Why Can’t This Go On Forever? Re-Opening The Wonder Bar (1934) by matthew c. hoffman
“Don’t you remember…
the night we sat together
at the Wonder Bar.
The Wonder Bar welcomes you!… The Park Ridge Public Library had another 90+ turnout for this week’s screening of Wonder Bar. The response was overwhelmingly positive. We have some of the most knowledgeable supporters attending our film series. One of my patrons, Neil, who is also a regular at the Northwest Chicago Film Society’s series at the Portage Theatre, came prepared with a folder full of vintage movie stills from the film. All of which I had never seen before. He also had some wonderful print material on Ricardo Cortez and Dolores Del Rio. It’s rewarding to see film buffs take these films as seriously as I do! The following is a transcript of my talk on the film…
It’s a good thing there’s no show next week because you’ll need a week to recover from this one. Tomorrow you’ll wake up with a hangover of Code violations. Wonder Bar was released shortly before the infamous Production Code was strictly enforced. It’s still amazing that Warner Brothers was able to slip this one by. According to one source, the studio had submitted an incomplete version of the film to the MPPDA and told officials that there was nothing to worry about concerning the missing footage. As we shall see, there was quite a bit to worry about, but the studio never backed down. They simply ignored the censors. There’s verbal innuendo, marital infidelity, a gag about homosexuality, sadomasochism involving a whip– and even a murder with no accountability. In fact, the murder is very neatly covered up in a rather macabre twist! Wonder Bar has this amoral tone from start to finish. And I haven’t even touched upon the most controversial aspect of the film. But before I get to that, let’s not lose sight of why Wonder Bar is being shown tonight.
For Screen Deco, I wanted to play a Busby Berkeley film. His choreography of dancing girls was essentially Art Deco transformed into human form. Showgirls became geometric shapes in high-gloss settings. There were many films to choose from such as Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933 and others. I wasn’t sure which one exhibited the most Art Deco styling, so I wrote Howard Mandelbaum, the co-author of Screen Deco, for his advice. He suggested Wonder Bar because of the Art Deco nightclub. The film is set entirely at the club, so it made more sense to show this film. The other Warner musicals were always about putting on a show. What we saw onstage was completely modern, but everything else—the behind-the-scenes drama—was rather ordinary from a set designer’s perspective.
I had played Wonder Bar once before when I operated the LaSalle Bank revival house, and I love it, having seen it many times now. It’s a film that’s not readily accessible, and TCM only shows it in the early hours when the least amount of viewers will be offended.
The controversy for modern viewers comes down to the final song in the film: Al Jolson’s “Goin to Heaven On a Mule.” It’s a musical number that tries to combine the plaintive quality of a black spiritual with the vibrancy of the Harlem Renaissance. Brace yourself when you see Jolson applying the theatrical makeup in the mirror. He performs one of his characteristic musical numbers in blackface. The sequence is filled with just about every racial stereotype you can think of—all performed by white actors in blackface.
Many viewers have dismissed the entire film because of this one sequence, labeling it as hateful. (Mind you, this is a sequence that also has a mule getting its wings in Heaven with Al. Why a mule would be joining him in Heaven is anyone’s guess, but the point is that it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.) In an article on the film, writer Jay Carr writes that “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.”
I’ve never been a huge fan of Al Jolson. The Jazz Singer is certainly a historically significant film for being the first to have a recorded soundtrack, but how many people have actually tried sitting through it? I’d offer Hallelujah I’m a Bum as his finest film, which you can sometimes find on TCM. But he was The Great Entertainer—and an American patriot. He entertained our fighting troops around the world, and this may have led to a premature death in 1950. The other thing I will add is that Al Jolson was not a hateful person. He was not motivated by racial hatred when you see the sequence. Most people who know his biography already know this.
Jolson was a Russian Jew and knew something about discrimination and could draw a parallel between the suffering of blacks and his own people. He grew up in the minstrel tradition of vaudeville and used his blackface as a way of bringing black music to white audiences. It was also a way for him to immerse himself in the characterization. It’s been said Jolson used the technique as a metaphor for human suffering.
Jazz music became mainstream in society because of Al Jolson. He opened doors for many black performers and broke racial barriers—both in theatre and in Hollywood. Anyone who researches him will find many quotes from black artists of his era who respected him. Al Jolson was without question loved in the black community and viewed as a friend. His blackface sequence in this film is actually more a parody of a 1930 play called Green Pastures, which depicted an Afro-centric vision of the Bible. It was later turned into a film in 1936.
At its worst, perhaps Jolson shows a condescending appreciation of black life—as defined by Hollywood. But he did not intend on making hate-filled propaganda. It would seem to me that these vaudeville sensibilities would’ve been passé by 1934, but no, audiences still expected his “characteristic numbers.” “Goin to Heaven On a Mule” is infused with the minstrel tradition, but perhaps Jolson could’ve used his influence in Hollywood to make something greater with actual black performers instead of white actors in blackface like tapdancing Hal LeRoy. Wonder Bar would have a better reputation today if stars like Josephine Baker had appeared instead– not that they would’ve wanted to act opposite oversized slices of watermelons. Jolson had the influence to shape Berkeley’s musical sequence, and it’s a shame he did not fashion it a different way—perhaps one that added something to the plot, or simply an elegant musical number befitting the high style of a Parisian nightclub. Instead, we have ol’ Gus walking through Possum Pie Grove while holding a porkchop. It does not fit the style of the rest of the film. Aesthetically, it simply does not belong.
Wonder Bar was based on a stage play which Jolson had performed in, and the property was purchased for him. Harry Warren and Al Dubin were hired to write new songs, and Jolson requested Dolores Del Rio for the film. Wonder Bar is filled with an all-star cast of Warner Brothers stars. Besides Del Rio, the film features Ricardo Cortez, Kay Francis, and Dick Powell. According to Film Daily, other actors who were originally considered included Ruby Keeler (who was Jolson’s wife), Adolphe Menjou, Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Dvorak, and Bette Davis.
In many ways, the film was Warners response to Grand Hotel, though the studio had done similar stories before, such as Union Depot with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Wonder Bar has interconnecting storylines that tie together by the time the film concludes. One of the famous lines of dialogue in Grand Hotel was that “nothing ever happens.” There is an obvious reference to that in the Wonder Bar trailer which tells us that “There’s always something happening at the Wonder Bar.” In Grand Hotel, we had Lionel Barrymore going out with a bang by spending his money in a first-class binge, and here, Robert Barrat plays Captain von Ferring who wants to live it up before committing suicide—an act which he not-so-subtly telegraphs every chance he gets.
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Click here to see the Wonder Bar trailer! (Who is the mysterious Garbo-like figure at 0:56? She does not appear in the released version.)
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But in the earlier film, everything, including the set-up, is seen from within the hotel. Here, however, the exposition is established outside the bar. Once we, the audience, arrive and are greeted, the action unfolds in the club as though it were in real-time. Jolson plays Al Wonder, the proprietor of the bar. His performance is better than in previous films that relied on his brand of heavy-handed sentiment. (Although there is one shot where he pours it on thick. While still in blackface, a broken-hearted Jolson looks forlornly at the young lovers Tommy and Inez. You can almost hear the audience sigh, “Awww.”) Al Jolson is at his best in Wonder Bar not as an actor but as himself: comedian, singer, showman.
The film is a summation of who Al Jolson was as a stage performer– now preserved forever on film. It’s fitting, then, that he insisted on singing “Vive La France” live on the set in front of the camera. Seeing Jolson on the big screen, one can feel the magic and energy of a live performer who could always put a spark in everyone in the audience. His enthusiasm becomes contagious. The only sequence where Jolson brings the film’s visual dynamic to a screeching halt, though, is the absurd verbal interplay with the Russian, an interminable scene of vaudeville ethnic humor which finally ends with his singing of the ballad “Ochi Tchornya.” His interactions with patrons of the club become mere set-ups for jokes. He is the central figure, a ringmaster surrounded by storylines of drama and vice– storylines which he will shape and manipulate.
The film benefits greatly from the talents of those supporting Al Jolson in the film. Dolores Del Rio, as Inez, was one of the great Latin faces of Hollywood. Born in Mexico, she made her debut in the silent era and would star in such sound films as Bird of Paradise and Flying Down To Rio. She married MGM art director Cedric Gibbons and the two became one of the most fashionable couples in Hollywood. Reportedly, her affair with Orson Welles ended her ten-year marriage to Gibbons. Del Rio would eventually become a major star south of the border during Mexico’s greatest era of moviemaking in the 1940s.
Her partner in the film, performing the Gaucho dance, is Ricardo Cortez—the gigolo. Cortez was originally groomed to be a Rudolph Valentino-type, but he was terrific in many pre-Code films in which he played seedy gangsters as in Midnight Mary. It seemed like he was always getting shot by women in these films. Cortez starred in the original Maltese Falcon in 1931, but he was no one’s idea of Sam Spade.
One woman under the spell of the gigolo is Kay Francis, the First Lady of Warner Brothers (and one of my favorite pre-Code actresses; her presence in this scandalous film thus became essential). To film buffs, she is known for two things: for being one of the best dressed actresses in Hollywood, and for her complete inability to pronounce the letter “r” which always came out as a “w.” My favorite Kay Francis movies are the ones she made with William Powell: Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage. She doesn’t have much to do in this film while in Del Rio’s shadow, and perhaps it wasn’t too hard for Kay’s character to appear sullen throughout most of the movie. Kay was not happy about her role but remained professional about it. With so many egos on the stage, Wonder Bar probably wasn’t an easy set to be on. In the Kay Francis bio I Can’t Wait to be Forgotten, author Scott O’Brien includes a passage written by William French, who recorded the making of the film for Photoplay. There’s a famous photo of all the actors together with upraised champagne glasses toasting the film. Of that photo, French writes,
“All five raise their glasses to a toast. Happy, happy set! ‘Click,’ goes the still camera. The players at the bar change their pose—and that is not all. Kay shrugs, glances about her and settles back with queenly indifference. Ricardo’s toothful smile straightens into a thin, hard line and friendly Dick Powell grins sheepishly at his director. Meanwhile Al Jolson edges a little forward in the center of the group and Dolores keeps discreetly silent. The almost inevitable friendly repartee that follows a shot is strangely missing. ‘Just one big, happy family,’ I suggest to Director Bacon. ‘Yeah,’ he returned, dryly. ‘But we are going to get a good picture out of this.’
Character actors Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert play a couple cockeyed businessmen too drunk to know they are in Paris. In a subplot that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, they flirt with a couple nightclub hostesses—one of whom is played by Merna Kennedy, the wife of Busby Berkeley.
The most likeable character in the film is Dick Powell as the bandleader, Tommy. You get that impression right from the start when you see him walking through the revolving door during the opening credits. Powell played a crooner in many of the Warner Brothers musicals before eventually reinventing himself in the 1940s as a tough-guy leading man in film noir. I wrote an article last year on Dick Powell for the Nostalgia Digest called “Don’t Say Goodnight”—the title comes from the best song in the film– and the most beautiful thing in it.
Don’t say Goodnight begins as a waltz between Del Rio and Cortez, but Busby Berkeley’s choreography of the dance sequence—using blondes and mirrors in the shape of an octagon, is truly hypnotic in its fluidity. The sequence runs about ten minutes, yet it takes you to another world. There was always that moment in these Warner musicals when the stage show takes off into a flight of fantasy, into a world that went beyond the confines of the stage and even the theatre—a dream that stretched into infinity.
The nightclub itself is well-defined and we get all angles of the club with Sol Polito’s moving camera, which presents us with a circular layout. The sets were by Jack Okey, who had designed Ruth Chatterton’s streamlined office in Female. Assisting Okey was the Hungarian Willy Pogany, who had been an illustrator of children’s books. (Interestingly, other art directors like William Cameron Menzies and Joseph Urban were also at one time illustrators of children’s books.) Besides the nightclub itself, look for the Modernistic depiction of Heaven in the Jolson musical number when he crosses the rainbow-like bridge on his old Missouri mule. The lines of the painted shot recall the kind of Art Deco imagery you would’ve seen in WPA murals in the 1930s.
Wonder Bar is a film that is modern in its design and liberated in its social dynamics; it would be a stretch to call this deliriously decadent material “progressive.” The film makes no excuses and attempts no moralizing. And yet, it is also ideologically rooted in the past with traditions descended from vaudeville. The film combines modern music and modern settings with the old-fashioned blackface of 19th century minstrel. It’s an odd assortment of entertainment styles and cultural attitudes that you won’t soon forget.
A small screen can never do moments like this justice…