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Sunday, January 2, 2011

WONDER BAR (1933)

Four years after his meteoric rise & fall in early Talkies, Al Jolson returned to Warner Bros. for this all-star pic that’s basically GRAND HOTEL in a nightclub. Kay Francis, Dick Powell, Dolores Del Rio, Ricardo Cortez & a host of others are all in love with the wrong person. And tonight, something's gotta give. The script seems to go out of its way to bust the entire Production Code, as if the writers were having one last binge before the censors clamped down. Adultery, murder, homosexuality, prostitution, suicide, evidence tampering; they all get a nod & a wink. Only blackmail is frowned on. And the jaw-dropping just continues with two mighty Busby Berkeley production numbers: a typically OTT kaleidoscopic visual epic on ‘Don’t Say Goodnight,’ and a Busby Berkeley blackface bonanza, the staggeringly insensitive ‘Goin’ To Heaven On A Mule.’ An entire reel for Jolie and hundreds of blackfaced extras & chorines to land on every Politically Incorrect landmine you can imagine. Pork chops that grow on trees, a patch of possum pies, watermelons to dance with, Uncle Tom himself, and three cute-as-a-button blackface putti singing along. And, just for the sake of inconsistency, one actual six yr-old African-American girl for Al to hug and wave goodbye to. Words truly cannot describe. Then, when the ‘numbo’ is over, Al wipes off his blacking and gives up the woman he loves to a younger guy. So touching. It’s that old Lon Chaney shtick. Another guy who knew how to use makeup.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Then again, maybe Jolson knew damn well what he was up to. Look at his eyes when he’s not in blackface. They’re dead. The whole face is a death mask. Black him up and the man inside comes to life.

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