|Page 2 of 3:||  |
|Index||25 reviews in total|
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 film is a brilliant reflection on the standards of the day - from
the risky lightly clad ladies carrying out wonderfully choreographed
dance routines, risky jokes and yes, even the black-face. A lot of
people seem to forget that you could watch The Black and White
Minstrels on TV during the 60s.
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.
...and a great film come-back vehicle for Al Jolson. This film was
released on March 31, 1934, just three months before the production
code began to be enforced. As such, it is a buffet of items one would
never see on film again in the U.S. until the 1960's - adultery as
comedy, gigolos, a pair of men dancing with Jolson making the remark
"Boys will be Boys", a dancing act involving a woman being whipped,
what amounts to house-sponsored prostitution to keep the Wonder Bar's
male patrons amused, a suicide that everyone knows about in advance and
nobody bothers to stop, and a murder that goes unpunished and even
undetected for that matter. However, this film is much more than just a
last hurrah for the pre-code years, and I found it quite enjoyable. It
is an intersection of Grand Hotel, the world's greatest entertainer, Al
Jolson, and that genius of choreography, Busby Berkeley, with plenty of
action and snappy dialogue to keep things going.
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Director: LLOYD BACON. Screenplay: Earl Baldwin. Based on the 1929
German play by Geza Herczeg and Karl Farkas, as adapted by Irving
Caesar and Aben Kandel, with music by Robert Katscher. Photographed in
glistening black-and-white by Sol Polito. Film editor: George Amy. Art
director: Jack Okey. Costumes: Orry-Kelly. Associate producer: Robert
Lord. Producer: Charles Einfeldt.
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is the kind of movie that could only have been made pre-censorship. You'd never hear lines like "Boys will be boys!" or "I'm tired too, and I'll feel worse in the morning - I hope" in a post-code film for two more decades at least. The title setting is a hotbed of unrequited love, and the resolution of the main plot is so cynical, and at the same time so logical, that you want to applaud; other characters are simply looking for some hanky-panky (the two married couples, largely comedy relief, but also a refreshingly equal-treatment tale of extra-marital infidelity.) And then there are the Busby Berkeley production numbers: "Don't Say Good Night" is so wondrous you may feel like crying; the "whip tango" with Ricardo Cortez and Dolores Del Rio brilliantly mirrors their ongoing story; "Going To Heaven On A Mule" is embarrassingly racist by today's standards, but also a triumph of production design (does it really matter that the 1st and the 3rd number could never be conceivably executed inside any nightclub? No!). This movie comes from a period in Hollywood when films were aimed at adults and treated them as such: able to make up their own minds about what is right and what is wrong, without having to teach them moral lessons. Not just a must-see; a must-own. *** out of 4.
Wonder Bar is one of the most notorious films ever released. One of the
last Pre-Code films, Wonder Bar is mostly tame by today's standards.
The story of a night at Al Wonder's (Al Jolson) Paris nightclub (named
after the film) is full of dark humor, crazy cougars, love triangles
and crimes of passion. Sadly, it's quite forgettable and these parts of
the movie aren't really why anybody would watch Wonder Bar today.
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.
The hot spot in Paris is the Wonder Bar. For entertainment, dancing, good food and what tickles your fancy, this is the place. "Wonder Bar" is a very provocative and titillating little film with a very good and talented cast. Though some may say she's wasted in this film, considering she's been in more melodramatic films where's suffering and loving and decked out in lavish gowns, Kay Francis is the female lead. She has been unfaithful to her husband Henry Kolker with a dance instructor and entertainer, played by Ricardo Cortez. When detectives have confronted her husband about the affair, she doesn't make that day's rendezvous and hightails it to the Wonder Bar where Ricardo will be later. It seems she gave him a necklace she needs back for insurance purposes and to keep the proof of her infidelity from her husband. The Wonder Bar is owned by Al Jolson, who also sings for the guests. He of course delivers with usual pizazz. But the main attraction is Ricardo and his partner Dolores Del Rio, who of course loves him. But Dick Powell loves her, too. Added to the mix are patrons of the restaurant, Guy Kibbee and wife Louise Fazenda and friend Hugh Herbert and wife Ruth Ronnelly, who came for the eats, but did they? Right away, Guy and Hugh are flirting with pretty young things and even a pretty boy is touching and flirting with Louise Fazenda. She in turn says her room number very loudly. Shocking!? A guy asks to cut in on the dance floor, and he proceeds to dance with the man. The Kay/Ricardo/Dolores triangle comes to a head very dramatically with a memorable dance number with a whip. A whip! For a minor little film, this was very entertaining and had just enough bizarre naughtiness to differentiate itself from other pre-code films. The only criticism is the black musical number which goes on too long and does seem to be a bit over-the-top and hard to take. Getting back to the action, the married men Hugh and Guy tells the p.y.t.s they'll see them later after they ditch the wives, and Louise has a rendezvous of her own. What happens next? We'll never know, because this is about the Wonder Bar, where things only get started.
This 1934 pre-code film had the makings of a 1930s classic: starring Al
Jolson at his most energetic -- his number Vive La France, filmed live
rather than synched to a sound track, gives perhaps more vividly than
anything on film what he must have been like on stage -- the staff is
completed by a panoply of Thirties film yeomen and yeowomen: Kay
Francis, Dolores Del Rio, Ricardo Cortez, Dick Powell, and Guy Kibbee;
the songs are mostly by Warren and Dubin, the production numbers by
Busby Berekely. The story has something to do with Jolson's Paris
cabaret the Wonder Bar ("Wunderbar" -- geddit?) as a setting for an
interlocking set of frustrated lovers.
And yet the whole somehow doesn't gel together. Part of the problem is that the film uneasily combines a light musical with a murder mystery, giving the effect of two movies intercut with each other. And the running stock jokes and routines, obviously recycled from the vaudeville tradition, almost give the impression of a third film, a burlesque, thrown randomly into the pot. The Berkeley production numbers, while interesting, aren't as spectacular as in his masterpieces 42nd Street or Gold Diggers of 1933, Powell looks such a callow youth that he verges on parodizing his male ingénue persona, and Del Rio's habit of expressing every emotion by looking wistfully into the distance, even if she is in a small dressing room where there is no distance to look into, gets tedious after the eighth time she does it. A high point, though, is Jolson (who was born in Lithuania when it was part of Czarist Russia) singing a soulful rendition of Ochi Tchornya (Dark Eyes) in Russian.
The film's reputation for shock value -- some have suggested it was one of the reasons the Motion Picture Code was implemented shortly after -- will generally seem overstated today: there are frequent double entendres, some specific references to adultery and homosexuality, a murderess who gets away with it, and an outrageous Gaucho whip dance which seems too campy for anyone to get very upset about.
The really shocking sequence today, though, as anyone who has read other reviews will know, is the extended blackface production number "Going to Heaven on a Mule," which wanders through about every racial stereotype about African-Americans you can think of. I suppose it has a social value as a startling reminder of just how acceptable such racism was in America until relatively recent times.
It's hard to know what rating to give this movie. As entertainment, parts of it are a lot of fun to watch, and though fairly tame by present standards, it serves as an example of what pushing the envelope was like in 1934. The 1930s women's fashions are luscious. I'd say those heavily into Thirties films, Al Jolson, Busby Berkeley, or the social history of popular cinema will find it worth watching, if they can steel themselves to sit through "Mule." Others probably will want to pass.
I saw it on the Warner's Archive DVD, which seemed a satisfactory transfer of a not too bad print.
In 1931 Al Jolson went back to Broadway to star in a new show Wonder
Bar. It got good reviews, but as it was the middle of the Great
Depression the costs proved too much and it closed after two months.
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
**Contains spoilers, below**
Very strange movie. The "Wonder Bar" song (Al Jolson's first piece in
movie) was so clearly copied for "Cabaret" -- as well as much of the rest
that scene (men dancing with each other, extreme sexuality (so much for
homosexuality being hidden and unmentionable before the 1970s!), smoking
drinking, etc.) -- that my estimation of "Cabaret" has dropped
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***
|Page 2 of 3:||  |
|External reviews||Plot keywords||Main details|
|Your user reviews||Your vote history|