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Wonder Bar
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Wonder Bar

Like the Broadway musical melodrama from which it stemmed, Wonder Bar (1934) wasn't quite the triumphant comeback vehicle Al Jolson hoped it would be. In some ways it's a formulaic hodge-podge of star packaging. But it's also the product of a studio in full sail, filled with snap and style, snazzily sophisticated in some ways, jaw-droppingly naïve in others. Above all, it's a benchmark in the history of what Hollywood thought was OK to put on screen in 1934, before the withering hand of the Production Code descended like a shroud over the movies.

Jolson isn't so much its star as its emcee, at times uneasily cast as the owner and host of the Parisian nightclub that gives the film its title. The space is the usual arrangement of art deco swirls, the focal point being the bandstand from which Jolie holds forth, dispensing his unique brand of steamrolling bonhomie. He always was a knock 'em dead belter, but the manner that worked for him onstage and later on radio didn't always sit comfortably on camera in the more intimate cutaways to close-ups from full-scale production numbers. Although he made history by literally giving movies a voice in The Jazz Singer in 1927, film was not his natural element (as it was for his wife, Ruby Keeler, whose career rose as Jolson's languished, putting the inevitable showbiz strain on their marriage).

It isn't long before he's put to the test here in a scene likely intended as no more than a piece of throwaway naughtiness at the time, but since has been cited as a milestone in gay cinema, chosen to open the Rob Epstein-Jeffrey Friedman documentary, The Celluloid Closet. There's no closet when a tuxedoed dandy in pencil mustache interrupts a dancing couple, asking if he can cut in. When he gets a yes, it isn't the woman he dances off with, but the man, prompting Jolson to mincingly quip, "Boys will be boys. Woooo!" What's striking about the moment is its offhandedness, its lightness, its freedom from the painful self-consciousness attending so many subsequent gay portrayals in Hollywood films.

Not that Wonder Bar is a model of diversity and easy acceptance. Busby Berkeley (whose wife, Merna Kennedy, plays a nightclub flirt), fresh from the triumphs of 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade (all 1933), was full of verve, confidence and technical ingenuity. His first production number here, the "Valse Amoureuse" danced to the Al Dubin-Harry Warren "Don't Say Goodnight," is as spectacular as any of his better-known numbers. Using octagonal mirrors (and managing never to have his traveling camera reflected in any of them!), he deployed 100 dancers against huge moving columns, multiplying his kaleidoscopic formations, making them seem a dreamy army, with its giddy swirls photographed in serenely morphing geometric flowerings from above. It's his second number, "Going to Heaven on a Mule," the big closer he wrote for Jolson, that's the problem.

Even if we allow that it was in part a parody of Marc Connelly's The Green Pastures, a pseudo-folk rendering of an African-American heaven that won a Pulitzer in 1930, but today is virtually unwatchable, Going to Heaven on a Mule is cringe-makingly appalling in its racial stereotyping. (Its insensitivity is signaled earlier in a brief but offensive exchange between Jolson and an Asian checkroom worker.) Not even a glancing reference to Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones can disguise it from the fact that it's a blackface routine, with Jolson as a dying field hand in overalls and worn work shirt, departing his decrepit shack for an art deco afterlife.

Most of the singing and dancing there takes place at the intersection of The Milky Way and Lenox Avenue – as if heaven's newest resident would have heard of either. He's accompanied in a safely sexless way (we hope!) by his beloved mule. Pansy angels fit him out with wings as Bill Bojangles Robinson appears as a tap-dancing angel in black tights, white spats, a shiny top hat and wings of his own. Whew! To its credit, though, Warner Bros. left the scene in – shades of the Birth of a Nation (1915) controversy in miniature! -- and it got past the censors, who also let stand a character literally getting away with murder.

Meanwhile, in the sleek cocoon of the spiffy club, the envelope of permissibility is also pushed, most notably by Raymond Cortez's floor-show dance star and offstage gigolo, in a sado-masochistic gaucho whip dance with his slinky, sexy partner, Dolores Del Rio. It still crackles, bringing down the house lined with rich old lascivious swells like Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert and wall-to-wall gigolos in tailored evening wear. Boyish crooner Dick Powell, in his pre-tough guy phase, singing his way up the ladder alongside Berkeley at Warner's, actually does more singing – and in a more modern way – than Jolson. Both compete for Del Rio, but they share the songs.

Young or old, the women literally shine in marcelled hair. Louise Fazenda and Ruth Donnelly, as battleaxe wives, look like beaded bags. Del Rio, shimmering in her sequined gown, a standout among rank after rank of Jean Harlow wannabe platinum blondes, reminds us how much the costuming genuflected to the play of light in black and white. Del Rio is gorgeous, but Kay Francis is wasted in sulkiness as the petulant wife of a bored banker whose gift of her jewelry to Cortez's gigolo sets the multi-stranded plot in motion.

As Jolson shuttles between outmoded blackface minstrelry and fast-talking urban cockiness (sentimentality, too!), the familiar character actors add reassuring notes of solidity and continuity to the far from unified proceedings. Not that the many plot strands don't fall neatly into place. They were designed to. Nor would it do to take a too-condescending view of Wonder Bar. The signs in the club are in French and the occasional Gallic phrase or sentence remains untranslated, trusting to a certain level of audience savvy. It does, after all, date from a time of an unspoken assumption that one was obliged to meet life with a certain sense of style, and this enlivens its studio-made, Depression-fighting escapism still.

Producer: Robert Lord
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Earl Baldwin, Geza Herczeg (play), Karl Farkas (play), Robert Katscher (play)
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Film Editing: George Amy
Art Direction: Jack Okey, Willy Pogany
Music: Alexis Dubin, Harry Warren
Cast: Al Jolson (Al Wonder), Kay Francis (Liane Renaud), Dolores del Rio (Inez), Ricardo Cortez (Harry), Dick Powell (Tommy), Guy Kibbee (Henry Simpson).
BW-84m.

by Jay Carr

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