Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1967

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Blackened Face of the Glory-Bound Golem: WONDER BAR (1934)


Playing like a midnight car accident between the Warner's Gold Digger series and a sleazy Dostoevsky-ish existential comedy, Wonder Bar was one of the last films to sneak by the Joe Breen production code jackboots and it all but dares the censors to cross the line backwards in pursuit like a bunch of ball-snipping nihilists after the Dude. Occurring almost in real time over one evening at the titular Parisian nightspot owned and emceed by Al Wonder (Al Jolson), the movie aims for a 'cavalcade of stars playing an array of types at a fancy hotel or night club' ala Grand Hotel, or Paramount's  International House, but studded with Busby Berkeley-directed dance numbers and one spectacularly offensive cavalcade of black stereotypes; meanwhile, off stage, there are murders that go unpunished, suicides left to happen without interference, extramarital trysts, and even homosexuality. If there's no autogyro to lift you off the roof to escape this madness, well, just walk home as innocuously as you can. It's Paris, after all, everything is permitted, and Nazism is in der Winde!

There are several interwoven stories and emotions too strange not to unweave and examine separately:

1. The chilling exhilaration of the Russian gambler who lost his fortune gambling the night before, so he's going to kill himself tonight. Clearly hoping someone will talk him out of it since he can't shut up about the ways he might do it, his merriment in the face of being broke nonetheless recalls Dostoevsky's famous line, "a real gentleman, even if he loses everything he owns, must show no emotion." As he gives away his watch and remaining rubles to the scantily-clad chorus girls, they don't seem too troubled about his suicide threats (if they took him seriously they might have to give his stuff back).

2. The love quintanglement between the stars of the show-within-a-show: the ballroom dancing couple of 'the Gigolo' (this is how Jolson introduces him, as if there's one in every bar) played by Ricardo Cortez and his partner, played by Dolores Del Rio, and a whole slew of their former lovers, past, present, and future: rich married woman Kay Francis is after Cortez; Dick Powell and Jolson are both into Del Rio (Powell 'knew' her first), but she is way to obsessive over Cortez. The way these people crawl and scrape shamelessly after each other is a little worrisome, and Jolson's level of bootlick self-pity is way too adult for the code to come. 


3.  Gold Digger regulars Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert as randy old duffers trying to score on the sly with two party girls, but their matronly spouses are in tow ("There out to be a law against bringing your wife to Paris," laments Guy). But the ladies too find their matches in younger, jewelry-hungry gigolos in the dreariest, stalest sub-plot of the evening. There's some amusingly smashed interplay of old pros Kibbee and Herbert, though.

4. Busby Berkeley's usually dazzling choreography seems somewhat flea-bitten this go-round, forced to rely heavily on angled mirrors and a spinning circular stage to create most of the effects. There's also whips, knives, and double entendres but what lingers most is how Berkeley brings us to the edge of anthropomorphism and its inverse - our eye is continually shifting from seeing his overhead patterns first as people and then as abstract patterns, then back again, in a way that's truly relevant to the film's uneasy sense of self-loathing and alienation. The cast's freaky 'otherness' is played up even as they are meant to be identifiable as certain types: the foolish rich wife, the Mexican firebrand, the hicks from Indiana, etc. There's no sense of connection or belonging here, just humanity slipping in and out abstraction.

5.  Al Jolson singing "Going to Heaven on Mule," in blackface.
Yikes, here we go...


Grinning and strutting like a spastic jackanapes through these offensive stereotype settings, cavorting and twisting his blackened face into hideous leering grimaces, Jolson is truly a sight to see. Meant as  kind of homage-satire of the then-popular stage play, Green Pastures, one "wonders" how Jolson was ever popular, though he does grow on you in a train wreck kind of way, and not least because this kind of thing is just not something we usually see anymore. Seeing this number for the first time is like overturning a rock at the Museum of Radio and Television and finding a whole new species of subhuman waiting below.

Notes the Museum of Family History site:
Back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, actors performing in blackface were more accepted by the general public, though Jolson was the first comedian to use blackface. He did this with a great deal of energy and spirit; he felt freer and more spontaneous behind the burnt cork than he ever did in 'whiteface.' As time went on, though others may have used burnt cork, it was obvious that no one could do blackface like Jolson.
In his book Dangerous Men, Mick LaSalle describes Jolson as the troll king of early sound film, the golem who segued between the handsome, effeminate lovers and lovesick circus freaks of Lon Chaney-Tod Browning silents and the fast-talking toughs of the gangster boom. Jolson was neither lover, not deformed freak, nor tough guy; he was insecure and caught in a narcissistic downward spiral through the early Vitaphone crackle-and-hiss, as if being the first person to speak and sing on film had left him permanently self-conscious yet tickled to a childlike fit of jouissance over the attention: "In film after film, Jolson not only watches himself, he watches you watch him," notes LaSalle. He's a "borscht belt Pagliachi... a monster as masochistic as Chaney, but needier, most self-pitying, and, of course, louder." (18-19)


Now there are some who think two wrongs don't make a right, but this ground zero of racism has a train-wreck pull for others, such as myself. Does it help that Jolson was a big supporter of black entertainers and possibly felt a kinship with oppressed African Americans? A Jew who played up his own Jewishness, Jolson had to struggle with stereotypes himself, and both black and Jews had to constantly depict themselves as humble, decent, and naive to avoid racist ire. As if cementing the similarity, behold the above picture: the archaic Yiddish characters on the newspaper providing an under-halo to the sunrise of loose straw from his hat, Jolson comes off as a blackface golem from an alternate dimension, beamed here through a stray TV signal from outside time and space. The Green Pastures satire aspect is eerily soothing in this bizarro world context: the opiate promise of heading into the sunshine of eternal glory (on a mule!) just like the code had planned for us immediately following this last moment of a wanderin' in the Valley of the Shadow of Amorality and Death.

 Here's Jolson fan Glenn Kenny on the many questions surrounding Jolson's 'right' to blacken up:
"The salient feature of the film, finally, is its ultimate musical number, the notorious "Going To Heaven On A Mule." A few scenes prior to this, the heady ethnic stew from which Jolson concocted his varied performing personae is underscored in a bit where he exchanged patter with "Russian count" Michael Dalmatoff before launching into a quite credible (that is, suitably schmaltzy) rendition of "Ochi chyornye" ("Dark Eyes"). For "Mule," Jolson's in full blackface, with overalls and a straw hat, talking to his little girl (a white child, also in blackface) of his dying intentions. What follows is a thoroughly outrageous parade of racial stereotypes and caricatures of the afterlife—an orchard from which pork chops hang from trees! giant watermelons! non-stop crap games! in all-singing, all-dancing glory, accompanied by one of Harry Warren's least infectious tunes... But in a way, the hands-down most bizarre image of the entire sequence is a weird double-joke on ethnic identity, which see's Jolson's blackfaced share-cropper getting a shoe-shine while engrossed in the Hebrew-language newspaper The Forward."
One of the comments on the post, from 'Karen':
"And the part of the film that has always horrified me the most is just what you've emphasized: the moment that Jolson's grinning face rises over the edge of The Forvert, like the White Queen's face rising up nightmarishly over the edge of the soup tureen in the closing chapters of Alice Through the Looking Glass. Perhaps it's because I'm a Jew myself--or maybe just because I'm a human being--his expression of knowing exemption is about as heinous as it gets. As far as blackface goes, it's well-nigh impossible for a 21st-century viewer to have an adequate grasp of how objectionable it may or may not have been at the time, but that grin while reading the Yiddish news, putting paid to any sense of homage to the race he's aping, just seems like it could never have been anything but vile."
I like her comparison to the White Queen, yet Karen scratches out any notion of context, noting that the 'grin' puts paid to anything but vileness. She's right that we'll never have an adequate grasp of objections from the actual period, but perhaps we can glean a rough idea from the post-WWI, pre-WWII Parisian setting.

As we know, Paris became home to many American expat black jazz musicians after the war, for a very good reason: no Jim Crow laws, or other humiliations (like not even being allowed to sit with the white folks at the Cotton Club). And yet (or maybe because of the lack of institutional  racism) the spectacle of blackness, of difference, seemed heightened for an avant garde shock value in many Parisian stage productions. The 'jungle music' aspect of, say, Duke Ellington, was played up in posters and set decor, the exotica of Josephine Baker (left) made her a huge star.

And the connection between Jews and black musicians had always been vibrant and reciprocal. During the Nazi occupation 'Zionists' were suspected of underwriting jazz's hypnotic rhythms, as Screen Deco's Mathew C. Hoffman notes:
Jolson was a Russian Jew and knew something about discrimination and could draw a parallel between the suffering of blacks and his own people. He grew up in the minstrel tradition of vaudeville and used his blackface as a way of bringing black music to white audiences. It was also a way for him to immerse himself in the characterization. It’s been said Jolson used the technique as a metaphor for human suffering.

In an excellent From the Barrelhouse piece on Django Reinhardt comes this excerpt from a tract on 'Nazifying Jazz' -
“Strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit – so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc – as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl – so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.”               -- Step 5 in Nazifing Jazz, as recalled in Josef Skvorecky’s Bass Saxophone
None of this forgives the litany of stereotypes, even to me who grew up gazing with a five year-old's pre-racial mistrust at the cover Little Black Sambo (on thick 78s I inherited from a relative) and watching blackface cartoons like Coal Black and the Sebbin Dwarfs on local television, even seeing Song of the South in the theater, and never thinking anything was wrong about it except that it was boring as fuck and I wanted to get on to Treasure of the Matacumbe, which came on after Song in a 1976 double feature revival, though that sucked too. I ended up throwing up, for some reason, in the lobby, while my mom and an usher hovered over me in deep concern.

Perhaps abjectification precedes awareness, but it forgives nothing. More than anything now, minstrelry is our shame, not Jolson's or anyone else's, but an example of the White-Christian compulsion to smite or mock all difference, a need still prevalent underneath the skin of so much news channel rhetoric. And yet, at the same time... exaggeration and performed accentuation of difference is sometimes the gateway to tolerance.


Speaking of difference, a few words on the seemingly altered face of Dolores Del Rio (above) as the dancer who has Jolson and Dick Powell mooning over her, but who loves only disinterested gigolo Ricardo Cortez. I know she's beautiful or whatever but her face creeps me out. The sunken skull eyes, tiny bump of a nose (screaming nose job), razor cheekbones, etc. She's like death incarnate... at least in this film. When the blunt cops in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL use the vile phrase 'cut' to describe plastic surgery (Kim Basinger plays a girl "cut to look like Veronica Lake"), I think of Del Rio, and vice versa.


In fact, and I hope the photo above bears me out, she's halfway to looking like Allida Valli in Les yeux sans visage (below). And the very fact that Jolson is still clinging to this hoary old Lon Chaney-style masochist cinema, where the ugly deformed performer sacrifices himself (so the plasticine dish can run away with the callow spoon) shows a terminal example of self-directed racism that's an illuminating mirror into the self-hatred of one's own image as 'other' even as one clings to it like a life raft. In a way he'd be ideal as the evil plastic surgeon in visage... slowly reducing his love's face to a featureless taut skin skull... "this time I'll burn all the animal out of her!"

This aspect, apologizing for one's unforgivable ethnicity and imperfections--bad teeth or big nose or wrinkles or thin lips--is mostly gone now. If someone wants surgery they have it, but we're intolerant of all hate crimes, even self-hate crimes... the bleaching and 'cutting' of Michael Jackson being a very public cautionary tale.


And the freak otherness doesn't even begin to end there: as the socialite craving the Gigolo, Kay Francis at her most eerily caricature-like: her alabaster skin, triangle mouth and round fleshy head make her seem like 1930s Warner Brothers cartoon. I don't mean that as a jab either (I'm a huge Francis fan), but just trying to corral all the jarring elements of this extraordinarily bizarre melange, trying to nail down the amorphous wrongness floating through the film, the International House anti-matter, the feeling that the foundations of Hollywood personae are crumbling right and left as Breen's brown-shirt inquisitors are kicking down the door. In the midst of all that, Francis' face just seems.... bizarre.


But it's all okay, all bizarro world substitutes are welcome, because it's still Paris, in every sense of the word, and so there's a tolerance for both aberration and finger-pointing, for both freaks and gawkers, all races and some racists. When we see a pair of men dancing together, Jolson makes a bug-eyed effeminate exclamation of feigned surprise (below), the way he might whistle at an older matron like she's still got it ("Oh you kid!").  Jolson is, above all, a caricature, running around from table to table while emceeing and joking, his hands floating in front of him as if he's being lifted on a Nerf ball through the deep end of a pool, he's a freak among freaks. A user review on imdb sums his character up as a cross between Rufus T. Firefly and an early blueprint for Bogart's Rick in CASABLANCA (he owns a club, he fixes everybody's problems, he's hopelessly in love with a woman (del Rio) who's attached to somebody else...) I would add a metatextual furtherance to his comparison--just replace Major Strasser with Joseph Breen and Vichy with his army of toady censors.


So that's it, last call. Tomorrow Breen marches into Warners, but it's still tonight here at the Wonder Bar, and like people getting as sloshed as possible the night before Prohibition goes into effect, all the soon-to-be-verboten tropes are assembled for one last hurrah. The most glaring example to even the pre-code novice will ben seeing SPOILER ALERT, Jolson gets away with covering up his lover's crime of passion by letting another man make good on his suicide threats, a bit of opportunist sleight-of-hand so unconscionable it's shocking even for a pre-code. Was it someone's idea of a sick joke, the last one they'd be able to play for almost 30 years? Even the name of the bar, a play on the German word 'wunderbar' seems to foreshadow a draconian end to what used to be mere innocent decadence--the Weimar era and the jazz age--and the arrival of corrupt, racist, sexist, colonialist  'morality' of the both the Nazis and Joseph Breen's Catholic Legion of "decency." Some joke. If you can take it, get this movie. And when we go back in time to kill Hitler, let's take out Breen too.

In the meantime, shall we run?

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