SPOTLIGHT: Flaming Pre-Code Francis (X)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the unjustly under-praised Kay Francis (1905-1968), one of the most popular Warner Brothers stars of the 1930s. Known today as “Kay Fwancis” for her distinguished speech impediment, I am of the opinion that Kay Francis is nevertheless one of the decade’s most natural and captivating leading ladies. We covered one of her little known Post-Code films, The Goose And The Gander (1935), in our series on 1935, but the only Pre-Code picture of hers that we’ve featured is the divine Trouble In Paradise (1932), which is among my favorite films. There are 11 more Pre-Code Francis pictures that I want to cover here. So far we’ve covered Guilty Hands (1931), 24 Hours (1931), Girls About Town (1931), Man Wanted (1932), Jewel Robbery (1932), One Way Passage (1932), The Keyhole (1933), Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933), and Mandalay (1934). Today…

 

Wonder Bar (1934)

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The denizens of a Parisian night club deal with murder and romance. Starring Al Jolson, Kay Francis, Dolores del Rio, Ricardo Cortez, Dick Powell, Guy Kibbee, and Ruth Connelly. Based on the play by Karl Farkas, Robert Katscher, and Geza Herczeg. Directed by Lloyd Bacon.

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“Popular Parisian nightclub the Wonder Bar is run by Al Wonder, who is also the star performer. He and his band leader Tommy are both in love with dancer Ynez, but she only has eyes for her partner, gigolo Harry. Harry, however, does not return her love and is carrying on a flirtation with Liane Renaud, the wife of a banker. Liane has given him an expensive necklace to pay for dancing lessons, which Harry intends to sell in order to finance a trip to the United States. At the Wonder Bar one evening, Liane’s husband joins her and hints that the insurance company will investigate the lost necklace. Liane asks Harry for the necklace and insists that she will leave the country with him. Harry sells the necklace to Al, who talks Liane out of leaving her husband, and returns the necklace to her. He hopes that with Harry gone, Ynez will turn to him. Meanwhile, two American couples flirt with the gigolos and gigolettes of the club. Captain Von Ferring, having lost all his money, announces that he will commit suicide that evening. When Harry tells Ynez that he is leaving without her, Ynez stabs him during their dance number. Harry dies, but Al tells Ynez that she has only wounded him. He puts the body in Von Ferring’s car and, when Von Ferring drives it over a cliff, the police think that both men were killed in the crash. During Al’s last number, Tommy convinces Ynez to come back to him. Al will not stand in their way and goes home alone at the end of the night.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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This film is remarkable for several reasons. The story, adapted from a 1930 German musical, takes place in real time — all during one evening at a nightclub. The songs are by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, best known today for 42nd Street (1933), and the numbers are choreographed by the renowned Busby Berkeley, whose style is unmistakable. But, most importantly, Wonder Bar has often been cited as one of the most rule-breaking Pre-Codes ever made. And when one sees the film in full, it is easy to see why. Sure, there’s the requisite death and infidelity, but Wonder Bar gives us moments of S&M and jokes about homosexuality. Yet, the film also takes on a Grand Hotel (1932) quality, delving deeper into dark characters, like a suicidal captain, and mining drama from their sorrows and disappointments. In fact, Wonder Bar succeeds in making all of its characters interesting, despite having decidedly less gravitas than the aforementioned MGM classic. But the quirky yet resolute smarminess elevates what is otherwise a fairly routine tale of x loves y who loves z, with a murder thrown in the mix, into a rollickingly naughty good time. It’s bizarre, it’s hot, it’s marvelous.

This film is also a treat for musical fans, as the dark story is contrasted with joyful song and dance, crafted and performed by masters. All of the tunes are hummable and Berkeley’s visuals are, as usual, striking. Of course, there has been much made about the final number, “Goin’ To Heaven On A Mule,” in which Jolson goes into his blackface and performs a number that reinforces stereotypes in a pretty offensive way. Now, as a reviewer, I usually try to look at older pieces of entertainment with eyes that allow for the emotional and idealogical views of the time in which they were produced. That is, I am usually unbothered by a film from 1934 containing elements that wouldn’t be appropriate or aesthetically appreciated today. However, the number exceeds that which even I am willing to accept. The song is great fun and Jolson really sells it, but it’s likely too much for 2015 viewers. So while the film was looked down upon for being gratuitously risqué 80 years ago, it’s lack of favor today (compared to that of, say, 42nd Street), is likely due to its insensitivity. And while it’s unfortunate, I completely understand.

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That being said, there’s plenty here to appreciate. In addition to the snappy script and gorgeous score, all of the headlining stars give impressive performances. Kay Francis, our spotlighted leading lady, is glamorous and as effective as ever as a disenchanted wife of a banker, clinging to a fling with dancer. But she sort of takes a back seat, like she did to Miriam Hopkins in 24 Hours (1931), to Dolores del Rio, who happily plays the plot’s merry murderess. In fact, del Rio gives perhaps the sexiest and most layered performance of her career. But I was most impressed by Al Jolson, whose “acting” style is usually associated with an obnoxious and exaggerated need to be loved, lacking subtlety and anything resembling honesty. But he’s toned himself down quite considerably, and though far from being considered the film’s greatest actor, is perfect for his role as emcee and entertainer — a part of the action, of course, but also a spectator. Surprisingly, he’s the audience’s access to the goings on in his Parisian nightclub, and he imbues the film with its offbeat sensuality. And, thus, his presence in Wonder Bar is invaluable, making it a picture that I recommend most highly.

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Come back next Friday for another Francis Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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