Al Jolson … Al Wonder
Kay Francis … Liane
Dolores del Rio … 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
Produced by Robert Lord.
Directed by Lloyd Bacon.
Based on the Play by Karl Farkas, Robert Katscher & Geza Herczeg.
Screenplay by Earl Baldwin.
Songs by Harry Warren & Al Dubin.
Musical Direction by Leo F. Forbstein.
Musical Numbers Created by Busby Berkeley.
Camera by Sol Polito.
Editing by George Amy.
Art Direction by Jack Okey & William Pogany.
Gowns by Orry-Kelly.
Still Photography by B. Longsworth.
Released February 28, 1943.
A Warner Bros. Picture.
Note: Kay Francis was top-billed on nearly all movie posters and advertisements, but received second billing to Jolson in the film, an attempt from Warner Bros. to revive his faded career. Kay was not happy about being used to promote him and another faded icon, Dolores Del Rio. She later said:
“Frankly, I did not want to take part in that picture. I made no secret of my dissatisfaction with my role. It was a small, inconsequential part, and I believe (and I still believe) that I should not have been forced, by my contract, to play it.” ‘Spiking the Rumors,’ article written by James M. Fidler for Silver Screen, August 1934.
Honestly, I had avoided watching Wonder Bar for many years. As a Kay Francis fan, I didn’t see any importance in watching this movie, because I was under the impression that, since her role was tiny, I didn’t have much to witness here. I think I was wrong. Aside from all of Wonder Bar’s notorious flaws (I’ll elaborate later on), the film actually does hold up as interesting entertainment some 80-plus years later.
The main attraction of the film is Al Jolson as Al Wonder, the owner of the Paris nightclub in which the majority of the movie takes place. (There are a few additional outside scenes in the very beginning of the movie, but, after the first five minutes or so, the rest of the film, including the final scenes, take place at the club.) Ricardo Cortez and Dolores Del Rio, as Harry & Inez, are the main attractions. Dick Powell has VERY limited camera time in which he is not singing. We see him early in the film, working on a song for Inez, and a few love scenes with her. Once the night gets rolling, he’s basically positioned on the stage singing throughout the entire movie.
One can see why he was so infuriated with this production.
Starting off the actual plot is a missing necklace. Liane, played by Kay Francis, has given it to Harry to pay for “dancing lessons”—which we come to realize is a code word for a love affair they’ve been having behind her husband’s back. Kay’s husband, played by Henry Kolker (again), doesn’t want to believe his wife is straying. The basis of this plot is chasing something that isn’t achievable. Inez loves Harry. Harry loves Liane (or her money). Al AND Tommy (Dick Powell) are in love with Inez.
It’s a bizarre situation that unfolds surprisingly well over the course of one night at the Wonder Bar.
The first major musical number, “When This Lovely Dance is Over,” is stunning; though completely unreal for a Paris nightclub. Filled with hundreds of dancers and a massive set of rotating dance floors and moving columns, it was a standard, over-the-top Busby Berkeley achievement through camera tricks and oddly positioned angles. It takes place in-between a dance performed by Harry and Inez. (A stand-in was used at least for Del Rio, I couldn’t tell if that was Cortez or not.)
Drama begins to unfold. We have a man who wants to commit suicide (apparently just sitting at a bar is a great place to slit your wrist). Inez stabs Harry when she learns he wants to leave her for Liane. Liane is busted by Al trying to leave the country with Harry. Liane’s necklace gets returned to her by Al when he purchases it from Harry just to humiliate her; to make her feel so stupid for leaving her devoted husband for a sleazy user like Harry. Harry’s body is disposed of with that suicidal man who Al convinces to take Harry’s car and have a fatal automobile accident with (like an autopsy wouldn’t reveal a stab wound?). Very odd…
It’s more interesting on film than summarized in written from. There’s a lot of great humor from two older couples played by Guy Kibbee & Ruth Donnelly and Hugh Herbert & Louise Fazenda. They play American tourists in Paris. The husbands want to ditch their wives for other women, and the women want to ditch their husbands for other men. It’s done with surprisingly good, humorous taste for such a deliciously trashy film.
The final musical number, “Going to Heaven on a Mule,” is indescribable. Not only because of the overtly racist surface of a musical blackface number, but the overall production of it is just…bizarre.
In regards to performances. Al Jolson is, as described by other writers, an acquired taste. He was very famous for his blackface numbers in many of his films, beginning with The Jazz Singer (1927). By the time Wonder Bar went into production, he needed a hit; his career was on the downside. Warner Bros. picked their top talent and positioned them around him like props to draw in moviegoers. As a result, all but Del Rio were furious with him. Still, Jolson is interesting to watch; he’s not nearly as obnoxious as he appears to be on the surface.
Del Rio, whose career was also fading fast at the time, gets the second-most amount of attention from the camera. It can be said subtly was not one of her strongpoints…
Ricardo Cortez is deliciously sleazy in this one. It’s clear by this point he’d given up any attempts for audience sympathy. But, strangely, he did win my favor of “I hate him so much I really like him.” He’s just so good at playing “scoundrels” (what they referred to those types back then), it’s hard not to like him for it.
Poor Dick Powell doesn’t stand a chance. He gets buried in the film, but at least gets Del Rio at the end of the picture. But it’s Kay Francis who has the best part. She is a cold one here. Do not expect anything of the typical charming ‘Kay Francis at Warner Bros.’ actress you’re most familiar with. She is just as icy, vicious, and selfish as she was in her vamp days at Paramount. I love when Al finds her in Harry’s car, and she just cuts him off with “I beg your pardon?” She says it with so must disgust towards him, I had to rewind and watch it again.
She was great in this one, and really makes the film worthwhile for today’s audiences. While her role is small, she’s seen throughout the movie here and there, so you don’t forget about her.
Just expect this film to be in the “so bad it’s good” category.
By Mordaunt Hall. Published March 1, 1934 in the New York Times.
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” 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.