Friday, January 1, 2010

WONDER BAR (WB 1934) Warner Archive Collection

Lloyd Bacon's Wonder Bar (1934) is generally on par with other Warner musicals from this vintage. Take a semi-serious story ripped from the headlines - in this case, that of a vengeful nightclub dancer who inadvertently murders her lover - and coat the bitter pill of melodrama in a surreal patina of musical performance, staged with bizarre fetishism a la Busby Berkeley.

In other Berkeley/Bacon collaborations this seemingly impossible marriage of elements holds up rather nicely - even under today's more cynical scrutiny. Unfortunately, Wonder Bar hasn't weathered the transition of more than half a century as neatly as one might expect.

The principle shortcoming of the film - particularly when viewed through today's lens of political correctness - is Berkeley's staging of 'Going To Heaven on A Mule' with a black faced Al Jolson trekking to Saint Peter's gate and discovering heaven populated with other black-faced individuals eating fried chicken and water melon.

This sort of revue is painfully cut from the ilk of the simple minded 'darkie' and, even for a decade that embraced black-face as an 'art form', is a woeful experience to behold. The number invokes every garish, unflattering and negative stereotype once associated with the black race and is a disastrous misfire that seals Wonder Bar's fate as less than great entertainment.

Yet, even before this last act idiocy takes hold, there is much to confound and confuse the viewer in the claptrap screenplay by Earl Baldwin, loosely based on a play by Gaza Herzog, Karl Farkas and Robert Katscher.

Set in gay Paris (more on this in a moment), the tale opens with a panacea of snippets that quickly introduce the principles who will characterize the dramatic tension over the rest of the story; Inez (Dolores Del Rio), half of Wonder Bar's starring dance act, reads an ad while flirting deliriously with her lover, Harry (Ricardo Cortez) who clearly has other intensions than to continue seducing her; Captain Hugo Von Ferring (Robert Barrat) learns he has a terminal condition and resigns himself to committing suicide by driving his car over a cliff; Liane Renaud (pouty-eyed, Kay Francis) deceives her wealthy husband, R.H. (Henry Kolker) as she makes plans to steal away with Harry after having given him one of her expensive necklaces to pawn for their getaway money.

However, when R.H. announces that he plans to get the police involved in the recovery of the 'stolen' jewels, thereby making Harry's potential sale of them quite impossible, Liane is forced to recover the necklace and reproduce it for her husband.

From this brief parade of plot entanglements, the action shifts to a typical evening at Wonder Bar - the improbably lavish Paris hot spot where the social elite and socially depraved come to mingle, dance and hopefully go home with one another for a little badinage on the side. Proprietor Al Wonder (Al Jolson) arrives to learn from his band leader, Tommy (Dick Powell) that Inez and Harry are late - hence the floor show has been delayed.

To divert the patron's suspicions from this delay in the night's festivities, Al takes to the stage, performing a highly effeminate song and dance 'Viva La France' before encouraging patron's to move to the floor. Liane and her husband arrive at the nightclub. Liane is desperate to retrieve her necklace from Harry who has already sold it to Al. In the meantime, Harry tells Inez that he intends to leave France and her behind. This revelation makes Inez insanely jealous, but not before she and Harry perform the first of Busby Berkeley's extravaganzas, 'Don't Say Goodnight'.

Here, stylistically at least, Berkeley is on proven ground, surrounding Cortez and Del Rio with a myriad of towering art deco pillars, behind each emerging a similarly attired dance couple who form some of Berkeley's famed overhead geometric patterns.

The pillars glide smoothly back and forth, revealing gigantic mirrored walls that multiply the dancers into a seemingly endless horizon. In the final act of the number - a story within the song - one of the female dancers loses her high heeled shoe, resulting in her male counterpart embarking on a Cinderella-like quest to restore the footwear to its rightful owner.

To fill the gap between Wonder Bar's musical and melodramatic performances the screenwriters have interjected comedic vignettes; most featuring Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert as a pair of would-be philandering rummies (Mr. Henry Simpson and Mr. Corey Pratt respectively). Their accompanying wives, Emma (Ruth Donnelly) and Pansy (Louise Fazenda) are in constant protest over the obvious flirtations going on between their husbands and a pair of ravenous trollops seated at the next table.

There are other amusements along the way, including a sublime, though not terribly subtle reference to homosexuality. After Al opens the dance floor to his patrons, an effeminate male approaches a dancing couple, inquiring if he might cut in. The woman in the couple replies, "Certainly" whereupon the effeminate male takes her male partner by the hip and shoulder and proceeds to dance him away from her. Al, who has been watching the seduction unfold, strikes the pose of a little teapot - short and stout - declaring "Boys will be boys. Woo! Woo!"

The real shame of Wonder Bar as a film is that its bits and pieces never entirely gel into one cohesive narrative. The melodramatic stars are given precious little to do; the melodrama occurring as mere insertions between the musical offerings. In its day, Wonder Bar was a colossal hit for Warner Brothers, affirming their faith in Berkeley's ability to confound an audience with ever impressive feats of militarily precise staging. Yet, today the film seems much more of a footnote to both Bacon and Berkeley's careers; a claptrap offering that only occasionally stimulates and never entirely holds our attentions.

The Warner Archive edition of Wonder Bar is substandard in its video presentation. Original film elements are hanging on by a thread and, barring that no restoration work has ever been attempted on this title, the image is excessively grainy, softly focused, poorly contrasted and with a considerable loss of fine detail evident throughout. Age related artifacts (nicks, chips and scratches) are plentiful and, at times, very distracting. This is not a stellar video presentation! The audio too is often strident to the point of almost breaking apart and crackling. Like other titles in the Archive Collection, this one comes with only a theatrical trailer as its extra feature. Not recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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