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In the series of Warner Bros/Busby Berkeley musicals stretching from 42ND
Street to Varsity Show, Wonder Bar remains the least appreciated (and
perhaps the least seen). It's quite remarkable in that the plot, aside
a few opening scenes, keeps "real time" and relationships begin/end, lives
are lost, and and all sorts of minor dramas are tied up neatly in one
evening at a nightclub.
Al Jolson, as the club owner, takes some getting used to, but he's actually more low-key than usual here--and even a bit touching in scenes. And how fabulous do Kay Francis and Delores Del Rio look in this film? Who cares if they can't act--they do lots of radiant posing and wear gorgeous outfits. There are some bits with Louise Fazenda and a much younger man that left me gasping. The brief (and very funny) "gay scene" and hunky Ricardo Cortez whipping Del Rio also had me shaking my head in disbelief. Anyone care to count how many censorship Code infractions are contained in this film? It raised a stir with the Catholic church and Legion of Decency, and I've read a memo somewhere that some audiences reportedly were appalled by the goings-on in this movie (it was a hit though--grossing nearly a million dollars for the studio).
If you're reading about this movie you already know about the musical numbers--"Don't Say Goodnight", with its octagon of mirrors and chorus stretching into infinity, and "Goin to Heaven on a Mule", with the blackface angels and dancing watermelon. "Mule" is beyond belief--it must've been a killer on the big screen. Viewers are still offended by it, and certainly should be--all it is missing is a Grand Dragon.
A witty, fascinating, naughty, beautifully photographed film. If 42ND Street is the king of the WB/Busby Berkeley crown, Wonder Bar is the banished, scandalous cousin that is inevitably more fun.
Along with DANTE'S INFERNO and THE MERRY WIDOW also made in 1934, I think this film is the reason the censorship Hays code was rigidly enforced in Hollywood for the next 30 years. Deleriously vulgar and immoral in every scene, all set in a sensational nightclub for all ages and kinky tastes, each leering winking and squabbling, all set to foxtrots and waltzes re-imagined by Busby Berkeley and climaxing with the most hilariously offensive musical number of all time: Going To heaven On A Mule. There's no point explaining it or any other of the screwy dance numbers...including the leather clad S&M themed whipping (and murder) tango by "Inez and Harry"...complete with loud cracks of the whip across the gorgeous face of the awesomely beautiful Delores Del Rio. Someone at Warners must have decided to create a shopping list of production possibilities directly from the planned Hays code of banned themes. It just does not stop being deliberately immoral vulgar and hilariously rude for all of its 88 minutes. I loved all 189 minutes of it because I kept re winding so many bits over and over just to gasp between laughs at the blatant unstoppable cheerfulness of it's violations. All in the most glamorous setting and style imaginable. The orchestral score is excellent - and I have an LP from the 70s with GO INTO YOUR DANCE on the other side. It is created directly from the soundtrack so there is plenty of dialog as well. WONDERBAR is CABARET 1934 for real. Wait 'till you see the epic musical sequence called Don't Say Goodnight where a squadron of negligee clad showgirls dance around massive moving 'pillars' that have big veiny patterns weaving down from the top. That is in between floating past the camera, lit from behind so we can see how sheer their garments are. The scene where two turkey -like old dames ditch their husbands and together pick up the one gigolo (planning a threesome) is a screamer...he clinches the job with the incestuous note "You remind me of my mother" to which they very happily go for him.... and this is all just starters! On top of all this is Al Jolson leering and bellowing, all lustful and creepy... not too much a stretch for Joel Grey in 1972 singing Wilkommen and getting an Oscar! Find WONDERBAR and show it to everyone you know! Colossal and bent as all hell... to music. Read the other comments on this site for the story and viewer outrage. Haha!
WONDER BAR (First National, 1934), directed by Lloyd Bacon, is a
perfect example of a pre-code movie that dares to be daring and
surprisingly different. It's one of the most elaborate musicals to star
Al Jolson, with choreography by the Million Dollar Dance Director,
Jolson, in his first Warner Brothers musical after a four year absence, fits his role to perfection as Al Wonder, entertainer and proprietor of The Wonder Bar night club in Paris. In a plot set in a single evening (as does Universal's forgotten 1932 drama, NIGHT WORLD starring Lew Ayres and Mae Clarke, with Boris Karloff as the night club proprietor, which featured one brief Busby Berkeley production number), Al loves the star dancer, Ynez (Dolores Del Rio), who loves her partner, Harry (Ricardo Cortez), but he is carrying on an affair with a businessman's wife, Liane (Kay Francis), etc. Also in the cast are Dick Powell Tommy, the band-leader and singer who also loves Ynez; Robert Barrat as the suicidal Russian; Hugh Herbert and Guy Kibbee as married drunk American businessmen who flirt with a couple of gold diggers (Merna Kennedy and Fifi Dorsay), while their wives (Ruth Donnelly and Louise Fazenda) try to make a play with a young Frenchman. Interesting that this movie includes so much plot and subplot in its tight 86 minutes that director Lloyd Bacon succeeds in keeping the story moving in between songs.
WONDER BAR features some very risqué dialog and scenes that would have kept this movie from being released had it been distributed to theaters after the Production Code enforcement in May 1934. Maybe that's why WONDER BAR played sporadically on local television back in the 1960s, and disappeared before the end of the decade, making it as underplayed as the excellent back-stager 42nd STREET (Warners, 1933) was overplayed. Good tunes by Harry Warren and Al Dubin include "Vive La France," "Why Do I Dream Those Dreams?" and the instrumental tango dance titled "Tango Del Rio." One of the highlights include the production number: "Don't Say Goodnight" (sung by Powell), featuring dancers with overhead angles, which is so mesmerizing to see and tuneful to hear, even at ten minutes. But while the 12 minute Jolson finale, "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule" might offend today's viewers, it is quite a production number just the same, inspired by Marc Connelly's "The Green Pastures," which needs to be seen to be believed. Participating in this number is Hal LeRoy in a brief tap-dance sequence.
While Al Jolson is hailed as a great singer but poor actor, which is evident in some of his earlier film roles, notably SAY IT WITH SONGS (WB, 1929), I feel his acting has improved with this one, and the subsequent roles that were to follow, and he looks more at ease making wisecracks and singing to an audience than giving tearful performances, especially in black-face. His argumentative scene with Ricardo Cortez, in which they play rivals who hate each other, looks so real that maybe they actually hated each other off-screen. When Cortez as Harry puffs cigarette smoke in Al's eyes, it appears as if Al really wanted to sock him. One wonders how WONDER BAR was behind the scenes amongst the other cast members.
WONDER BAR is available for viewing on Turner Classic Movies and video cassette. A record soundtrack to this, double featured with songs from GO INTO YOUR DANCE from the late 1970s, would be an interesting find today. (***)
Jolson's Al Wonder is a cross between Rufus T. Firefly and an early
blueprint for Bogart's Rick in CASABLANCA (he owns a club, he fixes
everybody's problems, he's hopelessly in love with a woman (del Rio) who's
attached to somebody else, and he's an American living in a foreign
Paris, in this case).
Ricardo Cortez and Dolores del Rio display mannerisms typical of actors still in transition from the silent era. They both bring some magnetism to the screen, as do Kay Francis and Dick Powell. The comedy thread, featuring Guy Kibbee, Ruth Donnelly, Hugh Herbert and Louise Fazenda as two American couples determined to take advantage of the sexual exoticism of Paris, gets a little thin.
It's a well made film, although clearly dated, and with some interesting moral ambiguity. Its limits as art and as entertainment are transcended during two sublime Busby Berkeley sequences: the first a typically dazzling choreographic gem emerging from a Cortez/del Rio dance routine; and the second, equally impressive, but bizarre, following Jolson in blackface going up to Heaven on a mule, during which Jolson seems to want to add Cab Calloway to his character's identikit.
It's to Lloyd Bacon's (and the cast's) credit that the contrivances of the plot don't dull the film's impact too much, but it is only when BB's magic unfolds that WONDER BAR becomes exceptionally good.
Welcome to the WONDER BAR! Your host, Al Wonder (Al Jolson) promises
you the finest music & entertainment Paris can offer in this wonderful
year of 1934. Our featured dancers, Harry & Inez (Ricardo Cortez &
Dolores Del Rio) will thrill you with their passion; they say that Inez
adores Harry, but that he, a true gigolo, loves only money. Seated on
the sidelines is a wealthy married woman (Kay Francis) who is
supposedly giving Harry diamonds for his affections. Al loves Inez, as
does his boy bandleader & crooner Tommy (Dick Powell). And if you
glance over at the bar you'll see a French Captain (Robert Barrat),
bankrupt, disposing of his last cash & valuables, hinting darkly that
we should not miss tomorrow morning's newspapers. Al himself will of
course entertain us with a selection of tunes sung in his inimitable
style. Yes, I think we can promise you an evening you won't forget,
full of waltzes & romance, love & hate, murder & suicide! Right this
way, mesdames & messieurs!
Released just prior to the imposition of the Production Code, this neglected film is an example of too much talent & not enough taste. Sex in several illicit forms seems to preoccupy much of the dialogue & plot (watch the reaction on Jolie's face as the two young men dance past him). Some of the references are a bit sly, others obscure, but the decadence lingers on...
That having been said, the film does have strengths. Jolson is wonderful to watch. His outsized personality was too big for any screen to hold; nonetheless, his talent to entertain was immense & he doesn't stint here. Francis (she has little to do) & Del Rio are both lovely and Powell is in good voice. The comedy is handled by two American couples, Guy Kibbee & Ruth Donnelley and Hugh Herbert & Louise Fazenda, who bicker and flirt and have almost nothing to do with the rest of the plot.
Al Dubin & Harry Warren provided some good tunes for the picture. Powell sings 'Why Do I Dream Those Dreams?' & 'Wonder Bar' - while Jolson sinks his teeth into 'Welcome To My Wonder Bar/Vive La France.' Busby Berkeley was the dance choreographer and he provides one of his finest creations, 'Don't Say Good-Night' (featuring the talents of Powell, Del Rio & Cortez), with the Berkeley hallmark: identical blonde chorus girls in swirling precision movements filmed from above, this time endlessly magnified by mirrors. It is gorgeous.
On the other hand, Jolson, Berkeley, Dubin & Warren must take responsibility for one of the most outrageous sequences of the decade (looking back with hindsight). 'Goin' To Heaven On a Mule', which makes the Celestial City look like a honky-tonk Harlem populated by the Hall Johnson Choir, is amazingly racist & fascinatingly vulgar, a definite smudge on First National/Warner Bros. reputation.
Entertaining musical all taking place on one evening at the swanky
Paris nightclub "Wonder Bar", the film following the stories of several
different characters including headline dancers Inez and Harry (aka
"the gigolo"), a well-to-do woman (Kay Francis) who has paid for "dance
lessons" from Harry with a diamond necklace (now being investigated by
her husband and the insurance company), orchestra leader/singer Tommy
(Dick Powell) who is in love with Inez, a man who spends the evening
giving away all his possessions before his planned suicide of driving
over a cliff, two drunken American businessmen (in "Nuts and Bolts") on
vacation with their wives, a Russian Count, and at the helm of it all -
Al Wonder (Al Jolson), club owner who likes to deliver rather silly
one-liners as he oversees and sings sometimes too.
Al loves Inez, Inez loves Harry, the two businessmen are busy chasing after two hostesses/gold-diggers, and their wives are happily pursued by another young nightclub gigolo. All of this is inter-mixed with a selection of musical numbers including a very entertaining dance number in which Harry and Inez dance surrounded by a bevy of platinum blondes and masked men, all dressed in black and white as they flow around the mirrored art deco set and dance floor, and are shown dancing in overhead, Busby Berkley-directed style kaleidoscope effect - cool! Other numbers include "The Gaucho Dance" (reminiscent of Valentino), and the big finale which is possibly the most politically incorrect, jaw-dropping musical number ever filmed featuring Al Jolson in blackface who heads to heaven complete with an entire entourage of dancing angels in blackface, "Pork Chop Orchard" where pork chops grow on trees, "Watermelon Palace" with watermelons free for the taking, "Uncle Tom To-Nite" sign, craps dice, and tap-dancing number in front of waving watermelon slices.
All in all though, this film is quite enjoyable, light fare with enough stories to hold your interest, and the glitz and glamour of what appears to be a very fun-to-go-to hot spot full of well-heeled patrons in gorgeous gowns and tuxedos. I always enjoy the performances of Kay Francis and she is just fine in this, although she's not really given very much to do - same with Dick Powell, who has a small, rather bland role in this film. Guy Kibbee as one of the American businessmen and sidekick Hugh Herbert, as well as Ruth Donnelly and Louise Fazenda as the wife who likes the attentions of a younger man add quite a bit of humor to all this. Definitely worth a look.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Wonder Bar' stars Al Jolson in a film with more plot than usual, and it's
one of his best efforts. Jolson's films are notoriously tainted by racist
blackface routines: in 'Wonder Bar', this material is completely avoided
until the very end of the film, when we get a long blackface number called
"Goin' to Heaven on a Mule". If you fast-forward through this to get to
last few minutes of the film (tying up some loose ends in the plot),
be better off.
Several Warner Brothers movies of this period ('Two Seconds', 'Central Park') featured a 'book-ends' structure in which the film's opening shot and closing shot are the same camera set-up. We get a variation on that structure here. The first couple of reels of 'Wonder Bar' set up the conflicts between the characters. Then, about a third of the way into the film, we get the first 'book-end' as Jolson's nightclub (the Wonder Bar) opens for the evening: a liveried doorman unrolls a red carpet and salutes us. At the very end of the film, after the Wonder Bar has closed for the night, the doorman rolls up the carpet and salutes us again.
I'm a long-time fan of Dolores del Rio, an immensely talented actress who was also exceedingly sexy. Here, she gives the best (and sexiest) performance I've ever seen from her, as a cabaret dancer who is bullied and exploited by her dance partner (the very hissable Ricardo Cortez). Jolson is in love with del Rio (this is cleverly depicted with an unusual visual device), but she doesn't return his love.
Dick Powell is less annoying and less obtrusive than usual. Ditto the raccoon-eyed Kay Francis, whom I always dislike. SPOILERS COMING. There's an amusing subplot with four Warners stalwarts (Guy Kibbee, Hugh Herbert, Louise Fazenda and the splendid Ruth Donnelly) as two stodgy married couples on holiday. The husbands conspire to sneak out for a night on the tiles while the wives are asleep; the wives plot to sneak out while the husbands are asleep. Unfortunately, after setting up this very funny situation, there's no pay-off for it.
Veteran character actor Robert Barrat plays a role well outside his usual range, with only partial success. Somewhat implausibly, Jolson allows Barrat to commit suicide because this will help Jolson conceal a murder committed by del Rio. We're meant to admire Jolson for this.
I shan't comment on the protracted blackface routine late in the film, except to say that it's a *dull* number apart from its offensiveness. The effeminate tap-dancer Hal LeRoy performs, nearly naked, in blackface and full body make-up. Instead of painting a white man to look like a black man, couldn't Warners have hired a black tap-dancer instead? Plenty of black men were much better dancers than Hal LeRoy.
Much earlier in the film, there's one very surprising gag involving Jolson and two gay men. During his long career as a stage performer, Jolson frequently worked 'lavender' material into his act. Like the British comedian Max Miller, Jolson was a heterosexual performer who deliberately led audiences to suspect he might be homosexual. (Apparently the rumours were good for the box office.) Jolson employed 'camp' humour and gay jokes frequently onstage, but so far as I know 'Wonder Bar' is the only time he ever did this in a film. I'll rate 'Wonder Bar' 8 points out of 10. I was tempted to knock off several points for the blackface routine, but I put them back on again for Dolores del Rio's very erotic performance.
The storyline of this film is fairly ordinary: something of a "Grand
Hotel" set in a Paris cabaret in the 20s. What makes it noteworthy --
besides the opportunity to watch Al Jolson in action -- is the
jaw-droppingly insensitive closing number, "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule,"
staged by Busby Berkeley in characteristically over-the-top fashion. A
blackface Jolson takes us through a version of heaven with Pork Chop
Orchards and Possum Pie Groves, automatic fried chicken, dancing
watermelons, and a streetcar going from the "Milky Way to Lenox Ave."
And in the midst of it all, a winking Al grins over a copy of a Yiddish
newspaper, just to let us all in on the joke.
The number makes the Lincoln's Birthday number in "Holiday Inn" look tame. Even Stepin Fetchit suddenly appears endowed with a singular dignity. Watching it helps one to understand the unhappy history of race relations in this country.
Which is why I think that the film should be seen, if only in order for younger Americans to understand just where all that racial anger comes from. This is our cultural history, and we shouldn't run from it. It ought to be screened in every cultural studies class in America!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Before the Hays code came along with their scissors and snipped the sin
out of Hollywood, you would get films like this where the girls went
wild, boys would be boys (Wooo!!!) and old married couples from the mid
west went to New York or Paris or Monte Carlo and dropped their
partners for the night for some fun with a good time girl or a gigolo.
While this is not a great movie by any means, it is still a lot of fun,
and it is more innuendo than actual open sinning going on.
Al Jolson is the headliner at the Wonder Bar in Paris, a nightclub where the elite go to toss down a few martinis, escape from their nagging wife or forget that they are married to an older businessman who spends more time in the office than trying to have fun. Dolores Del Rio and Ricardo Cortez are the dancing team who are having a bit too intense of a time ("He Wips Her, But She Likes It!" is one of the dances they do) as he is involved with other women, most seriously bored wife Kay Francis. She is the one with the busy businessman husband, and she is very wary of the working relationship between Cortez and Del Rio.
Also involved are the comic relief older couples of Ruth Donnelly and Guy Kibbee, and Louise Fazenda and Hugh Herbert. The men want to spend an evening with some pretty French girls, while the two women flirt with two sleazy gigolos. They spend the evening trying to get rid of the other, which results in some comical double entendres. Fifi D'Orsay is one of the French working girls which must have inspired Stephen Sondheim to cast her 36 years later in "Follies" on Broadway to sing "Ah, Paris!".
After Jolson gets things started with the title tune, we are treated to some glorious production numbers. The classy "Don't Say Goodnight" just seems to go on forever (spacewise, not lengthwise) with its use of mirrors on three sides of the stage, and is truly a romantic moment. Much more controversial (other than the sudden dance with two men, the one cutting in pushing the woman out of the way) is the "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule" which utilizes every black stereotype there is. A huge white heaven with a smaller black heaven next door (segregated, you know...) and a heavenly nightclub set on Heaven's own Lennox Avenue. Then, a black-faced Hal LeRoy tap dances out of a giant watermelon while Jolson (you expect him in blackface) feasts on a chicken roasted for him in which you see the poor bird plucked by a machine & skewered onto a roaster. Utilized in the documentary "It Came From Hollywood" as an example of Hollywood's bad taste in making some musicals, it has survived its controversy and not been exorcised out of prints. Most audiences simply look at it as an artistic triumph in spite of its bad taste that has taught us lessons and is an example of where Hollywood used to be and has moved far away from. Still, it is light-hearted compared to the same year's "Pickin' Cotton" from "George White's Scandals" in which a huge mammy character raises her skirt so a dozen or so black-faced children can run out from underneath it!
When Jolson is in front of an audience singing, there is a joy exhilarating from him like the shining of a star. He isn't so comfortable in the serious acting sequences. Kay Francis, obviously upset by being secondary to Del Rio, suffers as a result of her unhappiness with the role, although the bitterness she feels somehow matches that of the character. What makes it worse is that Francis and Del Rio sometimes appear to have similar looks (with the widows peak hairstyle) but Del Rio is much more exotic looking. Dick Powell is on only to sing a few songs and adds only incidental plot development. Cortez once again plays a sleazy character (much like the same year's "Mandaly", which co-starred Francis in a much better part) who is not so likable. The four older character actors offer much needed humor to the somber plot which includes a murder, a suicide and eventually cover up. As Jolson would say, it's all in a night's work.
I love "Wonder Bar." I love it in all its vulgarity and I even love the
"Goin' to Heaven on a Mule" number despite Busby Berkeley's seeming
determination to include virtually every ridiculous racist stereotype
of Blacks. "Wonder Bar" seems to me to be one of the few Berkeley
movies (like "Gold Diggers of 1933" and "Footlight Parade") whose plot
is genuinely interesting and entertaining in itself and not just an
excuse to set up the spectacular numbers. The alternation between drama
and comedy which bothers some of the other reviewers is one of the best
things about this film; it gives it a contemporary quality even if some
of the numbers badly date it. Lloyd Bacon's direction is unusually
stylish for this generally hacky filmmaker, the Harry Warren/Al Dubin
songs are at least serviceable and sometimes better than that, and
though Warners was dubious enough about Al Jolson's continued
popularity that they surrounded him with an all-star cast (Dick Powell,
Kay Francis, Dolores del Rio, Ricardo Cortez), he triumphs.
One thing I've always loved about Jolson is that -- unlike Eddie Cantor and other contemporaries, who sang in blackface exactly the way they sang in whiteface (viz. the Cantor/Berkeley "Whoopee!") -- Jolson didn't. In his whiteface number in "Wonder Bar," "Vive la France," Jolson's voice is a shrill high tenor with an annoyingly fast vibrato. His singing on "Mule" is in an almost different style: he drops his register, slows down his vibrato, sings from deeper in his chest and genuinely tries for -- and, I think, achieves -- the simple, direct eloquence of the Black singers of the time. Whatever you think of Jolson's blackface act (and I'll admit it dates VERY badly), blackface liberated Jolson and freed him to sing in a deeper, more soulful style. One could make the case that Jolson did for Black music what Benny Goodman and Elvis Presley did later -- as a white performer he could reach audiences Blacks themselves couldn't -- and Jolson actually did it twice, in the 1910's when he got his start on Broadway and the 1940's when the success of "The Jolson Story" launched his comeback. White audiences tired of the bland "crooners" of the early 1940's seized on Jolson's direct, ballsy style, and his comeback paved the way for other Black-influenced white singers like Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray and Elvis.
Also, if you'll dig out your copy of the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack CD and listen to the 1928 recording of "Big Rock Candy Mountain" by Harry McClintock and you'll find that the fantasy of heaven in the "Mule" number isn't all that different from the one in this song ("where the hens lay soft-boiled eggs ... and they hung the jerk who invented work") by a whiteface performer aimed at a white audience. O.K., so no one would dare do a number like this today, but "Mule" is still astonishing and, despite the patronization, worthy to stand as the one Jolson/Berkeley collaboration.
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