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Wonder Bar (1934)
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Busby Berkeley Rules, 7 April 2000

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 city -- 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.