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Thursday, 3 June 2010

Wonder Bar (1934)

Al Jolson! What can one say in the 21st century about a legendary performer whose trademark persona was that of a blackfaced minstrel. Even if his act came from a long-standing theatrical tradition, you can't get much more politically incorrect nowadays. But let's overlook that for the moment and agree that not only was Jolson a standout entertainer of his day, but that he also will forever figure in movie history for his starring role in 1927's "The Jazz Singer".

He didn't make that many sound movies, but his every film appearance is a wonderment and a welcome revisit to a very bygone era. This film is of particular interest, having been made at the birth of Hay's new production code and it includes a number of features that would soon be definite 'no-noes'. These include a wry joke about a gay couple on the dancefloor, graphic whip-lashing during an apache dance act, a subplot about suicide, and no punishment for the murder of one of the main characters. Jolson plays the host of the eponymous trendy night club in a studio Paris that never was. Kay Francis is the glamourous, adulterous wife of a banker, involved with greasy gigolo Ricardo Cortez (one half of club's dance team with the gorgeous Dolores Del Rio). Jolson also covets Del Rio, as does band-leader/crooner Dick Powell, but she only has eyes for her abusive partner who is trying to flog Francis' diamond necklace in order to skip town. Add to the mix comic tourist couples Guy Kibbee and Ruth Donnelly plus Hugh Herbert and Louise Fazenda, all of whom come across as sexual opportunists trying to make hay in such an ooh-la-la environment.

However what really makes this Lloyd Bacon-directed film most memorable are the elaborate stage routines from musical director Busby Berkeley. The first of these is a standard production number to Powell's crooning of 'Don't Say Goodnight' full of dozens of nearly identical platinum blonde showgirls, masked men, and a mirrored stage which makes the action appear to go on for miles. However it is Jolson's biggest number that leaves one aghast with raised eyebrows. He sings 'Goin' to Heaven on a Mule' in his usual blacky make-up on a stage set that could never ever be contained in a single club. His concept of heaven here is a honky-tonk paradise full of hundreds of blackfaced angels, with its pork-chop orchards, fried chicken machines, dancing watermelons, leggy dancers, cigars, and gambling. One could just about accept this kind of interpretation in all-black musicals like "Green Pastures", but it is rather harder to take with a gurning Jolson in full swing. It really has to be seen to be believed.

This film is not well-known, partly because of its so-called bad taste and dated ideas. But it is an absolute hoot to watch and it should be compulsory viewing for anyone who wonders why movie action has been conventionally and forcibly altered since those carefree bygone days.
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