Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wonder Bar (Warner Bros./First National, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Wonder Bar was the one time Busby Berkeley and Al Jolson worked together in the same film. It was based on a 1931 stage musical, also starring Jolson — which, depending on what source I read, was either a modest success or a modest flop — and marked his return to Warners at a time when his career was in the doldrums. His previous film, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (retitled Hallelujah, I’m a Tramp for British release because in English English “bum” is a vulgarism for the human posterior — the retitling being more difficult than usual because the entire opening scene needed to be reshot to a re-recording of the title song with the changed lyric), had been a total failure at the box office and his career needed a pick-me-up badly. Warners obviously had only limited faith in Jolson’s appeal c. 1934 because they packed the film with star power — Jolson played “Al Wonder,” owner and manager of a super-nightclub in Paris; Dick Powell played his bandleader (having those two sets of leather lungs in the same movie gets a bit wearing after a while!); Dolores Del Rio (fresh from starring in Flying Down to Rio at RKO — a film remembered now only as the first Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie) plays the club’s dancing star; Ricardo Cortez plays her on-stage dancing partner, who supplements his living by working as a gigolo off-stage; and Kay Francis plays the married socialite who hangs out at the club.

The plot: both Jolson and Powell have unrequited crushes on Del Rio, who only has eyes for Cortez — who in turn just loves Francis and is trying to seduce her from her husband. For comic relief those two standbys of the Berkeley movies, Hugh Herbert and Guy Kibbee, play American tourists who keep trying to escape the iron thumbs of their wives (Louise Fazenda and Ruth Donnelly, respectively) — who in turn are anxious to slip away from them to sample the male members of the Parisian demi-monde. (One gigolo attempts to seduce Fazenda by handing her a card — one of a large supply, all with different messages, he carries with him at all times — saying she reminds him of his mother. Frankly, I thought she’d regard that as more insult than invitation.) There are also other indications of this movie’s origins in the waning days of the Hollywood glasnost: in an early scene (excerpted in the documentary The Celluloid Closet) a man approaches a couple on the dance floor and says, “Mind if I cut in?” — whereupon he astounds the woman by dancing off with her boyfriend — and Jolson, surveying the scene from the bandstand, says, “My, my — boys will be boys!” And Wonder Bar is also strikingly reminiscent of Night World, the movie Berkeley made at Universal two years earlier with Boris Karloff as the owner of a nightclub, not only in its subject matter (one night in the life of the club) and Grand Hotel-ish multiple plotting, but also in its darkness.

While it doesn’t end in the bloodbath of Night World (in which, in the space of about three minutes of screen time, the gangsters who have targeted Karloff’s club kill his doorman, Clarence Muse, Karloff himself and his faithless wife, Dorothy Revier, and are about to shoot down the romantic leads — Lew Ayres and Mae Clarke — as well when policeman Robert Emmet O’Connor finally enters the scene and shoots them instead!), Wonder Bar does have a surprisingly noir-ish set of plot twists at the end: Del Rio, jealous because Cortez is about to run off with Francis, stabs him while they’re in the middle of the dance floor doing their act, and in order to get his corpse out of the club and avoid scandal Jolson and one of his assistants put him in the car of a suicidal baron who’s planned to kill himself after spending the last money he has in the world on a night at Wonder Bar — with the result that when the baron deliberately crashes his car later both bodies are found and the police assume they were both killed in an accident.

Berkeley’s contribution to Wonder Bar falls in two numbers, “Don’t Say Goodnight” (one of his typical abstract extravaganzas) and “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule,” the big finale and the one time he ever got to stage a number with Jolson. I’ve always suspected that the racist character of this big blackface number was what kept Wonder Bar from being reissued in the early 1970’s along with many of the other big Berkeley musicals (42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Dames and Gold Diggers of 1935) — though, even though it manages to include just about every conceivable racist stereotype of African-Americans in its tale of Jolson dying and going to an all-Black heaven with his half-donkey, half-horse co-star, it’s also the most convincing and the most imaginative part of the movie, an extravagant fantasy that clearly influenced Bobby Connolly’s finale to Eddie Cantor’s film Kid Millions and the Emerald City sequences in The Wizard of Oz — and it also features Jolson’s most moving and soulful singing in the film. Indeed, Michael Freedland’s Jolson biography suggested that this was the best musical sequence he ever put on film! — 9/7/98


I’d just bought a number of DVD’s from the Turner Classic Movies Web site, including the three movies Al Jolson made for Warner Bros. on the second leg of his contract there — Wonder Bar (1934), Go Into Your Dance (1935) and The Singing Kid (1936) — as well as a number of Marlene Dietrich’s films, including a five-movie box containing three of the Sternbergs (Morocco, 1930; Blonde Venus, 1932; and The Devil Is a Woman, 1934) as well as her Universal film with René Clair directing (The Flame of New Orleans, 1941) and her return to Paramount for Golden Earrings (1947), and another set containing her rarely seen film The Song of Songs (directed by Rouben Mamoulian in 1933 after Paramount decided to try a temporary separation of her and Sternberg) in a box with something Charles and I had recently seen from a TCM showing, This Is the Night (Cary Grant’s first feature film, from 1932, a quite charming Lubitsch-esque comedy directed by Frank Tuttle) — and though Charles and I had seen it years before, I decided to run Wonder Bar. Jolson returned to Warner Bros. in something resembling commercial disgrace — his immediately previous film, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum! (United Artists, 1933), had been a box-office disaster (though seen today it’s an uneven but definitely interesting and entertaining movie containing one of the most restrained, almost Chaplin-esque performances of Jolson’s career) — and for his return Warners based the film on a 1931 stage musical in which Jolson had also appeared (though in typical Hollywood practice of the time they used very little of the show besides its title and its central premise, in which Jolson is the owner and star entertainer of a super-nightclub in Paris), which itself had been based on a 1930 German play called Die Wunderbar (that pronunciation is actually heard several times in the movie, possibly because Jolson had almost certainly grown up speaking Yiddish as well as English and thereby lapsed into German-sounding pronunciations at times) by Geza Herczeg and Karl Farkas, with music by Robert Katscher.

Warners commissioned a new score by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics), who’d supplied the songs for the big hits Berkeley had been making with Dick Powell and the real-life Mrs. Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler (42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade), though according to one of Katscher’s original songs, “Elizabeth (The Queen),” survived as one of the instrumentals played by the band at Wonder Bar when they’re not presenting their floor show. Warners also supplied an all-star cast rather than rely on Jolson as the only — or even the biggest — audience draw, and the plot of the film, scripted by Earl Baldwin, is a sort of musical version of Grand Hotel (also based on a German story!). Al Wonder (Al Jolson) is both the proprietor and the star performer at the Wonder Bar, a super-nightclub in Paris. His main entertainment attraction, other than himself, is the dance team of Harry (Ricardo Cortez) and Inez (Dolores del Rio), who do a waltz number that segues into Busby Berkeley’s super-production of “Don’t Say Goodnight” and later do a surprisingly graphically filmed apache dance which involves Harry flicking a whip at Inez — and, in one closeup, Inez seemingly taking it full in the face, though apparently the whip just misses her because it doesn’t leave any welts. Harry is also a gigolo who abandons Inez — who seems genuinely in love with him, don’t ask why — to chase after Liane Renaud (Kay Francis), wife of banker R. H. Renaud (Henry Kolker). Liane has given Harry a very pricey necklace her husband had given her, and then claimed that she lost it; the husband, whose suspicions have been roused by his wife taking “dancing lessons” from Henry every morning when she had never previously shown any interest in dancing, has hired detectives, and in order to get rid of the necklace and convert it into ready cash Harry sells it to Al Wonder, who in turn gives it to Liane to get her husband off her case.

Meanwhile, Al Wonder has an unrequited crush on Inez (we first see Al in bed with Inez there with him; then the scene dissolves to a shot of Al in bed alone and we realize he’s merely been dreaming that she was with him), and Al’s musical director, Tommy (Dick Powell — the mind reels at those two sets of leather lungs, Jolson’s and Powell’s, both singing in the same film!), is also in love with Inez and wants her to abandon no-good Harry and get together with him instead. As if that weren’t enough plot, there are great comic-relief performances by Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert as two American tourists anxious to ditch the wives and find alternative female company for their visit to Paris — while their wives (Ruth Donnelly and the great silent comedienne Louise Fazenda) are equally anxious to ditch them for the affections of a gigolo who comes equipped with pre-written cards with his phone number and a note he thinks will win the heart (or at least the body) of whatever woman he’s after at the moment. The one he uses on them is one that says they remind him of his mother — which would seem to me more of an insult than an invitation, but in the movie it seems to have the desired effect. There’s also an army officer and stockbroker, Captain Hugo von Ferring (Robert Barrat), who’s been ruined in the latest stock-market crash and draws out the last remaining money in his bank account, intending to have one last wild evening at Wonder Bar and then commit suicide by driving his car off a conveniently located cliff.

There’s even more plot to it than that: in one famous scene that was excerpted in the documentary The Celluloid Closet, a young man approaches a couple on the dance floor, says, “Mind if I cut in?,” and ignores the woman to dance off with the other man — whereupon Jolson (who apparently, like Humphrey Bogart, was the sort of straight man who was so secure in his own sexuality he didn’t mind making Gay jokes that targeted people who disliked Gays, not Gays themselves; one of Jolson’s biggest hit songs was “Pretty Baby” by the Black Gay New Orleans pianist-composer Tony Jackson) says, “Boys will be boys — woooo!” The various plot lines get resolved when Inez confronts Harry and stabs him with a knife they used in their act — it’s pretty clear that she didn’t intend to kill him, but she does — and to cover for her Al has the body taken out and put in von Ferring’s car so when von Ferring deliberately crashes it, the police will think both men died in an accident. Inez pairs off with Tommy, Liane and her husband reconcile and Al finishes the movie with its most spectacular production number, “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule.” Jolson gets two big songs in this movie, and Berkeley supplies two big numbers — one, “Don’t Say Goodnight,” is spectacular enough (the trailer for the film advertised “250 of the World’s Most Beautiful Girls,” though that’s almost certainly an exaggeration, and we see the girls dancing around with movable columns and arranging themselves in the kaleidoscope formation, shot from overhead, that was Berkeley’s trademark) but a little too derivative of what Berkeley had done before.

“Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule” is like almost nothing else in movie history, infuriating in the patronizing racism with which it depicts Blacks (though its vision of a heaven in which Uncle Tom, Old Black Joe, the Emperor Jones and Abraham Lincoln — who seems to be the token white person — coexist, and foodstuffs like pork chops, baked chicken and the inevitable watermelon magically appear without any human preparation needed, isn’t all that different from the one in Harry McClintock’s astonishing 1928 recording of “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” heard in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, “where the hens lay soft-boiled eggs … and they hung the jerk who invented work,” a whiteface performer recording for a white audience) but also astonishing not only in Berkeley’s visual imagination (he’d almost certainly seen the Fritz Lang Siegfried, since Jolson and his mule ascend to Heaven on the same sort of Rainbow Bridge Lang’s characters used to reach Valhalla) but the sheer soul with which Jolson sings the song. Unlike Eddie Cantor and other contemporaries, who sang in blackface pretty much the same way they did in whiteface (as marvelous as Whoopee! is, Cantor’s performance of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” in blackface sounds rather disappointingly like his whiteface singing in the rest of the movie), Jolson didn’t. Of Jolson’s two big numbers in Wonder Bar, one — the opening, “Vive la France” — is done in whiteface, and his voice is a forward-placed high tenor, nervous and shrill, with a fast and often annoying vibrato that makes him sound like he’s on speed. For “Mule,” he drops his register, slows down his vibrato, sings from deeper in his chest and his voice takes on some of the weight and power of the genuine African-American singers on which he was modeling himself.

Despite the use of the word “pickanninny” in the song’s verse (which bothered Charles more than the racist stereotypes in Berkeley’s images!), Jolson sings “Mule” with real eloquence and soul, reminding us that like such later singers and performers as Sophie Tucker, Mae West, Benny Goodman, Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray and, of course, Elvis Presley, Jolson brought the sound of Black music to a white audience. In fact, Jolson did it twice, once in 1911 when he suddenly emerged as a Broadway star after a long apprenticeship in minstrel shows, and once in 1946 when he made his late-in-life comeback on the strength of the blockbuster popularity of the biopic The Jolson Story. White audiences that had started to be bored by the bland “crooners” were suddenly electrified by the sound of Jolson’s ballsy, uninhibited style, and he paved the way for later Black-influenced white singers like Laine, Ray and Presley: yes, Jolson was an important part of the prehistory of rock ’n’ roll. Wonder Bar is an amazing movie, nicely balanced between comic, dramatic and musical elements, a last gasp of the relative freedom of the so-called “pre-Code” era (the Code office tried to get Warners to get rid of the Gay sequence, but Warners refused) and, despite the problematic (to say the least!) racial politics of the “Mule” number (which probably kept this from being revived and finding a new audience in the early 1970’s as some of the other Berkeley films did), a worthy showcase for the one on-screen meeting of Al Jolson and Busby Berkeley. — 9/29/11