Not Manny Farber’s review published on Letterboxd:
June 22, 1942
For esthetes there is nothing so much fun as kicking the movies around. It is the obscenity of the arts, they say, and it’s been that way since the day Griffith’s Intolerance failed at the box office. The esthetes are usually pale, one-sided people, who, if they can’t see the perfect, see nothing at all. But the movies don’t do much to prove them wrong. Take the picture Syncopation. It is the third Hollywood attempt to explain and express hot jazz—Birth of the Blues and Blues in the Night were the first two. Your total experience of jazz from all three of these pictures is negligible compared to what you get from any good record. The esthetes would say these movies are inartistic, shallow and dull, and they would be right.
At least this Syncopation gives the credit for hot jazz to the Negroes. It’s this that makes the film more honest than the one Bing Crosby made, or the one Johnny Mercer’s song made. To give the Negroes their due, and still not make a picture about them, called forth some unusual acrobatics from the script writers. They managed the problem by focusing the story on a little white girl. She is living in New Orleans and loving the early jazz that was then rocking the honky-tonks. Because of the family fortunes, she is taken to Chicago, and it is she—the dainty, aristocratic Bonita Granville—who introduces New Orleans rhythm style to Chicago. It seems she played a light-fingered boogie-woogie. The rest is easy. She marries Bix Beiderbecke as Jackie Cooper; he tries to make money by playing the symphonic sweet of Paul Whiteman, goes crazy from reading notes instead of improvising, and finally finds himself with his own band.
All this is very convenient for tracing some of the history of true jazz, but it fails to get close to the music it eulogizes. Bonita Granville’s importance, for all her natural ease and warmth, merely hides the music, the men who make it, and why. This is typical of Director William Dieterle: so to mix history and fiction as to forget that his pictures must have action and pace, his people be as honestly right as his historical facts. The result here is a dull, incoherent parade of dates, facts and ambiguous fiction. First show the African jungle to get the importance of the tom-toms for jazz, next a slave ship, then a few measures on the cornet by King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, then up to Chicago to catch the next jazz development with Bix, Whiteman and war, and while the pages are turning manage some way to work in the girl-boy plot. What you get is a calendar procession of static episodes—Adolphe Menjou poeticizing about New Orleans, Cooper about Walt Whitman, Todd Duncan pointing his cornet at the sky and saying he’s going to pull down a star—that neither moves nor is it jazz.
The acting is quite distinguished. Both Granville and Cooper have the naturalness child actors seem to start with and keep when they grow up. Cooper is especially convincing as a cornet player, he even holds his arms like one. Adolphe Menjou continues to be wasted in this, as he has been for years, and Todd Duncan mugs too prettily in the Armstrong role. I can’t for the life of me understand why they didn’t use Armstrong himself, since he’s a natural-born actor, and was that, in his early Bing Crosby pictures. We wouldn’t have had all that one-handed playing Duncan tries, nor all the grimacing behind the cornet, nor a blues number with valve-pushing that looks like a fast passage in a Sousa march.
And what was this about crediting the Negro jazz musicians and their kind of music? The picture contradicts itself at the end by naming and showing “the great men of jazz,” i.e., Barnet, Rey, Jenney, Goodman, Krupa, Venuti, and so on. It seems they forgot Armstrong, Morton, Bechet, Higginbotham, Hines, Singleton, and so on, or they remembered these people are colored.