25 June 2000 | marc-112
Perverse, jaw-dropping Art Deco musical
In the series of Warner Bros/Busby Berkeley musicals stretching from 42ND Street to Varsity Show, Wonder Bar remains the least appreciated (and perhaps the least seen). It's quite remarkable in that the plot, aside from a few opening scenes, keeps "real time" and relationships begin/end, lives are lost, and and all sorts of minor dramas are tied up neatly in one evening at a nightclub.
Al Jolson, as the club owner, takes some getting used to, but he's actually more low-key than usual here--and even a bit touching in scenes. And how fabulous do Kay Francis and Delores Del Rio look in this film? Who cares if they can't act--they do lots of radiant posing and wear gorgeous outfits. There are some bits with Louise Fazenda and a much younger man that left me gasping. The brief (and very funny) "gay scene" and hunky Ricardo Cortez whipping Del Rio also had me shaking my head in disbelief. Anyone care to count how many censorship Code infractions are contained in this film? It raised a stir with the Catholic church and Legion of Decency, and I've read a memo somewhere that some audiences reportedly were appalled by the goings-on in this movie (it was a hit though--grossing nearly a million dollars for the studio).
If you're reading about this movie you already know about the musical numbers--"Don't Say Goodnight", with its octagon of mirrors and chorus stretching into infinity, and "Goin to Heaven on a Mule", with the blackface angels and dancing watermelon. "Mule" is beyond belief--it must've been a killer on the big screen. Viewers are still offended by it, and certainly should be--all it is missing is a Grand Dragon.
A witty, fascinating, naughty, beautifully photographed film. If 42ND Street is the king of the WB/Busby Berkeley crown, Wonder Bar is the banished, scandalous cousin that is inevitably more fun.