Saturday, July 25, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Wonder Bar (1934) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Busby Berkeley meets pre-Code melodrama in WONDER BAR (1934), available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

The entire 84-minute film is set in the Wonder Bar in Paris, owned and hosted by Al Wonder (Al Jolson).

The movie is sort of a musical GRAND HOTEL with a terrific cast of stars. Inez (Dolores Del Rio), half of the Wonder Bar's star dance team, loves her partner Harry (Ricardo Cortez), but he's a snake who's planning to run away to America with Liane (Kay Francis)...who is married to wealthy Renaud (Henry Kolker). Liane desperately needs to retrieve some jewelry she'd given Harry before her suspicious husband realizes she didn't lose it, as she'd claimed.

Meanwhile, Al and bandleader/singer Tommy (Dick Powell) both pine for lovelorn Inez.

Comedy bits with a pair of Americans (Guy Kibbee and Hugh Hubert) and their wives (Ruth Donnelly and Louise Fazenda) provide brief moments of levity, especially when uptight Mrs. Pratt (Fazenda) unbends to flirt with a gigolo (Bill Elliott, not yet known as "Wild Bill").

Director Lloyd Bacon keeps everything moving along at a good clip, with the melodrama, comedy, and musical numbers evenly balanced.

The film, photographed by Sol Polito, is a visual stunner, from Berkeley's massive production number with mirrors to the Art Deco set design to the women's gowns.

The establishing shots of the Wonder Bar sign were so gloriously beautiful that I actually rewound for a few seconds just so I could take it in a second time!

Last weekend I saw Kimberly Truhler's online presentation The Style of Sin: Kay Francis and especially enjoyed taking some good looks at Francis's amazing white gown by Orry-Kelly, with its plunging neckline on both the front and back of the dress.

Thanks to her role as a nightclub performer, Del Rio gets more costume changes, and they look terrific as well, though I felt they were overshadowed by the Francis gown.

The Busby Berkeley number with the mirrors, which features dancer Hal Le Roy, is a typically inventive Berkeley routine, filled with fascinating geometric designs and "How did they do that?" moments which could never actually be staged or appreciated in the movie's actual nightclub...but I'm glad the filmmakers didn't worry about such things or we would have been robbed of seeing some remarkable musical sequences.

A Jolson blackface number is far less appealing. Besides the discomfort the routine may cause a modern viewer, I simply didn't care for the "heavenly" theme and didn't find it as creative as the film's earlier big Berkeley production. And in any event, a little Al Jolson goes a very long way for me.  That said, it's interesting to note that his very first number in the film was performed live, with the studio orchestra playing on set as the nightclub orchestra.

This film could easily have been included in one of the Archive's later Forbidden Hollywood collections, as several things flag it as "pre-Code," beginning with a man cutting into a dance...and dancing off with the man, rather than the woman. A dance number with Cortez repeatedly whipping Del Rio is startling, to say the least, and the neat resolution of a murder, with the perpetrator living happily ever after, is yet another clear indicator that we're in the pre-Code era.

The supporting cast includes Henry O'Neill as the Wonder Bar's loyal, capable maitre'd and Robert Barrat as a suicidal patron. Fifi D'Orsay, Merna Kennedy, and Spencer Charters round out the cast. Dennis O'Keefe is said by IMDb to be in the chorus but I didn't spot him.

This was one of the Warner Archive's earliest releases, from its first year in business back in 2009. Like some of the other early releases, its original plain blue cover has been upgraded to a much more attractive design based on the movie poster.

The print and sound are quite good, which is probably why it was chosen as one of the line's early releases. The disc includes the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger Lee R said...

I've been a fan of Jolson since the '70's, but I was and am a fan of Jolson's latter day singing in the '40's. As my first experience was when I heard his Kraft Music Hall shows. Later in the era of videotapes I did see Jolson's early movies. Most of them were less than exciting and a bit of a disappointment. I think they were just way too dated for me to enjoy. The blackface numbers don't bother me at all in fact they're a lot of fun as I'm happy not to be politically correct but Al's early acting or over-acting leaves a bit to be desired.

However, there were some great Al Jolson movies, my favorite being "The Singing Kid" from 1936, I believe. The older Al got the better he got in movies (and singing for that matter). Al is tremendous in The Singing Kid, he really puts it all into singing some of his greatest hits in this movie and as I recall Edward Everett Horton is also very funny in it. The highlight of the movie is Al singing "I Like To Singa" with an Art Deco set and as he sings people around the city neighborhood either dance along or join in or something. It's been so long since I've seen it I don't remember exactly but it was eye-popping.

This is also the inspiration for the classic early color cartoon "I Like To Singa" a really amusing toon with the kid in the toon supposed to be like Jolson. If you've never seen The Singing Kid or this toon, you must. Years ago I bought the laser disc set of Warner Jolson movies and this toon was included. Watch The Singing Kid & your Jolson opinion will change. Try to ignore the early movies though. Just a warning.

6:07 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lee, I appreciated hearing from a Jolson fan, especially as I don't know a great deal about his work.

Best wishes,

8:52 PM  

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