sovay: (Morell: quizzical)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2017-01-10 04:59 am
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Mammy waits at those pearly gates

Tonight I saw Lloyd Bacon's Wonder Bar (1934) at the Harvard Film Archive. I have no idea how to talk about this movie. I must have spent an hour in the basement of the Harvard Book Store post-morteming it with [ profile] ladymondegreen who had watched it on DVD at home, being unable to attend in person due to family obligations,1 and I still have no idea. It's not that it's difficult to describe; the technicalities of the plot are complicated, but no more so than the similarly interwoven Grand Hotel (1932). It has pre-Code content coming out its ears, but that's nothing new around here. The introductory speaker pointed out that all of the elements which made Wonder Bar so controversial and censor-baiting on its release in March of 1934—the breezily amoral treatments of adultery, murder, and suicide, plus a rather lovely moment with two queer men who are not a pansy joke—barely raise an eyebrow with a modern audience, who instead have heart attacks from the element viewed at the time as a beloved, wholesome American art form; that would be the blackface. About fifteen minutes of it, staged and filmed elaborately as any other musical number by Busby Berkeley, densely packed with clever sight gags and, yes, giant fruit. It is skull-spinningly racist. I think it may have been intended as some kind of tribute. I have no idea how to talk about this movie.

I might have been better prepared for it if I had ever seen Al Jolson before, but I hadn't—I've seen Overture to Glory (דער ווילנער שטאט חזן/The Vilna City Cantor, 1940) with Moishe Oysher, but not The Jazz Singer (1927). I had somewhat studiously avoided ever even listening to "My Mammy." So I can't tell if Al Wonder, owner and emcee of the Wonder Bar in Paris, a decadent nightspot that flashes its name in three different alphabets of neon and attracts a clientele from expatriate White Russians to good-time American businessmen to high-rolling German officers, is a good representation of Jolson's star persona. "Manic" is one word you could use to describe it. "Proto-Borscht Belt" is another. At different points he reminded me of Groucho Marx, Danny Kaye, and the Emcee from Cabaret. The character is a quick-change tummler, bouncing from persona to persona with each new routine, a fast deadpan crack out of the side of his mouth or a dialect shaggy dog story that tops off in a performance of "Ochi Chornya" so spreadingly schmaltzy, I thought I could hear Kaye starting to sneeze and Tom Lehrer starting to never forget something about Lobachevsky; he moves so fast that it's impossible to tell what's underneath the patter and the punch lines, leaving open the possibility that the answer is nothing. According to the plot, he's in love with specialty dancer Dolores del Río, but she, despite past history with torch-carrying bandleader Dick Powell, is self-abasingly obsessed with her dancing partner Ricardo Cortez, who is smarmily romancing married Kay Francis and planning to skip town later that night with the profits from her diamond necklace, whose supposed loss is sufficiently high-profile to have triggered a call from a pair of insurance investigators to her banker husband Henry Kolker, who happens to be a friend of Jolson's and a big patron of the Wonder Bar. A sloshily peripatetic Hugh Herbert and Guy Kibbee keep trying to pick up a pair of garter-tossing bar girls while their reproving wives Louise Fazenda and Ruth Donnelly set their sights on a gigolo with a pocketful of visiting cards, each printed with a compliment appropriate to a different kind of woman (the one he eventually hands over to the Schenectady matron claims that she reminds him of his mother). Robert Barrat withdraws his last funds from the bank, set his monocle at an angle to match his dueling scar, and strides off backstage to divest himself of all his worldly possessions to the delight of the bare-legged chorus girls. Jolson's Wonder is in near-constant motion throughout, greeting his patrons in four languages, covering for the late entrance of the dancers with the tongue-twister "Vive la France" ("Frenchmen are gallant, the women can't resist them / Frenchmen have talent—you ought to try their system"), and darting in and out of dressing rooms in order to keep track of the plot, which is more than the audience can hope for. He's definitely some kind of trickster, but not necessarily the nice kind—he resolves an inconvenient murder by stashing the body in the trunk of a suicidal patron's car and simply not standing in the way of the owner when he peels out for his fatal rendezvous with a cliff. How pre-Code is this movie? That's the happy ending, it's that pre-Code. Jolson doesn't get the girl, of course, but maybe she dodged a bullet going home with Dick Powell instead of Comus.

The thing is, when Jolson's in mile-a-minute trickster mode, he is actually not repellent to me. "Vive la France" was recorded live on set because Jolson said he couldn't do it to playback—so the house band at the Wonder Bar is the actual Warners studio orchestra—and I think he was right. It's a live wire of a number, maybe a minute and a half tops of innuendo and nonsense and the obligatory "Fifty Million Frenchmen" reference and it blasts past on the high-octane excitement of a performer throwing themselves a hundred and ten percent into a song and at least looking like they are enjoying the hell out of it. Not all of his emcee's punch lines landed for me, but the exchange about the giraffe is so absurd it hasn't dated at all. The aforementioned queer moment depends on switched expectations, but not on stereotypes—"Boys will be boys," Wonder whistles after a handsome young man politely asks to cut in on an equally attractive couple and then waltzes off with the smiling man rather than the expectant woman (she shrugs and wanders off into the crowd). We just start to run into problems when we hit the art form he was famous for. From the original trailer, capitalization not mine—

"Going To Heaven On A Mule" is a musical creation so startlingly different
that to show you ONE SINGLE FLASH of its 42 unforgettable scenes
. . . would rob you of the greatest thrill you've ever had in a theatre

DU MUẞT CALIGARI WERDEN I GET IT OKAY. Look, whoever put together that trailer for Warner Bros. was quite right that Wonder Bar's big closing number resembled nothing I had ever seen before in my life and that I would never forget the experience. It's just not going to be for lack of trying. I literally ended up making bibble-bibble-bibble noises at [ profile] derspatchel while attempting to convey something of the effect of Berkeley's conception of an all-black heaven, into which a blacked-up Jolson in raggedy overalls and a frazzled straw hat rides his literal mule direct from the plantation by way of a rather attractive Bifrost bridge that deserved to lead into a legitimate Art Deco Valhalla rather than a tinsel-winged parody of Harlem where pork chops grow on trees and chickens are flash-fried at a wish. A full-length portrait of Abraham Lincoln hangs in the receiving room where Jolson is fitted for his robe and his wings, because Emancipation is funny. God forbid we should save on shoe polish and cast some actual black people in this number, so Saint Peter and the Angel Gabriel make their appearances in blackface while among the white clouds and little burnt-cork cherubs can be glimpsed such sages of minstrelsy as Old Black Joe and Uncle Tom. Jolson will later win the epaulettes off Emperor Jones in a game of craps, which in heaven can be played all day without danger of gainful employment interfering. You lose your wings and get the express chute to hell if you pass bum liquor to Peter, though. Typing all of this out isn't helping. I don't even feel sociologically qualified to unpack the moment in which, having his shoes shined at the bustling intersection of Lenox Avenue and the Milky Way, Jolson's new-minted angel flips up his newspaper and grins at the audience over the Yiddish-language front page of the The Garden of Eden Star—דער גן עדן שטערין. I am normally all about Busby Berkeley and giant fruit, but at the point where blacked-up Hal Le Roy emerged from within giant slices of watermelon for a white-grinning, jitter-legged tap dance, I started to pray for Carmen Miranda to descend from the Technicolor Olympos of people who are least in on their own jokes and just squash him with a Terry Gilliam-sized banana or something. It improves nothing that on top of the inherent screaming racism which all the inventive little details of this chocolate-colored heaven only emphasize, blackface has, for me, the uncanny valley quality that many people seem to associate with clown makeup—nobody's lips look like that. Nobody's eyes look like that. I don't care that we're on monochrome film stock, people aren't that color. An entire screenful of this sort of thing turns into nightmare fuel after a while, e.g., two seconds. The occasional sighting of an actual, un-painted, I wish to God I thought they'd gotten hazard pay for it black chorus member just makes it worse. I keep asking myself how this happened and I know how it happened: blackface was Jolson's thing and Berkeley spun his usual surrealism on it and the combined results are a live-action cartoon of the kind Disney is currently attempting to make everyone forget ever graced its vaults. Coming home and reading that Jolson's offstage interactions with black artists and entertainers were reliably, progressively friendly and supportive still doesn't incline me to a rewatch. At least I guess it answers the question of whether I want to seek out any more of Jolson's movies, except maybe The Jazz Singer eventually for its historical importance and Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! (1933) somewhat sooner for Harry Langdon.

The other Berkeley-staged number in the film is full of domino masks and mirrors and trees shedding silver foil in an endlessly reflective autumn or spring and it's actually quite nice, with a kind of carnival Cinderella motif to accompany the song "Don't Say Goodnight," but "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule" goes on for so long and is placed so close to the end of the movie—thankfully we get out of it before the credits, which cannot be said of many musicals Berkeley worked on—that it ends up leaving the dominant impression, along with the part where Al Wonder cheerfully exploits a dude's suicidal depression to get his love object out of trouble. It's a very considerate movie that way. If the extended blackface didn't bounce your brain off the inside of your forehead, you'll still get tonal whiplash on the way out. I should mention here that it independently confuses me that the story is taking place in Paris, if for no other reason than that a nightclub named "Wonder Bar" should by all rights have existed in Weimar Berlin, but I expect that impression was partly formed by the HFA's print coming from Gosfilmofond by way of German elements, meaning that all onscreen writing was in either German or French and random reels had German subtitles stuck to the bottom of the screen. Seriously, the more I think about this, the more I kind of want the crossover with the Kit Kat Klub, only not, because Cabaret has got sufficient Nazis that it doesn't need blackface. I don't know what else I can say. I regret nothing about the experience of watching Wonder Bar because it happened in pre-Code Hollywood, for better and for worse, but eighty percent Menschen im Hotel and twenty percent Tambo and Bones is not my ideal ratio of entertainment. This artifact brought to you by my better-educated backers at Patreon.

1. Through pure coincidence of the kind that frequently attends interaction with Lady Mondegreen, on my way out the door to Harvard Square I discovered a package which turned out to be the copy she had sent me of Derek Sculthorpe's Van Heflin: A Life in Film (2016). On reading that Heflin ran away to sea at age fourteen (taking a camera on all his voyages so that he could take snapshots for his grandmother in southern California; she tracked his progress on her atlas) and loved the writing of Joseph Conrad, I realized instantly that the alternate universe which contains Wuthering Heights with Robert Newton and all those other contrafactual movies of my heart would have had the good sense to cast Van Heflin in a screen version of Lord Jim: I'm sure I'd have facepalmed my way through its Southeast Asian setting as hard as I did through the New Zealand of Green Dolphin Street (1947), but damn would he have knocked the character out of the park. I might even have preferred him to Peter O'Toole.
rydra_wong: Lee Miller photo showing two women wearing metal fire masks in England during WWII. (Default)

[personal profile] rydra_wong 2017-01-10 10:47 am (UTC)(link)
I have not been brave enough to watch this film yet because of, well, the obvious. I suspect it would hurt my brain.

Thank you for throwing yourself on the grenade, so to speak.

blackface has, for me, the uncanny valley quality that many people seem to associate with clown makeup—nobody's lips look like that. Nobody's eyes look like that. I don't care that we're on monochrome film stock, people aren't that color.

One of the weird things about blackface in the minstrel tradition is that it seems as if it was never meant to be naturalistic or convincing, though -- something like the opposite.

Which is why you have the thing of African-American perfomers blacking up in order to be accepted in vaudeville; actually being black was not enough and not the point, and even created extra pressure to black up (in order to ensure that your blackness was safely within quotation marks of some kind, if I may hypothesize).

if for no other reason than that a nightclub named "Wonder Bar" should by all rights have existed in Weimar Berlin

Edited 2017-01-10 10:49 (UTC)
rydra_wong: Lee Miller photo showing two women wearing metal fire masks in England during WWII. (Default)

[personal profile] rydra_wong 2017-01-10 01:21 pm (UTC)(link)
Knowing that blackface as a performance tradition was not intended to pass for actual blackness doesn't stop my brain from processing it as a sheer wall of AAAAAAAAAAAAAH, though!

Agreed. If anything, it adds a level of fucked-up/WTF. OTOH, I found it a little helpful to know that at least they didn't think that this is what people actually looked like, and the uncanny-valley-ness is (for whatever fucked-up reason), the desired result.
Edited 2017-01-10 13:22 (UTC)
moon_custafer: (Default)

[personal profile] moon_custafer 2017-01-10 01:40 pm (UTC)(link)
'The Playhouse' includes a group of minstrels as part of the opening dream sequence in which all the performers and the entire audience of a small vaudeville theatre are played by Buster Keaton. Though still not comfortable to watch, it's interesting to see that the extreme makeup was worn by the two comics, while the musicians only had their faces darkened a bit. I'm guessing this was the usual convention when Busby Berkeley was not involved. Even the in stills I've seen from Bert Williams' 'Lime Kiln Field Day,' in which all the actors really are African-American, he, as the comedy lead, is in a more subdued version of his vaudeville stage makeup while everyone else looks normal.
Edited 2017-01-10 13:41 (UTC)
moon_custafer: (Default)

[personal profile] moon_custafer 2017-01-10 01:30 pm (UTC)(link)
Maybe Wonder and his club are supposed to have decamped from Berlin? Not far enough, but he wouldn't have known that yet; and he does sound like someone who might manage to pull off the escape twice.

[identity profile] 2017-01-10 12:54 pm (UTC)(link)

That sounds utterly amazing in the bad way; you write very well about trying to process it. See under: "Jesus, the things we all apparently used to think were totally okay, Part Eleventy-Hundred."

[identity profile] 2017-01-10 01:58 pm (UTC)(link)
Well, the things those of who were white used to think were ok.

[identity profile] 2017-01-10 02:22 pm (UTC)(link)
Noted, and of course correct.

[identity profile] 2017-01-10 01:48 pm (UTC)(link)
Whoa. At least there were no Nazis in blackface?

[identity profile] 2017-01-10 01:56 pm (UTC)(link)
So I found Goin' to Heaven on a Mule online and watched it because I like to know the worst-

"Startlingly different" and "unforgettable"- yes, that'll do to be going on with.

But oddly cheap-looking. Everything made of cardboard and silver foil.

[identity profile] 2017-01-10 05:44 pm (UTC)(link)
That sounds amazingly WTF. Did the rest of the audience just sit there in appalled, embarrassed silence, or what?

[identity profile] 2017-01-10 09:26 pm (UTC)(link)
I am right now stifling inappropriate laughter at "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule" but I bet if I actually had to see it I too would be sitting in silent horror.
gwynnega: (Barry Ryan)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2017-01-10 10:22 pm (UTC)(link)
Wow. I'm picturing the movie theater audience's expressions during the blackface number as something like the open-mouthed aghast audience during "Springtime for Hitler" in The Producers.

[identity profile] 2017-01-11 09:05 am (UTC)(link)
Fascinating (as well as staggeringly bad in terms of giant watermelons and pork-chop trees). I'm glad to know, now, thanks to this, about Bert Williams ( I wish there'd been a happier ending to his story. (On the other hand, it's good to hear about W. C. Fields evidently going in to bat for him.)

[identity profile] 2017-01-14 04:55 am (UTC)(link)

It's taken me this long to read this. You do a great job, but man, the material. That film can be exhibit a in a display of examples of casual, institutionalized racism. (... I mean, maybe you can't call a dance number or a film "casual" because they take a lot of time and money to execute, but the breeziness with which the society can mock and belittle... yeah. It hurts)