Wonder Bar (1934)
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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.
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. (***)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
It's the Depression, though the film takes place in Paris so as not to offend. The film is by the 42nd Street/Footlight Parade team, so a show about a show being staged. The entire film is one long night of song and revelry in Al Jolson's Wonder Bar.
It would be far fetched to claim this as intentionally analogous to the times. In a way, however, it can be said to parse out from and abstract—in the dreamlike way of Hollywood—a certain kind of Depression-era experience.
What has happened from the perspective of the commonfolk in the audience, is that whimsical gods have decided to throw a crank in the gears of the world, snapping order and mechanism—anything goes for a while. In stark reality, this means bread lines and hobo trains.
Here are some of the situations that develop in the story: adultery, theft and all sorts of deceit and secret drama, what amounts to owner- sanctioned prostitution both male and female, a homosexual couple freely dance together, a man who all through the film insinuates suicide and no one bothers to stop him.. and get this, murder goes unpunished and doesn't even weigh on anybody's conscience.
Instead of being made to feel horror and desperation at this snapping of order, we have a grand time. The focus is on us being entertained. This is of course not uncommon for musicals of the time, in fact it is the very engine of it—the show must go on. Here, however, we have Gold Diggers of 33 grinded out through the dionysian wringer.
How about the actual show? Busby Berkeley is here, and that means gaudiness, scope and sensual razzmatazz. I so love the man, at least in those brief years when inspiration was still fresh. There are two numbers here, the first as you expect it; fresh women, body-particles which contrary to shapeless reality, up on the stage form abstract—erotic— order, vaginal molecules that swirl and shudder and blossom fruits in our imagination.
Now you would expect, as was the norm in the 'backstage' mode, the big number to somehow address the situations, a kind of visual situation of situations. It's why I think this mode matters and have been surveying it, quite apart from the pleasures of frill and song.
Here's where it gets really interesting.
The last number once more has Jolson in blackface and was deemed so vile this one, it was excised by censors from future prints. Now Jolson has been scheming all through the film, as the proprietor, to win the affections of his star, not unkindly mind you, but it leads to some nasty turns. Jolson's character—who would be feeling pangs of guilt in normal reality—in his disguise as humble godfearing tom, goes to heaven on a mule; he is mirthfully greeted there by angels in blackface, kids playing banjo, a chorus of happy souls swirling in the clouds.
God, this is great. Jolson as the great manipulator is reprieved from wrongdoing, two layers here: in his mind and imagination, as having conceived the show, secondly in the public mind, in the show being shared for the enjoyment of an audience both in and out of the film, and in its dazzle of course eclipsing in lasting impression the events of the plot.
You think I'm reading too much? Keep in mind I am always observing dynamics, not deciphering intent.
You will notice that the number is linked and flows out from a previous number ('Gaucho'), where reality seeps into the dance in the form of violent passion and the audience applauds, sanctifying the amoral mechanics of illusion. Dolores del Rio as the voluptuous object of desire looks ravishing, everything happens for her eyes. Imagine: she ends in the arms of meek, boring pretty-boy Dick Powell.
Anything goes—a musical Mabuse of sorts, but the manipulator of cinematic illusion walks away instead of as in Fritz Lang's film, succumbing to madness and police. We applaud, blessing his powers of seduction over reason.
Something to meditate upon.
Not like any great hit songs came out of it for Jolson, but Warner Brothers decided to buy it for him as a film property. The plot line was changed somewhat and a whole new score was written for the film by Warner Brothers contract composers Harry Warren and Al Dubin.
Jolson got as one of his co-stars Dick Powell who was the screen partner of Mrs. Jolson, Ruby Keeler. Although Powell was fifth in the billing, he was number one in the song department. His songs included Don't Say Goodnight, Why Do I Dream Those Dreams and the title song. Powell plays the orchestra leader at the Wonder Bar and helps Jolson in the vocal department.
Between Jolson and Powell in the billing are Dolores Del Rio, Ricardo Cortez, and Kay Francis. Del Rio and Cortez are a pair of tango dancers and both Powell and Jolson are crushing on her. She is hopelessly infatuated with Cortez. And Kay Francis is a rich woman who Cortez has been seeing on the side.
Ricardo Cortez was one of a number Rudolph Valentino wannabes during the silent screen era and in Wonder Bar, he's as nasty a heel as ever been portrayed on the screen.
Wonder Bar was produced right before the Code took effect and there are lots of sexual innuendo in this film. Of course it's set in Paris and one expects decadence there. But apart from a few newsreel shots to establish Paris as the location, this was all done on the Warner back lot.
Jolson got three songs of his own, Vive La France, Otchichornya, and the infamous Heaven on a Mule. It's as bad as everyone makes it out to be.
Al Jolson got his start at the turn of the 20th century in live minstrel shows which were still around then as a runaway kid. When he became a star on Broadway, he played black characters on stage in blackface. And for reasons that I still can't fathom, would not leave it behind. I'm sure that in his mind, Jolson felt this was what the audience expected from him.
It's worse because Heaven on a Mule adds zero to the plot. In a Parisian nightclub, I'm sure the audience was not expecting a blackface number. Remember this was the Paris that Josephine Baker was triumphing in at that point in time. It might have been nice had Ms. Baker or Ethel Waters had done a real number, Wonder Bar would have a better historic reputation today.
Of course, it is very ironic that the one part of the film that leaves everyone shocked today is probably one of the few things that the Hays Office had no problem with - that well-known musical number "Going to Heaven on a Mule". It is exactly what you would expect when the over-the-top style of Busby Berkeley's choreography meets the minstrel tradition of Al Jolson's musical style. Every racial stereotype in the book is in this musical number, and it was omitted on the VHS release of this film but was kept in the laser disc Jolson set. That's probably because laser disc was seen as specialty product whereas the VHS release was seen as something for consumption by the masses. The Warner Archives is also seen as a niche market, so the number is included in that DVD-R release. I am glad of that, because the present will never be made better by trying to erase or adjust the past, no matter how uncomfortable it may make people feel.
Highly recommended as great classic movie fun, if you can just remember that this film was made in 1934, not last week.
These days we see it as racist, back then it was seen as the norm. That is one of the unique charms of this film, the fact that back then this film wasn't offensive. It shows how far we have come, given the almost apartheid like period in the U.S during the middle of the 20th century. A time when African Americans had to give up their bus seats to white Americans.
Al Jolson (based on a number of biographies) started wearing black-face after his first few nervous performances. Putting on black face was similar to putting on a mask, and gave him the confidence to perform. this is what pushed him to performing in black-face.
So when watching this film, instead of feeling outraged, you might want to feel thankful because you have just witnessed how far we have come in the last eighty or so years.
Al Jolson is, as usual, awkward as an actor but delightful as an entertainer. He gives the impression of a radio star caught on film by accident. One nice episode comes when he puts on a Russian accent for a conversation with a Count.
Dolores del Rio is really stunning, however, and Dick Powell shines as a young singer hopelessly in love with her. Kay Francis does a grand job as well, as the longsuffering wife of a boring banker trying to spice her life up a bit.
The strange part comes when people start dying, a comically suicidal captain runs off to kill himself, an interlude occurs with a blackface song in praise of Lincoln and emancipation (as were many of the blackface or truly black numbers in films of this time) and including a blackface St. Peter and heavenly Hebrew newspapers, the aged American tourists attempt to find French dates for themselves, and, quite suddenly, it ends.
***END OF SPOILER***
Musical numbers created and directed by BUSBY BERKELEY. Songs: "I'm Going to Heaven on a Mule" (Jolson), "Don't Say Good Night" (Powell), "Vive la France" (Jolson), "Tango del Rio" (danced by Del Rio and Cortez), "Why Do I Dream Those Dreams?" (Powell), "At the Wonder Bar", "Dark Eyes", "Fairer on the Riviera" all by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics). Music director: Leo F. Forbstein.
Copyright 23 February 1934 by First National Pictures, Inc. Released through Warner Bros Pictures. New York opening at the Strand: 28 February 1934. U.S. release; 26 November 1933. Australian release: 12 December 1934. 84 minutes.
SYNOPSIS: Al Wonder (Al Jolson) is the egocentric owner of the Wonder Bar, a super-popular nightclub for the well-to-do. The Bar's number two draw-card (Al himself, of course, is number one), is a hot Latin dance team (Dolores del Rio and Ricardo Cortez).
NOTES: Number 9 at domestic ticket-windows. Film debut of Hal LeRoy.
COMMENT: "Wonder Bar" is a must-see, not only because of its fabulous cast, but because the musical interludes were created and directed by Busby Berkeley. In fact, they are probably Buzz's most famous sequences. Seemingly utilizing thousands of dancing extras in dazzling formations, the songs are imaginatively shot (often, as we might expect, from overhead), incorporating some of the most dazzling special effects.
The rest of the film is handled by Lloyd Bacon in an extremely competent style. Bacon draws some great performances from the more animated-than-usual Jolson and absolutely terrific Del Rio. It is the beautiful Kay Francis who disappoints. She looks great, but her performance seems a little too pat, too well rehearsed to be really convincing. But surrounded by players at the top of their game, like Cortez, Powell, Kibbee and Donnelly, who cares?
AVAILABLE on a superb Warner DVD.
*** Hugh Herbert's comedy quartet quickly palls; Kay Francis although still divine to look at got away with free "dancing lessons" from Ricardo Cortez; after being even more like Eddie Cantor than usual Al Jolson's morality in covering up murder with an assisted suicide is dubious; Busby Berkeley's pointlessly uglified female sex object troupe were busy in a few lovely routines, the amazing waltzing in the mirror scenes still hold up well; Dolores Del Rio had an intensely public emotional climax, but went off with the ever dependable Dick Powell without a care in the world. ***
No matter how different this can be judged from other Hollywood product from the time, it's the "Missouri Mule" 14 minute Heavenly dream sequence to Dubin & Warren's music that will overshadow (ahem) the rest of the film. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it (and it was right at the time obviously) it can't be long before it's excised from any future video release/TV showing. First time I saw it I wondered just how crass, inane and un-entertaining this section was and who on Earth was it meant to originally appeal to?
But age tempers judgement as a rule - now I think if anyone (whether black or white) is really offended by a series of moving black and white pictures from 1934 of idiotic white people getting paid to cavort around blacked up representing then stereotypical Negroes - then I think they need their heads examining. If this is anathema how could Blazing Saddles get away with much worse as "comedy", and which to my mind is spreading a negative racial message further than WB can ever do now - just stop and think why so many black people like it.
So, a good movie, depressingly different and worth a watch to the liberated.
There isn't much of a plot. Kay Francis, who author Mick LaSalle claims is 5'9", (Come to think of it, she is sitting down most of the time. We musn't see her towering over Al Jolson and Dick Powell.) is wildly in love with Ricardo Cortez, (Don't judge her harshly, her husband looks old enough to be her grandfather.) as it sultry Dolores del Rio. You've got to see these two women falling all over Cortez to believe it. Jolson and Powell are pining for de Rio, but they're invisible to her. And that's the whole movie. There's some goofy comic relief with Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert that's no worse than the main story line.
This is Busby Berkeley's worst piece of work going away. I can't believe this is the same man who did "42nd Street", "Dames", and "Footlight Parade". It's just not possible. Wonder Bar isn't an easy movie to find, but it you want to see a bad film that's really weird, watch this one.
Kay Francis is cuckolding her older husband with gigolo Richard Cortez. Cortez is a nasty character and the dance partner at the title establishment of Dolores Del Rio.
Ms. Del Rio, one of the great beauties of movie history, is not served well by the makeup and hairstyling here. She looks like the Ann Miller of 2000. Francis is as chic as ever and has a thankfully small role -- almost a cameo.
Louise Fazenda as the wife in two American couples visiting France, is hilarious, doing everything she can to attract the boys. (Not, presumably, the two whom we see dancing together.) The dance number between Cortez and Del Rio is genuinely shocking. It's called a whip dance and he cracks a whip, like a lion tamer. It doesn't touch her, but she crawls on the floor responding to it. This movie has some of the raciest scenes of any between the end of the Code and Lina Wertmuller.
Alas, a scene near the end begins with Jolson in blackface and expands to include a whole group of supporting singers in blackface. This was a convention and one of specialties. I have seen it in movies made as recently as "Torch Song from the early 1950s, in which a blond Joan Crawford sings in blackface. That is risible; here, we have something grossly unappealing.
The two reasons to view Wonder Bar is first to see Al Jolson sing and he puts on a terrific show. My favorite part is when he talks to the Russian Count and he goes back to his roots (Jolson was born in present- day Lithuania) and develops a Russian accent. Yes, he's playing himself but that's good enough for everybody.
The second are the two Busby Berkeley numbers. Don't Say Goodnight is an amazing showcase of his choreography skills with tons of blondes and mesmerizing visuals.
Going' To Heaven On A Mule over the years has aged worse and worse. Every time I think of all those kids in blackface I cringe. I find it hard to believe the producers would think Going' To Heaven On A Mule would be listed among the greatest movie musical numbers ever. The idea of hundreds of whites dancing in blackface with Jolson still disturbs me. Maybe Hays was right in this case that having a Code would at least prevent this kind of overt racist humor for a period of time. You would figure back in 1934 Hollywood was liberal enough to discard the watermelon stereotype but apparently not.
Wonder Bar is nothing special outside of Jolson and the two big Berkeley numbers. It's definitely a must-watch for serious cinephiles but that's about it.