Wonder Bar (1934)

Wonder Bar (1934)

Wonder Bar (1934)

Tonight we’re going to watch one of the most immoral and racists films I’ve had the pleasure of viewing.  Yes, there are films today that offer these things, but in 1933, I’m not sure how deliberate it was, but for me it holds all the cards.  And it’s a different type of racism in that the white folks of the day probably weren’t conscious that there was anything wrong in its depiction.  As well, I wonder how many black people took it as pure entertainment and didn’t find it offensive.  And what did the people who created it think–entertainment, pure and simple, that only the bottom line mattered, not caring that it would offend most black audiences?  Probably.  How black people were depicted in the films made in 1930 Hollywood and how these films affected them would be an interesting study.  As for the immoral aspect of the film, it was released March 31, 1934 and the Production Code came into being July 1, three months later.  You will read in the notes that along with many other films, this film was also a catalyst to push the Code into law.  As some of you may know, when the Code came into being one of the commandments was that all murderers would meet their rightful punishment in the end.  Without giving too much away, what was most shocking in this film for me was that not only does the murderer get away scot-free but the people in the know who help the murderer, dispose of the body in the most uncompassionate way possible–by using the knowledge of the misfortune of a sad and suicidal person to solve their problem.  The racist theme, Al Jolson’s blackface specialty, at the end of the film is just icing on the cake.  And by no means is this all the film has to offer; there are gay jokes, a sadomasochistic dance, fraud, blackmail, adultery, unrequited love, and a wonderful little subplot that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  Wonderful character actors Guy Kibbee, Ruth Donnelly, Hugh Herbert and Louise Fazenda play two American couples out for the evening and bicker the whole night through.  Hugh Herbert was mostly given the role as a drunk which he always played for laughs.  Guy Kibbee played a number of different roles, both comic and serious, but he could match Herbert sway by drunken sway in any given scene which he performed with detailed perfection in the film Laughing Sinners (1931).  The last thing that needs mentioning about the film is that Busby Berkeley created the dance sequences.  He and the studios, but not his performers, were lucky there were no laws enforcing workmen’s safety at that time (see what happened to Esther William’s when she made Million Dollar Mermaid in 1952)!   He was the master of musical spectacles that showed beautiful girls spiralling down staircases, reflections in dozens of mirrors, and kaleidoscoping images.  You won’t be disappointed here.  And try not to forget to remember that this, including the finale “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule” is all done on the stage of a nightclub, which in reality would be an impossibility.  Something of interest, Merna Kennedy, who plays Fifi D’Orsay’s gold digging partner, was married to Berkeley at the time of the film, although they divorced shortly afterwards.

A major point that laughably—or not—stands out is that tap-dancing legend Hal Le Roy was used in the all-white “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule” finale.  Why I think it’s laughable is, can you imagine how many talented black tap dancers there must have been who would have given their eye’s teeth for the part?

Kay Francis, one of my most favourite actresses, has a small and unsympathetic role in this film.  But she wears clothes beautifully.  And with Orry-Kelly designing, she looks fabulous.  Ricardo Cortez, another of my favourite pre-Code actors, usually played a villain of some sort.  He was handsome and suave with what I call shark-teeth.  He was groomed by Paramount to be a Spanish Latin lover (they wanted him to replace Valentino when he left the studio and then died shortly after, and whose shoes Cortez himself knew he couldn’t even try to fill); but in reality, Cortez’s real name was Jacob Krantz, and he was born and raised in New York by his Jewish Austrian parents.  He and Dolores Del Rio play dancing partners and are considered one of the main nightclub attractions.  So it’s kind of funny when they take their bows to great applause when we, the screening audience, have completely forgotten about them because we’ve just been awed by Berkeley’s beautiful, glamorous and bizarre images which they had no part of.

So please enjoy Wonder Bar.  Caren

Wonder Bar (1934)

Warner Brothers.  Directed by Lloyd Bacon.  Musical numbers created and directed by Busby Berkeley.  Based on the play by Geza Herczeg, Karl Farkas and Robert Katscher.  Adaptation and screen play by Earl Baldwin.  Cinematography by Sol Polito.  Art Decoration by Jack Okey and Willy Pogany.  Costume design by Orry-Kelly.  Film editing by George Amy.  Released:  March 31, 1934.  84 minutes.

Al Jolson………………………………………………………………… Al Wonder
Kay Francis…………………………………………………………………… Liane
Dolores delRio………………………………………………………………… Inez
Ricardo Cortez……………………………………………………………….. Harry
Dick Powell………………………………………………………………… Tommy
Guy Kibbee………………………………………………………………. Simpson
Ruth Donnelly……………………………………………………… Mrs. Simpson
Hugh Herbert………………………………………………………………….. Pratt
Louise Fazenda………………………………………………………… Mrs. Pratt
Hal Le Roy…………………………………………………………………. Himself
Fifi D’Orsay……………………………………………………………………. Mitzi
Merna Kennedy……………………………………………………………… Claire
Henry O’Neill……………………………………………… Richard – the Maitre’d
Robert Barrat……………………………………….. Captain Hugo Von Ferring
Henry Kolker…………………………………………………… Mr. R.H. Renaud
Jane Darwell…………………………………………………………….. Baroness

Wonder Bar, was directed by Lloyd Bacon with musical numbers by Busby Berkeley.  The film’s narrative takes place in the course of one night in a Montmartre cabaret known as the Wonder Bar.  1995’s documentary Celluloid Closet includes one of the film’s most celebrated scenes.  A slender, dark-haired young man descents upon a crowded ballroom floor, taps a blond gentleman on the shoulder and asks, “May I cut in?”  The blond man looks pleased, smiles, and abandons the lovely young lady with whom he is dancing.  The two men dance off together.  The disgruntled girl leaves the floor.  Bandleader Al Jolson has been enjoying the little episode and announces to the crowd, “Boys will be boys!  Wooo Wooo!”  When Joseph Breen heard about the scene, he angrily sent a letter to Jack Warner demanding a screening of the film.  Warner didn’t reply.  Wonder Bar fueled Breen’s fire.  Four months later the film would never have been released.  Breen’s only consolation this time was that the state censor boards in Ohio and Pennsylvania cut the scene.  If anything in the film was offensive, it was the closing musical number of Al Jolson doing his blackface shtick in “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule.”  It was a lengthy racist vignette of blacks eating watermelon, munching on the meat from “pork chop trees,” amidst a perpetual song and dance fest.  This didn’t seem to offend Mr. Breen.  His other big concern was the “irregular sex relationship” between Ricardo Cortez and his dance partner, Dolores Del Rio.  The main ingredient to their dancing art is Cortez’s use of a whip on Del Rio.  Its strong intimations of sadomasochism is pretty shocking, even by today’s standards.  Del Rio gets the satisfaction of mortally wounding Cortez with a knife during their act–her crime going unpunished at the film’s end.

So where was Kay Francis amid all this?  She plays a spoiled, wealthy wife who’s having an affair with Cortez.  Many thought Kay was displeased with her part, because she has little to do, scowls a great deal, and her anger seems to be eating away at her.  Although accepting of the roles afforded her by Warners, Kay did not want to repeat being featured in brief appearances like she had at Paramount.  Kay herself explained the situation to writer Dick Mook in November 1934.

Wonder Bar (1934)

The one I objected to most was Wonderbar, not because I felt it wouldn’t be a good picture but solely because I felt it wouldn’t give me enough to do.  And, speaking of that film, I’ve read a number of items such as ‘Kay Francis didn’t want to do the part and her aversion to it was apparent in her work.’  I didn’t scowl my way through the picture because I didn’t like the part.  I felt the woman would be spoiled, petulant, sullen, and I played her that way.  I was trying to characterize.  I hope I’m too intelligent to let any dissatisfaction I may feel over a part reflect itself in my work.

Kay’s attitude was generous given her less than seven minutes screen time in an 84-minute film.  Kay complained again about Wonder Bar when she went over to England that next year.  “I had a very small and thankless part in it.  People knew that I didn’t want to take the role…All I had to do was to look sullen throughout the picture.  Everybody expected me to look that way, anyhow, so I didn’t even get credit for acting!”

Kay needn’t have defended herself.  She plays the character on cue.  Spoiled, tired of her husband, suspicious of Cortez, seeking satisfaction in riches and relationships that will go nowhere–she’s a fascinating creature.  Given her allotted time, Kay establishes a far more complex and interesting character than Del Rio’s woebegone passion dancer.  Still, the camera seems to linger on Del Rio’s striking looks.  It’s easy to appreciate Kay’s dissatisfaction with her role.  Del Rio’s role was expanded at Kay’s expense.

William F. French wrote about the making of Wonder Bar for Photoplay.  Titled, “Only Al Wanted to Play,” French talks about the famous photo of the five major stars raising their glasses at the Wonder Bar, toasting the film.  Ricardo Cortez, in gaucho gear, sits next to the smiling Dolores Del Rio.  Al Jolson, grinning from ear to ear, is in the middle.  A scowling Kay Francis is to his left and sweet-cheeked Dick Powell rubs elbows with Kay:

Wonder Bar (1934)

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.”

French reports on Jolson’s intimating a walkout if he didn’t get his own way, Kay’s queenly hauteur; and, Dick Powell’s demands to be released from the picture.  “Every player came in handcuffs, so to speak,” claimed French.  That is, except Del Rio, whom Jolson had handpicked for the juiciest part.  French’s mention of Kay was very telling:

Kay, meanwhile, had been told a little fairy story about the really charming part which was being re-written for her, and which Mr. Jolson was going to have built up big.  Al, you know, happened to own the story–the picture being made from his New York show of the same name, which had a moderate run.  “I didn’t like the part the first time it was suggested to me,” explains Kay, “and after I got the script I liked it less.  In the first place, there was really no part there for me at all.  Just a bit–nothing more.  It was a part any one of twenty girls on the set could play just as well as I.  Naturally, I told them I didn’t want to do it.  They insisted…No actress like to play an insignificant part–especially if it…could be cut out entirely without hurting the story…Not only was I cast to a role in a picture I did not want any part of, but I was put in a picture in which the male lead is not recognized as a screen star and the girl with the only feminine part that can be called a part, is borrowed from another studio…Dolores is a good friend of mine,…but she is not under contract here and I do not think I should be asked to support her at the cost of playing a weak bit.  Poor parts hurt an actress more than the average person can realize…No star on the screen can play four bad parts in succession without meeting disaster.  And, personally, I think I had my share for the time being.  I could understand being cast to such a role if the studio did not value my services and had not renewed my option, but, under the circumstances, it seems inexplicable to me.

French reported that “almost unanimously” Kay’s co-stars agreed with her.  Dick Powell also felt slighted, saying, “Gee whiz…I thought I was due for a good break…When they talked to me about Wonderbar…I knew Al Jolson would never let another singer do anything in it…he took the good song that was assigned to me and gave me in exchange the eight bars he didn’t like…I’ve been teamed with Ruby Keeler {Al Jolson’s wife} for three pictures–and I thought maybe Al would want to see me built up a little.  But I guess I guessed wrong, because he’s going over all the scripts suggested for us–as Ruby’s manager and I’ll probably be whittled down in them.”  French concludes with the consolation that at least the cast wasn’t required to raise hands in salute saying “Viva Yoelson.”  Kay later admitted, “My anger at the studio…being made to play in Wonderbar never reached very actionable heat.  I began to wonder what I would do if the studio informed me that my option would not be taken up and that I could go.”  After seeing Kay in the film and on the set of Wonder Bar, columnist and fan Jimmie Fidler felt the film benefited from all her venting and wagged, “Kay is very beautiful, particularly when she is a bit annoyed.”

In spite of Wonder Bar‘s sea of tension and battling egos, the dazzling musical numbers, the gowns, the variety of characters, the subplots all added up to a quintessential Warner Bros. ’30s musical.  Most of the film’s progressive themes thankfully led the viewer to non-moralizing resolutions, which wouldn’t be the case for films released a few months later.  Motion Picture Herald thought Wonder Bar a “worthy successor to 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, and Gold Diggers…In many ways, it tops any one of its predecessors”

Kay Francis, I Can’t Wait to Be Forgotten: Her Life on Film and Stage by Scott O’Brien (2007)

Wonder Bar (1934)

A sort of musical Grand Hotel, with murder, romance and infidelity mixed in between the numbers, Wonder Bar, made in ’33 though released the following year, is a kind of last grand slam for the pre-Code morality. Like Night Nurse, it is almost totally amoral, with infidelity treated as being (a) a joke, and (b) commonplace, murder condoned and the killer going scot free, and a suicide not only accepted but encouraged for the purpose of tidying up loose plot ends. Furthermore, some of the racism – and racy dialogue – has to be heard to be believed, some of it being so doubtful that, to quote Oscar Wilde, there is in fact no doubt at all! Yet, taken in the milieu of the time, and admitting the very real humor that often results, it is really largely inoffensive, and if Jews, Negroes and homosexuals seem to take a particular beating in this one, there’s some comfort in the thought that in the last reel God, St. Peter and Abraham Lincoln get taken down a peg or two as well.

Directed at top speed by Lloyd Bacon, the film has the same crackling pace as his earlier and admittedly more substantial 42nd Street. The story-lines keep moving ever forward, the cameras swoop and glide over the glittering set, and if the comedy relief is a bit tiresome at times, it is probably only because we’ve now seen Messrs Kibbee, Herbert, Donnelly and the other Warner contractees go through these same paces so many other times, Jolson incidentally is perfectly cast, his bombast and ego comfortably absorbed by his role as star/impressario. The film has about the same quota of songs as most of the big Warner musicals of the period. There are only two big production numbers as opposed to the usual three, but against this the running time is shorter, and the more dramatic framework allows for better spacing of the various musical interludes. Indeed, the biggest Berkeley number is introduced very casually, quite early in the proceedings. This number, “Don’t Say Goodnight”, has all the traditional Berkeley wizardry and much of that breathtaking crane work and overhead pattern weaving, but for once it’s a number that could – feasibly and mechanically – take place in a night-club. Feasible — but not very likely — and the customers would still have to be perched by the skylight to get the most out of it! Small wonder that the audience applauds so enthusiastically as it comes to a close!

The final number, “I’m Going to Heaven on a Mule”, is something of a revelation. When Wonderbar played at the New Yorker on a single-day booking a few years back, the complaints in their guest book were quite vehement from those who felt it was a kind of paen to Uncle Tom racism. Actually the poor innocents were not even aware that the New Yorker print was a working tv print in which the whole middle section of the number, with the most blatant stereotypes, had been bodily removed. This print has the number intact, and it gets more and more astounding as it progresses! Physically, this is one number that couldn’t be staged in a night-club, and ethically and intellectually it’s a number that probably wouldn’t be staged anywhere. Here at the Huff we’re so inured to minority-group comedy and stereotypes in films of the 20’s and 30’s that it is certainly not going to produce any reactions of shock and indignation, but I daresay it’ll cause a little surprise. If the pressure-groups were so inclined (and if they knew their facts and film history a lot better than they do!) this little hot potato could well be made the standard-bearer for a whole new crusade, which at least would have the salutary effect of taking some of the ill-deserved heat off “The Birth of A Nation”! However, at that, there’s a remarkably thin-line between Busby Berkeley’s Negro heaven here, and that of “Green Pastures”. However well-intentioned, “Green Pastures” which once seemed so moving and sincere, today seems maudlin and offensive. Stereotypes or not, Al Jolson’s minstrel heaven is at least livelier and more entertaining!

William K. Everson for The Theodore Huff memorial Film Society, December 22, 1964

Shortly before Busby Berkeley’s wedding ceremony, Wonder Bar was sneaked in Santa Barbara, and a New York showing was fast approaching.  In the papers, Buzz was quoted as wanting “something new, something different.”  It was reported that Buzz had supervised the construction of a circular revolving soundstage with sixteen immense glistening sheets of glass enveloping a revolving black floor. Engineers, carpenters, electricians, ironworkers, and prop men worked for weeks.  An iron track was built near the roof of the soundstage to carry the derricks, machinery, camera, and sound equipment to make those top shots.  The restaurant where Dick Powell signs and Dolores Del Rio and Ricardo Cortez dance occupied an entire First National soundstage.  Seven hundred great lamps as well as numerous spotlights were used to light the set.

Wonder Bar (1934)

The Production Code of 1930, in effect when Wonder Bar was filmed in late 1933, specifically states: “The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld.  Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationships are the accepted or common thing.”  With regard to crime the Code states: “[They] are not to be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice.”  If ever there was a film that thumbed its nose at the Studio Relations Committee, it was Wonder Bar, an adult-themed updated of the 1931 Broadway play.

Al Jolson is Al Wonder, the proprietor, emcee, and performer of the notorious Parisian nightclub where drinking, dancing, and assignations of all types take place.  Assisting him in the club is Dick Powell in a decidedly minuscule role as his backup singer.  The dancing couple Ynez and Harry (Dolores Del Rio and Ricardo Cortez) perform at the Wonder Bar, while getting into romantic entanglements with Al, Dick, and Liane (a dour Kay Francis).  Hugh Herbert and Guy Kibbee, along as comic relief, play henpecked husbands who rely on strong drink to help them tolerate their harridan wives.  In the club they meet a pair of Parisian tarts (Fifi D’Orsay and Merna Kennedy) who have gold-digging ideas for the drunken twosome.

Buzz’s work on Wonder Bar consisted of two major productions.  The first, “Don’t Say Goodnight,” is a magician’s trick of epic proportions.  With an imagination fueled by his recent major successes, Buzz takes the number into a dimension as vast as the reflection of two facing mirrors.  The staging is pure escapist, purportedly at the nightclub as Harry and Ynez perform a dance amoureuse.  The sequence segues to a set filled with dozens of movable white columns from which some sixty masked chorines appear.  But are there really sixty dancers?  Buzz asked Warner Brothers’ property department head Albert Whitey for twelve mirrors, each of which was to be twenty feet high and sixteen feet wide.  The mirrors were placed on revolving floors in an octagonal arrangement.  The columns slide in and out as masked male dancers join the girls.  So brilliant is the conception that one scarcely realizes which dancers are mirror images.  At the apex of the number, one black curtain is raised to reveal more reflections, followed by a second curtain and a third revealing the manufactured image of thousands of dancers, all caught with an incognito camera that, by all the laws of reflective physics, should be seen in the octagonal mirrors.  This kind of visual spectacle is one of Buzz’s very best, heartbreakingly beautiful in its technique.  When the magician reveals his secret, the effect is no less impressive.  “The cameraman and the front office thought I was crazy because they thought the camera would show in the mirrors, but I tricked it so it would never show,” explained Buzz.  With a miniature set of mirrors in his office, Buzz experimented with a pencil that had a small strip of white tape on it.  He moved the pencil around to the point where he could look at the tiny mirrors and not see the white tape.  The camera would act like the white tape.  Buzz had it placed on a piece of pipe (the pipe acting as the pencil).  Where the mirrors butted together stood a narrow white column.  If the camera was placed in just the right position facing the column, its reflection wouldn’t be seen.  But what about the camera operator?  Per Buzz: “We finally had to dig a hole through the stage floor and we put the camera on the piece of pipe.  The operator laid flat on his stomach underneath the stage and crawled and moved around slowly with the turning of the camera.”  It’s a splendid, awe-inspiring effect whose power and trickery isn’t diminished even after multiple viewings.

Wonder Bar (1934)

“Ever since I was a little pickaninny, I rode an old Missouri mule,” begins the second of Buzz’s contributions to Wonder Bar, the interesting, controversial, offensive, and blatantly racist “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule.”  Jolson, in blackface, straw hat, and overalls, sings to a young child of Judgment Day when he passes away and how he wants to arrive at the pearly gates with Zeke, his mule, by his side.  A moment later the lights turn low (Judgment Day has evidently arrived), a choir hums in the background, and the image blends to a beautifully rendered effect when, in the distance, Jolson and Zeke cross a long rainbow-style archway into heaven.  Jolson is admitted, meeting and greeting Saint Peter, who announces his arrival: “Here you is in da hebbinly land where da good folks go.”  Jolson gets introduced all around to Gabriel and three little seraphs (harps, wings, and blackface).  He’s fitted with his own wings and witnesses an angel being sent by chute to hell because he passed some bad liquor to Peter.  “Oh, Saint Peter is I goin’ to where da pork chops am a growin’ on da trees?  Tell me is I goin’ where da watermelon vines are blowin’ in da breeze?” asked Jolson.  “Yes you is and da chickens am free,” says Peter.  He’s then directed to the “Pork Chop Orchard and the Possum Pie Grove,” where indeed, the thin trees (resting on porcelain pigs) have pork chops hanging from the branches.  He recognizes acquaintances like Ol’ Black Joe and Uncle Tom on his way to the chicken area, where they’re plucked and  rotisseried in the blink of an eye.  Rubbing his hands in anticipation, he takes a quick bite.  Jolson then boards the Milky Way/Lenox Avenue Express, and the action shifts to a bustling street scene.  Stopping for a shoe shine, he whistles for a newspaper (a Yiddish newspaper!) before journeying to the “Big Top Cabaret.”  There he shakes hands with Emperor Jones and grabs some dice, hoping to roll some sevens.  The camera does a swift pan to a winged Hal le Roy (a Warner Brothers’ actor-dancer) as he taps in front of a dozen blackfaced ladies holding up human-sized watermelon slices.  The cabaret customers go into a final chorus of the song while Zeke reappears sporting wings of his own.  The ensemble sings with a choir’s passion, arms outstretched (à la “Remember My Forgotten Man” {from Gold Diggers of 1933}, as the number ends with a close-up on a decorated Al Jolson, who obviously made good at the heavenly crap table.

“Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule” was not prerecorded as many musical numbers were by that point.  It was usually a director’s decision to do a “standard record,” where the orchestra is playing out of camera range, and this is what Buzz preferred.  He didn’t want Jolson tied to a playback.  So cast, crew, and orchestra all worked on Warners’ stage 2.

It would be disingenuous to laud “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule” for its directorial wizardry without noting the inflammatory nature of its racist imagery and derogatory lyrics.  Buzz Berkeley’s numbers up to this point (and indeed most features from any studio) featured Negro performers in denigrating roles such as butlers, maids, field hands, and Pullman porters.  Complaints from moviegoers of color regarding their depiction in feature films were seldom voiced, the exceptions coming from the NAACP {National Association for the Advancement of Colored People} and publications such as Norfolk Journal and Guide.  (Conversely, when asked about her numerous servant roles, actress Hattie McDaniel, with a touch of realistic cynicism, once said she’d rather play a maid than be one.)  The tolerance of the nation (or, more accurately, the lack of intolerance) for blatant stereotyping is most revealing in Wonder Bar‘s March 1934 New York Times review by Mordaunt Hall, when he cites the “several amusing features” of the number while blithely ignoring its racism.  A rumor that Warner Brothers completely excised the number from the prints that ran in theaters primarily patronized by minority audiences is without substantiated proof.  Buzz himself referred to “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule” only in regard to the octagonal mirrors that he employed on this and “Don’t Say Goodnight.”  But as Buzz was a literalist (in the most spectacular fashion) with lyrics that supplied the base to his concoctions, it’s somewhat understandable that his visuals complemented the words without obscuring their meaning.  The number’s link to nineteenth-century minstrelsy and Jolson’s blackface embodiment of the lowly sharecropper were the skeletal elements with which the number was built.  Its dreamlike set pieces (the tree of hanging pork chops, the life-size watermelons) were never designed to be hateful.  The reality of Buzz’s relatively staggering budgets meant eschewed sensitivity to any one group; his true goal was “to get the shot and make it pretty.”  (If one adds Jolson’s knowing glance as he’s seen reading the Yiddish newspaper, you now have two affronted minority groups.)  But the responsibility for the number is Buzz’s, and the final word on its inclusion was the studio’s, and even an image as lovely and haunting as Jolson and his mule waking on the rainbow bridge to the “hebbenly gates” cannot justify its overall prejudicial imagery.

Wonder Bar (1934)

Wonder Bar could have been the impetus of the Studio Relations Committee changing its name (and authority) to the Production Code Administration in 1934, when movie going was at pre-Depression levels.  Soon after Wonder Bar was released in March 1934, the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency was established, and within a month it had 3 million members.  There were certainly enough objectionable elements in Wonder Bar to fuel their wrath:

  1. A man and woman are dancing when a mustachioed dandy taps on the man’s shoulder.  “May I cut in?” he asks.  “Why certainly,” says the woman.  But the questioner takes hold of the man, and they dance off together.  With a hand on his hip and limp-wristed outstretched arm, a fey Al Jolson quips, “Boys will be boys, wooo!”
  2. Jolson’s opening number, “Viva La France,” boasts that in gay Paris, “The wine is stronger, the kisses last much longer,” among other suggestive lyrics.
  3. For two of his American customers, Jolson defines the word boudoir–“In America it’s a place to sleep.  Over here, it’s a playground.”
  4. The dance of Dolores Del Rio and Ricardo Cortez is undisguised sadomasochism, as Cortez repeatedly cracks a long bullwhip at the head and shoulder of his partner.  At the number’s end, she stabs him with his knife and never pays for her crime, in direct violation of the 1930 Code.

Joseph Breen, the head of the Studio Relations Committee, strongly objected to Wonder Bar‘s many salacious elements (and, as Variety expressed it, the film’s “panze humor”), but Jack Warner never responded to them.  Executive producer Hal Wallis didn’t bother to show the SRC “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule,” instead telling them “there was nothing to worry about.”

Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley by Jeffrey Spivak (2011)

Till then (the Production Code), murder could be played off as a joke, especially if committed by a beautiful woman.  In the musical Wonder Bar, released three months before the Code, Dolores Del Rio stabs her faithless lover while performing an Apache dance with him in a nightclub.  He makes it offstage without the audience suspecting anything, and after he dies, his body is stuffed into the car of a suicidal man, who plans to drive off a cliff that very night.  Such is the moral atmosphere of Wonder Bar that no one expends an ounce of effort to save the suicidal man.  Everyone is delighted to see him go off a cliff, if it means that Del Rio will be shielded from a murder charge.

Complicated Women by Mick LaSalle (2000)

Wonder Bar (1934)

In Wonder Bar (1934), Al Wonder (Al Jolson) entertains a Parisian nightclub crowd with a song before the club’s headlining dancer Ynez, played by Dolores Del Rio, takes center stage.  Jolson augments his singing with his signature facial expressions and hand gestures. When the lyric recounts being “in the arms of a lovely Latin daughter,” Jolson delivers this rather benign line while spreading his legs with his hands.  This small gesture–hands parting, thighs open–effectively equates the lyric’s “arms” with his pried-open legs; this juxtaposition between aural and bodily signifiers subtly transforms the song’s “lovely Latin daughter” into a licentious character.  The small moment immediately sexualizes the only “Latin” female visible in Wonder Bar, Ynez/Dolores Del Rio, before she appears on stage for the awaiting diegetic audience.

As studios adjusted to the new sound era, Del Rio’s persona was increasingly and explicitly framed by racialized and sexualized dance performances, especially while she was under contract at Warner Bros. home of Busby Berkeley and Al Jolson and the studio behind Wonder Bar.  As the musical became the favored genre, it was increasingly associated with Busby Berkeley dance sequences and the large-scale spectacles of scantily clad, blond female bodies in motion that he produced.  Del Rio’s musicals of this period often included dance scenes directed by Berkeley–including the uncredited dance sequences in Bird of Paradise.  As Del Rio’s early silent-era seductress roles (French, Russian, or any woman with an aura of “foreignness” decreased, they were replaced by the oversimplified and exoticized dance roles–like Luana and Belinha–in the sound era.  As we shall see with publicity for Wonder Bar, Del Rio’s actual dance abilities were ultimately less important than the idea that she was a natural dancer–an important facet of her depiction as the in-between body of yet another racialized musical.

Advertising for the film Wonder Bar offers two final examples of Del Rio’s inbetweeness as utilized by Warner Bros.  Using two promotional articles, written by the studio as press publicity about the film, I show how Del Rio’s body functioned as a crucial figure of racial mediation and how dance operated as a signifier of exoticism and hypersexuality in the process.  By analyzing the advertising rhetoric used to contextualize still images of Del Rio’s dancing body, we can see how the Latina myth was marked through excessively passionate bodily movement and gestures that were racialized as natural and primitive.

In the film Wonder Bar, Al Wonder (Al Jolson) runs a Parisian nightclub of the same name.  Al is in love with the club’s dancer Ynez (Del Rio), but she loves only her dance partner and gigolo, Harry (Ricardo Cortez).  After Harry becomes involved with the wife of a wealthy bar patron, Liane, he attempts to finance his and Liane’s escape to the United States by selling her expensive necklace.  When Liane’s husband begins to investigate the missing jewelry, Al remedies the situation by convincing Liane to stay with her husband and pretending to buy the necklace from Harry.  Al hopes to woo Ynez in Harry’s absence, but things turn ugly when Ynez discovers that Harry plans to leave without her.  Blinded by passion, Ynez stabs and kills Harry on the dance floor during their signature dance performance, “The Gaucho.”  The choreography, which involves Harry whipping at Ynez as she writhes on the floor, is so violent that the stabbing appears to be an elaborate finale and the club audience cheers while Harry lies dying on the dance floor.  To save Ynez, Al makes Harry’s murder look like an accident.  Despite Al’s best efforts, he finally admits defeat when Ynez finds comfort in the arms of the club’s bandleader.

Because the film is set in a European nightclub, Wonder Bar‘s publicity transfers the exoticism previously connoted through locales such as the Pacific Islands or Brazil directly onto Del Rio’s body.  One article written by Warner Bros. to advertise the film, titled “Gaucho, Exotic New Dance Invented for Wonder Bar,” illustrates how deeply ingrained dance was to the Latina myth by crediting Del Rio and Cortez with the dance’s choreography.  According to the article, the Gaucho number was originally intended to a French “apache” tango.  As Marta Savigliano has noted, the apache enacts an exaggerated and brutal encounter between a pimp and his impoverished prostitute, movements that are strikingly similar to those performed by Del Rio and Cortez in the Wonder Bar dance.

Wonder Bar (1934)

Whether or not the film uses an apache dance, it is significant that the publicity article credits Del Rio and Cortez with the choreographic shift as the supposed result of an impromptu dance improvised during their lunch break.  The ethnographic language used in the article approximates a wildlife encounter: all is quiet on the set when the director and crew happen upon the two Latinos as they enact a “strange and elusive” dance, later identified as a “swell tango” or a “half apache, half tango.”  According to the article, the director “watch[ed] from the shadow of the set, while [Del Rio and Cortez] danced on, unnoticing and unconcerned.  He watched them–and so did the returning company, standing their distance, silent and intent, making no sound to break in on the dance”.  Where Bird of Paradise used an ethnographic lens to frame its visual narrative, this article asks us to conjure an image of what purportedly happens when two Latinos are left alone in the same room by positioning us with the hiding crew, anxious not to disturb the dancing creatures in their native habitat.  Ironically, this essentialist and exoticizing narrative is disrupted by Ricardo Cortez’s biography and the press book itself.  Born Jacob Krantz, Cortez was not in fact Latino but had changed his name to “take advantage of the public’s fascination with ‘Latin Lovers'”.  On the same press book page as “Gaucho, Exotic New Dance Invented for Wonder Bar” appears another publicity article stating that Del Rio complained of dizziness after a series of spins, an odd grievance for a trained dancer, which suggest that Del Rio was not as skilled a dancer as her films and publicity claimed.

Wonder Bar (1934)    Wonder Bar (1934)

Wonder Bar‘s sensationalist imagery illustrates how studio publicity reinforced the colonialist tendencies of Hollywood in terms of race, gender, and sexuality.  The film’s narrative hinges on the club’s patrons confusing the diegetic violence of the stabbing with the staged violence of the Gaucho; similarly, the film’s advertising contextualizes and sells Wonder Bar to mainstream audiences by framing Latinos as passionate and dangerous creatures.  When the publicity article ultimately names the origin of the Gaucho’s “wild, weird, and elusive steps” as the “restless, gypsy race, half Indian, half Spanish descent, that roams over the pampas,” its pseudo-ethnographic language reinforces the iconography of the campaign at large, which depicts the film’s Latino male as a sexually violent threat to the passionate, yet vengeful, Latina.

Although the article “Gaucho, Exotic New Dance Invented for Wonder Bar” helped shift the connotations of an exotic locale to the Latina body itself, the layout of another publicity piece makes Del Rio’s inbetweenness a primitive yet literal borderline between blackness and whiteness through its use of text and image.  Titled “On with the Dance,” this publicity article was intended as a special Sunday feature for distribution in local newspapers and surreptitiously promotes Wonder Bar under the guise of a historical look at the evolution of dance.  By visually juxtaposing black and white dance styles, the article presents the history of dance as an evolution from primitive to civilized movement.  The racial polarization of this narrative is anchored by a series of images organized according to whiteness, blackness, and inbetweenness.  Whereas white performers are depicted in tuxedos and gowns, the featured nonwhite performers (save Del Rio) appear in blackface or loincloths.  Although these white and nonwhite representations are nearly equally distributed within the article’s layout, costuming and captions frame the white bodies as overwhelmingly more refined than the nonwhite bodies.  At the center of these images rests the article’s largest and most prominent image, an enlargement of Del Rio and Cortez midstep.  In this still from the Gaucho, the bodies of Del Rio and Cortez literally border the racialized images of a photograph of white people in tuxedos on the left and “modern dusky maidens” (female performers in blackface) on the right.  The opening text of the article contextualizes the “white” photograph, stating that this “fashionable Waldorf-Astoria crowd” honors Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birthday by dancing “merrily in a midnight rendition of the Virginia Reel.”  The upper-class associations of this racialized image are echoed at the bottom of the article, where another white, tuxedoed body appears in the figure of Hal Le Roy, a popular 1930s tap dancer and the article’s second largest image.  As we shall see, the “modern dusky maidens” and Del Rio are contextualized through other means.

Like the visualized hierarchy of the casta paintings, the article “On with the Dance” frames Del Rio as a mediating body between civilizing whiteness and primitive nonwhiteness.  The text supports the connotation of these visuals by explicitly developing a narrative history about the supposed refinement of dance from its primitive beginnings.  The images illustrate this evolution, showing how the “crudest form of rhythm” has been refined in France, where “national dances [are] brought to Paris, polished and perfected.”  The article states: “Dancing, which among primitive people are practiced to express joy or grief–to excite the passions of love and hate–to placate vengeful gods–or to foster homage or worship–has degenerated or improved (as you will), into a pastime.  Music, though not an essential part of dancing, almost invariably accompanies it–even in the crudest form of rhythm–it’s beaten on a tom-tom.”  The discussion of “crude” rhythms develops into a section titled “Savage Dance Survivals” about the “rude, imitative dances of early civilization.”  Detailing how every “savage tribe” from “Australian Bushmen” to “tribes of Northern Asia” dances in one way or another, the article uses words like “rude,” “savage,” and “imitative” to create a kind of dance history lesson at the expense of non-Western dances and dancers.  Although the article concludes that some of these so-called primitive dances have been purportedly civilized by nations like France, the last sixth of the article ultimately identifies Spain as the “True home” of dance due to “the gay, irresponsible nature of the people,” before transitioning its dance history lesson into an explicit advertisement for the film.

Wonder Bar (1934)

Although Del Rio’s image sits squarely between the article’s depictions of whiteness and blackness, she is in fact closely aligned with the primitive passion affiliated with the other nonewhite images that pepper the page.  In contrast to the tuxedoed white bodies, the article’s depiction of nonwhite bodies is presented through one photo of female performers in blackface and a series of three line drawing depicting so-called primitive bodies.  A diagonal arrangement of three line-drawing panels appears below the U.S. photo; each line drawing exemplifies one of the so-called primitive dances mentioned in the article.  The nonwhitenss of these framed bodies–captioned as Polynesian, Indian, and South Sea islanders–is indicated by the shading of their illustrated faces.  The figures are depicted as primitive and potentially hostile; some appear in loincloths, and many more hold spears, clubs, and torches to suggest a link between primitive dance, nonwhite bodies, and violent passion.  Further, the scene described at the opening of this chapter shows how the actions of Al Wonder (played by Al Jolson) enhanced the division of whiteness and nonwhiteness through an emphasis on racialized sexuality. Known as a blackface performer, Jolson hoped to make Wonder Bar his comeback film for Warner Bros.  Yet Wonder Bar is the only Jolson film that features blackface without including a single black performer in its cast.  This significant omission amplifies Wonder’s suggestion that the “lovely Latin daughter” of his song is sexually open and available, a gestured innuendo that collapses the full weight of this racialized sexuality onto Del Rio’s body–the only Latin and only nonwhite body in the entire film.

The form and content of the primitive line drawings of “On with the Dance” undercut the glamour and sophistication of the central Del Rio-Cortez image and enhance the violent and racialized embrace of a second, illustrated image of Del Rio and Cortez.  The illustration echoes the aesthetics of the line-drawing series and shows Cortez holding Del Rio with his hand on her hip while brandishing a whip about her body; in turn, Del Rio’s raised fist clutches a dagger aimed at his heart.  The illustration was frequently used in the Wonder Bar press book and was often identified as the “Tango Del Rio.”  Because this small line drawing sits atop the article’s first paragraph and is nearly embedded in the title line, its prominence in the layout of “On with the Dance” contradicts the glamorous image of Del Rio-Cortez and reiterates the efficient yet subtle ways that desire, danger, and primitive nonwhiteness were conflated through depictions of nonwhite bodies.

By physically mediating the lines of whiteness and blackness in Wonder Bar‘s advertisement, Del Rio’s body delineates the film’s “Waldorf-Astoria crowds” from its “dusky maidens” by representing elements from both sides of the racial equation.  A medium-sized photo from the Busby Berkeley waltz number “Don’t Say Goodnight” highlights Del Rio’s inbetweenness.  Placed in the lower half of the article’s layout, the photo shows Del Ro and Cortez standing in the foreground, against a chorus of blond-wigged women.  Del Rio, wearing a white gown and with her arms presented, is the only dark-haried female dancer among them  The women mirror Del Rio’s posture, but their hair color and costuming are distinct: their gowns are black on top and white on bottom.  Del Rio “complicates this black-and-white motif…[because] she is neither a blonde woman nor a dark haried man….  She is a racial and national other masquerading as a racial and national other”.  As the star, Del Rio in the foreground highlights both her screen significance and her difference due to the excessive blondeness of the bodies featured in the dance and publicity photograph.  Shortly after Wonder Bar, the prominence of Del Rio’s Hollywood roles began to dwindle and she eventually returned to Mexico.

 Dance and the Hollywood Latina: Race, Sex, and Stardom by Priscilla Peña Ovalle (2011)

Al Jolson’s latest film is an adaptation of “Wonder Bar,” which, in its stage form, was described by its producers as a “Continental novelty of European night life.” The picture, which is now at the Warners’ Strand, tells of the frolics, romances and the tragedies of one night in a Montmartre cabaret known as the Wonder Bar. It is set forth in much the same manner as “Grand Hotel,” but the studio experts see fit to emphasize here the cabaret show, touching, when it suits them, on the mirthful or melodramatic phases of the narrative.

Wonder Bar (1934)

“Wonder Bar” thus depends more upon melody and elaborate staging than it does on its story. Busby Berkeley gives several striking dance groupings and besides this angle of the film there is a series of settings that serve as the background for Mr. Jolson’s song, “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule,” which is rendered by the popular entertainer in black-face. There is a conception of Heaven, with a black St. Peter, a black Archangel Gabriel and black angels. There are several amusing features to this section of the film, including the idea of having a “Chute to Hell,” a board on which is registered the number of persons in the Celestial regions and in Hades, and wings on both Mr. Jolson and his mule. Heaven, as viewed from the outside, is a jumble of modernistic structures leaning in all directions, with a tremendously high and exceptionally narrow entrance.

It is scarcely fair to make comparisons between this production and other musical pictures. Suffice it to say that those who are partial to this type of entertainment will probably relish “Wonder Bar,” especially during those interludes where Mr. Jolson lifts his voice to vehement singing.

This offering can also boast of its string of players. Besides the zealous Mr. Jolson, there is Ricardo Cortez, as the villain; Dolores Del Rio, as Mr. Cortez’s dancing partner and inamorata; Kay Francis as the faithless wife of a banker; Dick Powell, as a popular crooner, whose heart palpitates at the sight of Miss Del Rio; Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert, as two Americans who finally decide that it ought to be a capital offence for husbands to bring their wives to Paris; Robert Barrat, who is having his last fling at life, and several others. As for Mr. Jolson he is the well known Al Wonder, owner and entertainer of the renowned Wonder Bar. And he is also infatuated with Miss Del Rio.

Among the songs are “Don’t Say Good Night” and “Why Do I Dream Those Dreams?” which are sung by Dick Powell, and Mr. Jolson sings “Vive La France” and “Wonder Bar” as well as “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule.”

Several of the characters are introduced before they reach the Wonder Bar. Then the doorman of the famous Montmartre resort rolls out the sidewalk carpet for the arrivals and in a closing flash this same man, in the wee small hours, rolls up the carpet and the Wonder Bar’s lights are switched off. Day has almost begun.

The New York Times by Mordaunt Hall, March 1, 1934

‘Wonder Bar’ has got about everything.  Romance, flash, dash, class, color, songs, star-studded talent and almost every known requisite to assure sturdy attention and attendance.  It’s a ‘Grand Hotel’ of a Paris bolte-de-nuit (wherein it differs in locale from the original Viennese), of which Al Wonder (Al Jolson) is the m.c., maitre and general Mr. Fix-It of his Wonder Bar.

Wonder Bar (1934)Kay Francis is the faithless wife; Ricardo Cortez the double-dealing tango dancer; Del Rio his dance partner and inamorata; Dick Powell the Wonder Bar’s maestro and songwriter who is likewise smitten with Del Rio, as is Jolson.  It’s a case of unrequited amour with the latter, which is convincing background for the spirited balladizing.  Guy Kibbee, Hugh Herbert, Ruth Donnelly and Louise Fazenda as a quartet of American chump tourists provide not a little of the incidental comedy by-play.

The cabaret setting plausibly permits for the seven musical numbers, which are about evenly split between Jolson and Powell as soloists.  There’s also an effective tango between Cortez and Del Rio, labeled ‘Tango Del Rio,’ while the ‘Valse Amoureuse’ is an alternate label for the big waltz number, ‘Don’t Say Goodnight.’

Powell leads that, and it’s the most elaborately staged production number under the Berkeley technique.  The other is Jolson’s ‘Gonna Go to Heaven on a Mule,’ which is even more highly imaginative staging, wherein Jolson enters the pearly gates and finds St. Peter, Gabriel, Emperor Jones, Uncle Tom, the angels ‘n’ everybody are colored.

The waltz number is permitted to unreel a bit fulsomely, but it’s excellent audience stuff running the gamut of the Berkeley style of overhead, diaphragm, terp formations, plus the usual pan-shooting that’s an equal tribute to the photog.  This staging is further embellished by some very effective mirror and prismatic formations as the waltzers whirl into a forest set, and thence the mirror scene, along with the other formations.  Mirror stuff is used twice, reprised in the heaven setting.

The other songs are ‘Fairer on the Riviera,’ ‘Don’t You Remember the Night We Spent at the Wonder Bar,’ ‘Why Do I Dream False Dreams?’ and a couple of choruses of ‘Dark Eyes’ (‘Oh Chichornia’) which leads into a very funny Russe dialectic scene between Jolson and Dalmatoff, whom the mammy singer had with him in the Broadway production.

Wonder Bar (1934)

As was obvious from the original Viennese source of ‘Wonder Bar,’ when the Shuberts, George Jessel and other Americans abroad wondered about it for the American market, the story basically was light.  That proved itself in the subsequent continental reproductions and also on Broadway when Jolson did it at the 44th St Theatre Roof (old Nora Bayes theatre).  The prime appeal was the casting, but, more importantly, the novelty of converting a theatre into a replica of a nite club with part of the audience sitting on the stage, while the cafe floor occupied the centre of the auditorium.  That illusion is carried out in the picture.

The scenarizing has endeavored to tighten the loose ends, and Earl Baldwin has achieved that in no small measure, so, even if the yarn is a bit lose, it’s still very much to the credit of the screen artificers who realized the necessity for kneading the yarn.

In the ‘Grand Hotel’ manner, the premise is quickly established, the characters forthrightly introduced and cataloged, whereupon the proceedings of a night at the Wonder Bar get under way.  The faithless wife, who’s given a valuable necklace to the gig, starts it as the threatening domestic complications unfold first.  Then the gig’s loss of interest in his dance partner and paramour; then Jolson’s unrequited romantic interest in the dancer; also the attachment of the orchestra leader (Powell) for Inez.  Against this background unfolds the minor situation with the dashing captain, who has his last fling before a pre-planned suicide to free himself of his financial worries; the frolicsome American tourists and other sidelights with the house gigs, gigolettes, et al.

Of the casting, apart from the picture being Jolson’s, Cortez is effective as the light heavy and Miss Del Rio is most agreeably spotted as the tango dancer.  Young Powell continues his up ‘n coming pace as the affable juve.  Miss Frances plays her faithless wife role with a superciliousness and condescension not in keeping with the assignment.  Hal LeRoy is but fleetingly seen in a tap specialty but his brief chore is highly effective.

As an essential technical requisite the Forbstein batoning is full of verve and color; the camera hyper-graphic in its grasping of all details, and all the other contributory elements toward the skillful montage are more than passively adequate.

In view of the international renown of the original stage source, its foreign market value should par or exceed the native market’s yield.

It’s Jolson’s comeback picture in every respect.  With 10% of the gross due him, he’s in for some fancy gravy besides.

VARIETY, by Abel., March 6, 1934

Cortez ended the year of 1933 by joining an all-star cast of heavyweights to film Warner Bros.’ Mega musical, Wonder Bar.  Along with The Pony Express, The Sorrows of Satan, Symphony of Six Million, and The Last Hurrah, it would be one of the most ambitious films of Cortez’s career; one which he might have been able to point to with pride were it not for the inclusion of overlong, totally tasteless musical number that permanently marred an otherwise exceptional motion picture.

Originally adapted from a book written by Hungarian-American authors Geza Herczog and Karl Farkus, Die Wunderbar was turned into a successful European stage production 1931.  That same year, Irving Caesar and Aben Kandel translated the German work, added their own songs, and produced an American version titled Wonder Bar, which opened on Broadway at the Nora Bayes Theater.  Its star Warner Bros.’ contractee Al Jolson, purchased the film rights to the original and pitched the idea of a Wonder Bar film to the studio as a star vehicle for himself.  Jolson’s last film, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum had been a critical and box office disappointment, and his movie career was in a rut.  New Warner Bros. production head Hal Wallis liked Jolson’s idea, and pulled out all the stops to make the project a top-tier film musical in the distinguished tradition of 42nd Street (1933), Golddiggers of 1933 (1933), and Footlight Parade (1933).  In addition to assembling a sure-fire cast headed by Jolson, Kay Francis, Dolores Del Rio, Cortez, and Dick Powell, Wallis tapped ace choreographer Busby Berkeley to stage elaborate musical numbers, the award-winning team of Al Dubin and Harry Warren to write original songs, and gifted Sol Polito to photograph.

The studio’s all-purpose director, Lloyd Bacon, was eventually tapped to helm the project.  Already a proven commodity at the studio, Bacon seemed the perfect choice.  A former actor and director of two-reel comedies, he graduated to feature films after he signed with Warner Bros. in 1926.  During his initial years at the studio, he proved his worth, helming several notable pictures, including Jolson’s hit musical, The Singing Fool (1928), Moby Dick (1930), and two acclaimed all-star musical extravaganzas: 42nd Street (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933).  Not only was Bacon a capable director and worked well with Jolson, Berkeley, and several of the other craftsmen, he was adept at integrating musical numbers and plot, and keeping his films on schedule and under budget.  Perhaps most importantly, he knew how to handle large casts and keep oversized, fragile movie star egos in check.  He would have the challenge of his life on the set of Wonder Bar.

Warner Bros.’ musical answer to MGM’s Academy Award winning drama Grand Hotel, Wonder Bar chronicled one eventful night at a posh Parisian night club where a colorful assemblage of performers and patrons gather for an evening of entertainment.  Filming began in mid-November, 1933.  It was apparent from day one it would not be smooth sailing on the set.  Most of Bacon’s principal cast were unhappy and edgy for various reasons, both personal and professional.  Among the professional reasons was the gigantic media buildup that preceded the making of the movie.  Newspapers and magazines across the country promised an unprecedented extravaganza, and all involved were acutely aware they were expected to make good on the promise.  Outside of director Bacon, perhaps the most pressure was born by the film’s star, Jolson, who was nervous as a cat as shooting commenced.  He owned a piece of the motion picture, and suspected his film career hinged on its success.  In order to succeed, he was determined to make the movie as he saw fit.  Constantly in conference with Bacon, Jolson not only offered ideas on his own contributions, but attempted to micromanage how other characters would be portrayed.  This placed him in the crosshairs of the other major stars, who resented his interference.  At one time or another, all four blew off steam, but none more than Ricardo Cortez.

The filming of Wonder Bar would bring out the best and worst qualities of Ricardo’s character.  He, too, was on edge and feeling pressure on multiple fronts.  Wonder Bar was a grade A picture, his first important assignment for his new employer, and a real test of his ability.  He was cast as one of the club’s star dancers, and was apprehensive about performing the elaborate dances planned.  He had been working with a dance instructor to make sure he would not fail.  He was also feeling pressure on the personal front.  In November, he and Chris announced their engagement and pending nuptials.  They purchased a brand new home still under construction at 1707 Tropical Avenue, in Beverly Hills, and Christine began purchasing furnishings.  An elaborate wedding was planned by Christine and her parents to take place in her hometown of Danbury, just before Christmas.  By early December, preparations were well under way.

Jolson and Cortez shared several key scenes in the picture.  When Al began giving him or orders, Ricardo became angry.  Although he would often make suggestions to directors on how he thought a role should be played, Cortez recognized producers and directors as the ultimate decision makers, and he was particularly sensitive to violations of protocol and any hint of disrespect.  He did not appreciate another actor telling him how to play his part, and became even more frustrated when director Bacon failed to intervene.

According to a bystander, Jolson and Cortez almost came to blows one day during the filming of a discordant scene between Cortez’s character, Harry and Jolson’s Al Wonder (the proprietor and star entertainer of the club).  Just before cameras rolled, Jolson requested the scene be changed.  When Cortez balked, Jolson informed him he owned a piece of the picture, which gave him a say on how all parts would be played.  A furious Cortez complied, but at the end of the tense sequence, (while in character), he blew smoke in Jolson’s face.  Bacon was delighted by the intensity of the scene, but al was incensed.  Louella Parsons was the first to break the story of “the feud” in a November column.  A subsequent Parsons’ column detailed another Cortez outburst, after he learned his young costar actor/singer Dick Powell had been given a larger portable dressing room than his.  Ricardo suspected this slight to be the work of Jolson, but his temper tantrums reflected badly on his own character and reputation, making him appear arrogant and petty.

Apparently Bacon or Wallis (or both) eventually intervened, and the open hostility between Al and Ricardo was reduced to pranks and smart alecky comments.  An article included in Warner Bros.’ promotional materials for Wonder Bar recalled the Jolson/Cortez “rivalry,” and related another entertaining incident that occurred while the two were filming a scene near the finale, after Ricardo’s character Harry is stabbed to death by his dance partner, Inez (Dolores Del Rio).  The scene required Al Wonder (Jolson) to carry Harry’s body out to a car.  According to the piece, as Al attempted to carry him across the sound stage, the 6 foot tall, 192 pound Cortez bore down hard on the 142 pound Jolson, making himself a dead weight.  Bacon required eight takes of the scene, and by the last, Jolson was on the verge of physical collapse.

Unfortunately, the “feud” was not the only problem Ricardo and the other filmmakers encountered.  Temper tantrums aside, the film featuring Berkeley’s elaborate musical numbers proved exceedingly difficult to make, and despite the expertise of Bacon, Berkeley, and company, production went over schedule.  The filming of the musical numbers were still under way throughout the holiday season, necessitating the postponement of Cortez’s wedding.  Christine and her family had spent considerable time and money planning the event, and were not pleased about the change in plans.  It was a harbinger of things to come.

The grueling production of Wonder Bar was finally completed in early January, 1934.  Like Warner Bros. other high-end musicals, the finished film was an interesting hodge-podge of music, comedy, drama, and melodrama; a marriage of the traditional with the modern, the sentimental with the sophisticated.  This particular film also married the sublime with the cringe worthy.  Among the sublime elements was a Berkeley-directed musical number combining the dramatic “Valse Amoreuse” with an original Dubin/Warren song, “Don’t Say Goodnight” sung by Dick Powell.  Berkeley pulled out all the stops to make the sequence a standout, constructing special sets made of huge octagonal mirrors and columns.  He supervised the construction of special platforms to hold overhead cameras, which tracked the action.  Utilizing over 200 dancers, the number (partially performed by Ricardo and Miss Del Rio) was both elegant and dramatic, a testimony to the choreographic and filmmaking genius of its creator, aided by an accomplished technical crew and the expertise of cinematographer Polito.

For the most part, the performances were also of a high caliber.  Jolson was at his charismatic best as Al Wonder, the host, star, and ace problem solver at the Wonder Bar.  Del Rio also had some good dramatic scenes as Inez, a woman torn between two lovers, as did Powell, who was earnestly and appealing as a nighclub singer and bandleader who pines for Inez.  Some superb comic moments were furnished by several Warner Bros.’ stalwarts, including Ruth Donnelly, Guy Kibbe, Hugh Herbert, and Louise Fazenda.  As the talented yet morally bankrupt gigolo, Harry, who continues to romance his dance partner while conducting an illicit affair with the married Liane (petulantly portrayed by Francis), Cortez excelled.  He had originally won a Hollywood movie contract partially due to his poise and ability on a dance floor, but Wonder Bar was surprisingly his first major film role as a dancer.

Sadly, all of the film’s superior elements (and its ultimate reputation) were negatively impacted by an unfortunate 13-minute musical sequence built around an original Dubin/Warren song entitled “Goin to Heaven on a Mule.”  Much has been written about the sequence through the years, and, unfortunately, most of it is true.  Although technically brilliant, and beautifully filmed, the images presented were patently racist and overwhelmingly offensive, presenting every black stereotype imaginable.  Supposedly a parody of Green Pastures, the sequence was in extremely poor taste.

Since it had nothing to do with the plot, for decades many have wondered why it was included.  Studio records do not provide a definitive answer.  Most likely Jolson and the Warner Bros. brass decided moviegoers would be disappointed if Al did not appear in one of his signature black-face numbers, and inserted the sequence.  Apparently there was an initial effort to cast black actors in the “Mule” number, but that was shot down by the studio’s business office.  In a memorandum from production head Wallis to Busby Berkeley dated January 6, 1934, Wallis said he and Jack Warner had discussed the matter with the sales office, and concluded, “There was too much sales resistance against a thing of this kind, and we have too big a property to take a gamble.  It is definitely understood that we will use white people made up through the entire number and not a single negro is to be used.”

There were protests by some organizations and citizen groups regarding the “Mule” number after the film’s release in March, 1934, but they were largely drowned out by outrage expressed by censor boards who were incensed, not by the blatant racism, but by the “immoral” activities depicted.  Several scenes were deemed inappropriate for public viewing, notably a flashy, sado-masochistic dance entitled “Tango del Rio” in which Cortez (as Harry), attired as a gaucho, whips dance partner Inez into submission.  Another, even more famous scene, which caused considerable consternation, features a couple dancing.  As they make their way around the floor, a mustachioed man asks to cut in.  When he receives a yes, instead of taking the hand of the woman, he dances away with the man prompting Jolson to mincingly exclaim “Boys will be boys.  Woooo!”  Since the film was released prior to the rigorous  enforcement of the Production Code (in the summer of 1934), the studio ignored the censors.

In spite of the controversies, or perhaps because of them, Wonder Bar was an enormous critical and popular success—one of the biggest box office this of 1934.  Everyone involved celebrated, particularly its star.  Jolson was jubilant.  On March 8, he took out a full-page ad in Variety to express his appreciation to cast and crew.  The public undoubtedly viewed Jolson’s ad as a grand gesture of magnanimity, but those who participated suspected it was an apology of sorts for his antics during the filming.  Cortez apparently accepted Jolson’s indirect apology, and subsequently appeared on his radio program.


Hollywood Citizen NewsWonder Bar is variety entertainment on the screen, more handsomely mounted than anything of its kind could be…Jolson rises to an undisputed position…Delores Del Rio is dazzlingly beautiful, and Ricardo Cortez, cast as her philandering dancing partner, does some of his best screen work…

Motion Picture Guide:  You can’t help comparing this musical to Grand Hotel, because of the number of characters, plots, and subplots…Most of the Harry Warren/Al Dubin songs are only serviceable, but push the several plots along.  One terribly tasteless production sequence has Jolson in his standard blackface singing…

Production Notes, Interesting Fact, and Trivia:

  1. Al Jolson was under great pressure to make Wonder Bar a success after his last picture, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), bombed at the box office.  Just prior to filming, columnist Dan Thomas essentially pronounced Jolson a has-been, stating, “There isn’t much doubt about the fact Al Jolson’s name means little as a screen attraction today.”
  2. Warner Bros. archival records (U.S.C.) reveal Jolson demanded and received 10% of the gross receipts from Warner Bros. to star in the picture.  It turned out to be one of the most lucrative moves of his career, as the movie was one of the top box office pictures of the year, grossing in excess of $2 million dollars.  Profits exceeded $750,000.
  3. Songwriters Harry Warren and Al Dubin composed the eight song featured in Wonder Bar, and the legendary Busby Berkeley created and directed the lavish dance numbers, utilizing 300 dancers and others in the ensembles.  A highlight of the film was “Don’t Say Goodnight,” a visually impressive song and dance number featuring the singing of Dick Powell (who played a singing bandleader), scantily clad female dancers of all shapes and sizes, and a mirrored set photographed from above, to resemble a kaleidoscope.
  4. Several newspapers articles published at the time of the movie’s release, including one in the Sheboygan Press, chronicled the many problems Berkeley encountered filming Wonder Bar’s musical numbers, including overseeing the construction of the sets, the equipment necessary to film the many overhead shots, the lighting, costumes, and actual dances.  During the filming of her tango number, Miss Del Rio became so dizzy she collapsed.  Multiple takes were necessary.
  5. The final production number, the shockingly racist, “Going to Heaven On a Mule,” featured a black-faced Jolson and Hal LeRoy, and multiple black-faced angels singing and dancing in a separate heaven which featured a pork chop orchard, a watermelon palace, and an “Uncle Tom tonight” neon sign.  Although very little criticism was leveled at the time of the premiere, in recent times, the number has been deemed so offensive it has been exorcised from some later prints.  Many stations refuse to broadcast the film because of it.
  6. Actress Merna Kennedy, who played one of the women who attempt to etice and take advantage of two middle-aged businessmen played by actors Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert, was married to choreographer, Busby Berkeley.
  7. One of the great dancing talents of his time, Hal LeRoy (1913085) had a prolific (40+ year) career in film, television, and the stage.  Some biographies of LeRoy list Wonder Bar as his feature-length film debut, while others list several other pictures as preceding it.
  8. According to a short article in the Tyrone Daily Herald, when he announced his engagement and pending nuptials to Christine Conniff Lee, Ricardo Cortez was given a pre-wedding shower on the set of Wonder Bar.  His gift from screen nemesis/erstwhile rival, Al Jolson, was a ham in black face.
  9. To meet the meticulous standards of dance director Busby Berkeley, the Los Angeles Examiner reported Cortez worked overtime on the dance routines seen in Wonder Bar.  He eventually delayed his upcoming wedding to socialite Mrs. Christine Lee in December, 1933, so he could do retakes.
  10. A New York Times piece dated October 29, 1933, noted Ann Dvorak was the original choice to play the part of Inez eventually essayed by Dolores Del Rio.
  11. The Film Daily reported Kay Francis was in, out, and back in the cast of Wonder Bar.  Warner Bros. archival records reveal when the shooting time for Mandalay was postponed, Francis was briefly replaced by Genevieve Tobin, whose name appears in the original Warner Bros. budget for the picture.  However, when Mandalay was completed just prior to the beginning of production on Wonder Bar, Miss Francis was brought back in to give the film added star power.
  12. According to a Warner Bros.’ promotional article (Warner Bros. Archives), director Lloyd Bacon filmed the stabbing scene in which Harry (played by Cortez) is killed eight times.  Bacon was dissatisfied with each of the first seven takes.
  13. Although Al Jolson was the star of Wonder Bar, the contracts of both Kay Francis and Delores Del Rio required they be billed above Jolson in all advertising.
  14. A Moorhead Daily News article stated that while finishing work on the film, Ricardo Cortez was named as one of the “23 best dressed men of the universe” by a group of tailors based in London, New York, and Hollywood.
  15. According to sources listed in the American Film Institute catalogue, Frank Borzage was the original choice to direct Wonder Bar.

The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez by Dan Van Neste, (2017)

Joining me for the evening was Ronda, David, Andrea, Rael, Sharon, Bram, Robin and Alon.


2 thoughts on “Wonder Bar (1934)

  1. Pingback: the era of pre-Code | The Vagrant Mood

  2. Pingback: Wonder Bar (1934) - Toronto Film Society

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