Monday, April 15, 2013

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

Playing like a midnight car accident between a banned entry in 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 jackboot and it all but dares the censors to cross the line backwards in pursuit. 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 wry spin on the MGM formula of 'cavalcade of stars playing an array of types at a fancy hotel or night club' ala Grand Hotel, or Paramoun'ts  International House, but its way darker than either: murders go unpunished, trysts are planned but never executed and if there's no autogyro to lift you off the roof, well, just walk home as innocuously as you can. 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 moneys to the scantily-clad chorus girls, they don't seem too troubled about his suicide threats either, since if they took him seriously they might have to give his stuff back. And so the morality of the film slips willingly into the murk like a blackened commando with a knife in its teeth. One last stab at ambivalence before the code turned every chorine saint or savage.

2. The love quintanglement between the stars of the show-within-a-show, the ballroom dancing pair 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; smitten songwriter Dick Powell, and the club owner Al Wonder are both into Del Rio (Powell 'knew' her first) who is way to obsessive over Cortez. The way these people crawl and scrape shamelessly after each other is a little worrisome, and 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, Jolson more than overdoes it, cavorting and twisting his face into hideous leering grimaces. One wonders how this was ever popular, though Jolson does grow on you in a trainwreck nostalgia kind of way. 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 of the silents and the fast-talking toughs of the gangster boom. Jolson was neither lover nor tough; he was insecure and caught in a narcissistic downward spiral through the molasses air, as if being the first person to speak and sing on film had left him permanently self-conscious yet tickled to a childlike, near-Jerry Lewisian 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, maybe it's wrong to do so, but we seek reasons why we might excuse him. 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 and naive to avoid racist ire. As if cementing the similarity, behold the above picture, so bizarre it almost seems culled from some Martian TV transmission. The archaic Yiddish characters on the newspaper providing an under-halo to the sunrise of loose straw from his hat, he's a blackface golem from an alternate universe. And the whole Green Pastures satire aspect is eerily soothing: the opiate promise of heading into the sunshine of eternal glory, just like the code had planned for us immediately following this last pre-code moment of a wanderin' in the Valley of the Shadow of 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, we don't have an adequate grasp of contextual objection. However, for my money the  post-WWI Parisian setting of the film helps. Paris became home to expat black jazz musicians for a reason: racism was largely absent there -- no Jim Crow-- and yet 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, or the exotica of Josephine Baker (left). And the connection of 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 piece on Django Reinhart in the 1940s, From the Barrelhouse quotes 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 mistrustfully 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.

A word on Dolores Del Rio (above) as the dancer who has Jolson and Dick Powell mooning over her, but who loves only disinterested gigolo Ricardo Cortez: her beautiful but weirdly taut face creeps me out. The sunken skull eyes, tiny bump of a nose, razor cheekbones. She's like death incarnate... at least in this film. When the blunt cops in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL use the vile misogynistic 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 (him) 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 aspect, apologizing for one's unforgivable ethnicity and/or 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 both inspiration and cautionary tale

Thus we need to watch the veiled racial hierarchy of whiteness with a grain of tolerance. In 1934, a decade or so before the founding of the State of Israel and 30 odd years before the death of Martin Luther King, we have whiter-than-white Dick Powell winning the Mexican beauty while the best Jolson's Russian Jewishness can do is eliminate Cortez's Latin lover and then step nobly aside, just as Del Rio would step into a volcano at the end of her 1932 break-out, Bird of Paradise (so Joel McRae could go back home to his white fiancee).

And the freak otherness doesn't even begin to end there: there's Kay Francis at her most eerily caricature-like: her alabaster skin, triangle mouth and round fleshy head making 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. Her face just seems.... bizarre.

But it's all okay, all bizarro world substitutes are welcome, because it's Paris, in every sense of the word, and so there's a tolerance for aberration: we see a pair of men dancing together, and Jolson making a bug-eyed effeminate exclamation of feigned surprise as he sees them,  (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 of his own self, running around from table to table his hands floating in front of him as if he's being lifted on a Nerf ball through the deep end of a pool. A user review on imdb, sums his character up best, 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 Nazis with Joseph Breen and his Catholic Legions.

Tomorrow Breen marches into Warners, but for tonight, all these things that the code would put an end to are here at the Wonder Bar, assembled as if by a mysterious blackmail letter. Most glaring even to the novice will be how 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 slippery it's still 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 an 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 anyway you can't. 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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