to stay on. Meanwhile, architect George Latimer (George Latimer) and his family including little daughter Kit (Peggy McIntyre) have run into financial trouble. One day Steve Porter (George Bancroft), an old friend of Mr. Latimer, comes to visit the family and offers the Latimers a chance to return to Chicago with him. Kit Latimer in particular isn’t too enthusiastic about the idea as she likes New Orleans but the move is sweetened by the fact that her childhood pal Paul Porter (Lindy Wade) will also be coming to Chicago, naturally! Given the circumstances, it is decided that for the Latimers it really would be the best thing to move to Chicago and all, including housekeeper Ellie, are soon on their way though her son Reggie remains in New Orleans to focus on his musical career. Via visual collages we follow the Latimers’ journey from New Orleans via St. Louis and other places to their final destination Chicago.
Ten years have passed and Kit Latimer (now played by Bonita Granville) has grown into a pretty 17-year old, enjoying status as a socialite. Kit and her ‘childhood sweetheart’ Paul have become very close. One evening, during which both the Porters and the Latimers are out, Kit walks along the streets bored and bumps into a young street musician called Johnny Schumacher (Jackie Cooper, dubbed by top trumpet player Bunny Berigan) who enthusiastically plays a new and interesting type of music. Establishing a rapport straight away and with a mutual interest in ‘modern’ music, Kit and Johnny, at his behest, visit a Speakeasy-style establishment where patrons indulge in unconventional dancing to even more unconventional beats. Enthusiastically, Kit takes to the piano where she plays boogie-woogie to an impressed audience including Johnny. Outside on the streets, a policeman hears the cheery noise and socialite Kit finds herself arrested on grounds of public disorder. In the most entertaining scene of the entire film, Kit convinces judge and jury to discharge her after she managed to play an infectious tune of boogie-woogie on a piano which had been brought to the courtroom. Music promoter Smiley Jackson (Frank Jenks), who was present at the Speakeasy, knocks at the Latimer residence with an offer to put the extremely talented Kit under contract, however, Kit’s father refuses such a ‘cheap’ career for his daughter and the music promoter is asked to leave the house without a signature. An understandably sulking Kit is more than disappointed but, being only 17, can do nothing against her father’s wishes.
Life takes yet another unexpected turn with the arrival of World War I and Reggie, now grown up and known as Rex Tearbone, comes to Chicago with his band. On the private front, Kit is now engaged to Paul Porter with the wedding on the horizon. Unfortunately Paul is drafted in before the wedding takes place and soon after is killed in action. As time passes, Kit and Johnny fall in love with each other – something that has been on the cards all along. At the end of the war Kit and Johnny marry and he begins a job playing with a big band jazz orchestra though the sanitized music is increasingly at odds with Johnny’s offbeat taste, thus making it impossible to progress. Even Kit urges him to stay true to his roots and following her advice he quits to return to the music he loves playing the most. It’s then that Kit contacts promoter Smiley Jackson again and asks him to listen to Johnny’s stuff and help out. Impressed, Smiley offers Johnny a job in New York and soon he starts playing with a new band. It’s here that Kit runs into Rex ‘Reggie’ Tearbone again who has his own plans in search for an exciting career. The film ends with Johnny’s band slowly but surely on the way up as open-minded audiences come to realise that this new sound named ‘Swing’ is perfect for dancing. As the credits roll, the various jazz greats such as Benny Goodman and Harry James are shown and mentioned although they hardly featured prominently in the film.
SYNCOPATION is presented for the first time in a Dual Format edition and although not exactly a masterpiece (the film made a loss upon its initial theatrical release) it is perhaps a little known gem especially for those interested in the evolution of jazz. It’s a pity that the backers of this film persuaded director William Dieterle to concentrate more on the love interest instead of seeing a little more of black musician Rex Tearbone and the New Orleans style of music. Sadly, that was the time.