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