Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Wonder Bar 1934

Released just a few months before the production code took affect, this nasty taste in your mouth Warner Bros musical has more taboos in it than you can shake a Will Hays at. Adultry, a murder that goes unpunished, prostitution, a sucide that is made light of, and the famous scene where a man cuts into a couple dancing only to push the girl away and dance off merrily with the guy, as Al Jolson remarks that “boys will be boys.”. The film is set in a nightclub in Paris called Wonder Bar named after the proprietor of this high class Art Deco joint Al Wonder played with uncomfortable ease by Al Jolson. Why they thought to set it in Paris is beyond me, as there is very little Parisian about it and it could easily have taken place in New York City. It’s a claustrophic Deco delight of a movie that takes place mostly in the nightclub during one night where all the various characters congregate. There are the bickering dance team played by an amazingly beautiful Dolores Del Rio and her partner the sexy Ricardo Cortez who is a cad and a gigolo, who cannot return the love shown by Del Rio towards him which I found hard to believe. They do a nasty wickedly sadistic tango in which Cortez dangerously snaps a whip about Del Rio’s perfect face and who later on gets her revenge. There is also a cheating wife played by the startling Kay Francis rolling her R’s like crazy while hankering after Cortez, who also doesn’t give a shit about her and is only interested in her jewels which she gives him as presents. Dick Powell is there also as the singer in the band, and is as vapid as he usually was in these musicals, singing in his annoying high pitched voice. Powell will do much better and more interesting work down the road when he became older, worn and blistered, and who gave his best performances in a series of noir and detective films in the mid 40’s. Also on hand are two rich American couples who fit the cliches about rich vulgar American couples doing Europe played by Louise Fazenda, Ruth Donnelly Hugh Herbert and Guy Kibee. They are all on the make, with lechery in their booze soaked eyes. And on top of all of this, there is a Busby Berkley production number"Goin to Heaven on a Mule" that is the most racist musical number in the history of American film. The number gives Jolson an excuse to do his famous blackface shtick and he’s soon singing to a young white child in light blackface about when he was a young Pickaninny and how much he loves his donkey and for some reason Jolson and his donkey arrive in a blackface heaven accompanied by dancing angels in blackface. This heaven has pork chop orchards with the chops hanging from trees, possum pie groves, a tap-dancing number in front of waving watermelon slices, and a strange machine that turns out fried chicken.. I suppose that as a historical record of America’s very visible in your face racist past this number serves a purpose, but I sat there in total disbelief and embarrassment wondering if there was not one liberal minded person at Warner Bros. that would have been offended by this, and could have stopped this thing from ever reaching the screen. Evidently not. The songs by Harry Warren & Al Dubin are unmemorable and the other Busby Berkeley number"Don't Say Goodnight" is done in his usual eye popping kaleidoscopic style and is breathtakingly vulgar and over the top, and I of course loved it. Costumes by the great Orry-Kelly and the marvelous (and a favorite of mine) illustrator and designer Willy Pogany is listed in the credits as co-art director, but I could really see nothing of his unique style in the film. With direction by Lloyd Bacon a Warner Bros. assembly line director who is probably most remembered for 42nd Street, which is mostly remembered for the Busby Berkeley numbers. This is part of the Warner Bros. Archive and is only available for sale, or if you are lucky like me, and live in a city with a great library you might be able to borrow it from their dvd collection.


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