1 December 2000 | lugonian
Americans in Paris
WONDER BAR (First National, 1934), directed by Lloyd Bacon, is a perfect example of a pre-code movie that dares to be daring and surprisingly different. It's one of the most elaborate musicals to star Al Jolson, with choreography by the Million Dollar Dance Director, Busby Berkeley.
Jolson, in his first Warner Brothers musical after a four year absence, fits his role to perfection as Al Wonder, entertainer and proprietor of The Wonder Bar night club in Paris. In a plot set in a single evening (as does Universal's forgotten 1932 drama, NIGHT WORLD starring Lew Ayres and Mae Clarke, with Boris Karloff as the night club proprietor, which featured one brief Busby Berkeley production number), Al loves the star dancer, Ynez (Dolores Del Rio), who loves her partner, Harry (Ricardo Cortez), but he is carrying on an affair with a businessman's wife, Liane (Kay Francis), etc. Also in the cast are Dick Powell Tommy, the band-leader and singer who also loves Ynez; Robert Barrat as the suicidal Russian; Hugh Herbert and Guy Kibbee as married drunk American businessmen who flirt with a couple of gold diggers (Merna Kennedy and Fifi Dorsay), while their wives (Ruth Donnelly and Louise Fazenda) try to make a play with a young Frenchman. Interesting that this movie includes so much plot and subplot in its tight 86 minutes that director Lloyd Bacon succeeds in keeping the story moving in between songs.
WONDER BAR features some very risqué dialog and scenes that would have kept this movie from being released had it been distributed to theaters after the Production Code enforcement in May 1934. Maybe that's why WONDER BAR played sporadically on local television back in the 1960s, and disappeared before the end of the decade, making it as underplayed as the excellent back-stager 42nd STREET (Warners, 1933) was overplayed. Good tunes by Harry Warren and Al Dubin include "Vive La France," "Why Do I Dream Those Dreams?" and the instrumental tango dance titled "Tango Del Rio." One of the highlights include the production number: "Don't Say Goodnight" (sung by Powell), featuring dancers with overhead angles, which is so mesmerizing to see and tuneful to hear, even at ten minutes. But while the 12 minute Jolson finale, "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule" might offend today's viewers, it is quite a production number just the same, inspired by Marc Connelly's "The Green Pastures," which needs to be seen to be believed. Participating in this number is Hal LeRoy in a brief tap-dance sequence.
While Al Jolson is hailed as a great singer but poor actor, which is evident in some of his earlier film roles, notably SAY IT WITH SONGS (WB, 1929), I feel his acting has improved with this one, and the subsequent roles that were to follow, and he looks more at ease making wisecracks and singing to an audience than giving tearful performances, especially in black-face. His argumentative scene with Ricardo Cortez, in which they play rivals who hate each other, looks so real that maybe they actually hated each other off-screen. When Cortez as Harry puffs cigarette smoke in Al's eyes, it appears as if Al really wanted to sock him. One wonders how WONDER BAR was behind the scenes amongst the other cast members.
WONDER BAR is available for viewing on Turner Classic Movies and video cassette. A record soundtrack to this, double featured with songs from GO INTO YOUR DANCE from the late 1970s, would be an interesting find today. (***)