Review: William Dieterle’s “Syncopation,” Starring Jackie Cooper

Bonita Granville and Jackie Cooper in
Bonita Granville and Jackie Cooper in "Syncopation"

A film about jazz, made by and starring primarily white people, Syncopation has no claim as a definitive portrait of the history of the music genre. But it does not completely whitewash the story; one of the significant supporting musician characters is played by an African American actor—unfortunately, a commendable quality in 1942. Issues of representation aside, Syncopation is a stylishly told, if occasionally dull film, from oft-underrated German director William Dieterle.

Struggling Chicago jazz musician Johnny (Jackie Cooper) meets Kit (Bonita Granville), a pianist from New Orleans who misses the type of music she used to hear back home. Johnny brings her into the Chicago jazz scene, and they fall in love along the way. After World War I, Johnny finally gets a gig playing in a big jazz orchestra, but they don’t play the kind he likes (modern viewers may notice a similarity to La La Land in the plotting here). Other musicians include Rex Tearbone (Todd Duncan), the sole major black character, who disappears too quickly from the film; and Smiley Jackson (Frank Jenks), a musician and promoter who serves as comic relief. Adolphe Menjou, although top billed, barely appears at Kit’s father.

Before the two white protagonists show up, however, it seems as if Dieterle and writers Philip Yordan and Frank Cavett are going to focus the whole film on the true origins of jazz. They open the film overtly with slaves being abducted from Africa, then skip ahead to 1906 to show a young Rex learning about jazz from a facsimile of jazz pioneer King Oliver (here named King Jeffers). Rex’s mother, Ella (Jessica Grayson), works for Kit’s family, and when the family moves to Chicago, the story shifts to focus on white characters for the most part.

Jackie Cooper and Todd Duncan in "Syncopation"
Jackie Cooper and Todd Duncan in “Syncopation”

It’s easy to imagine a more fascinating version of Syncopation following Rex instead of Johnny and Kit. Their story ultimately has very little conflict, serving mainly as a way to jump from jazz sequence to jazz sequence. A film that continued to follow Rex could have probed into the common occurrence of white people appropriating this music genre, or at the very least, shown a different side than other films about jazz made at the time—like the bland Bing Crosby vehicle Birth of the Blues. There may have been more of this in Dieterle’s original version; a first assembly cut of the film was one hundred and forty-six minutes, while the final film is under ninety.1 Dieterle screened the film for friend Bertolt Brecht two months before release, and according to Brecht, the filmmaker was later forced “to to cut out as many negroes [sic] as possible” focusing instead on the “boy meets girl” storyline.2

Syncopation has the stylish eye of Dieterle, which comparable jazz films like Birth of the Blues lack, and that alone sets it far above. With editor John Sturges (soon to graduate to directing, eventually making The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven), Dieterle constructs some electric montage sequences, and with cinematographer J. Roy Hunt never runs out of ways to film the musical performances. The film’s palpable energy saves it from a less-than-engaging story, rendering Syncopation fun in the moment, but mostly forgettable in the long run.

Where to Watch

Buy it on Blu-ray / DVD

Rent it on iTunes / Amazon / Google Play

For More on Syncopation

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the modern restoration review in The New York Times

Watch the Restoration Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. “Notes,” Turner Classic Movies, accessed March 15, 2017.
2. J. Hoberman, “William Dieterle’s ‘Syncopation’ on DVD: Bending Notes and Jazz History,” The New York Times, February 27, 2015.