Monday, October 26, 2020

Busby Berkeley: Flying away from Rio


Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Written by Earl Baldwin (based on the plays by Geza Herczeg, Karl Farkas, and Robert Katscher)

Spoiler alert: moderate

I'm not sure that the film itself knows this, and given how it's built I expect that it does not, but Wonder Bar hits its peak very early.  It is not very long into things—half an hour, give or take—before we arrive at the sequence for which it is best-remembered, "Don't Say Goodnight," one of the most excellent pieces of choreography Busby Berkeley ever directed.  As with many of Berkeley's numbers, it is not strongly attached to the film it is in, but if you squint (admittedly, you'd have to squint fairly hard), you can sort of see it as both an ironic counterpoint to the plot of Wonder Bar and a foreshadowing of how that plot concludes; the song, at least, comes off as extremely ironic in the moment.  As usual, it begins on a stage—more accurately, it begins on the dance floor at the titular Wonder Bar nightclub.  Here, the cabaret's two star dancers, Harry (Ricardo Cortez) and Inez (Dolores Del Rio), begin a little light performance that we don't get any kind of good sense of, though we can guess that the fundamental sensation is one of sentimentality, and the theme is one of pure, yearning love, which is where that irony comes in, since while Inez certainly loves Harry, by this point it's patently clear that not only does Harry not love her, he's probably not capable of loving anyone.  Cortez and Del Rio's own performance, as actors, does not end when the dance begins, though they soon disappear for the duration; and when we return to them, at the close, there is a certain repelled (but sad) reluctance in Cortez's acceptance of Del Rio's kiss, continuing the melodrama of their affair.  But in between, that is something else entirely.  It's prime Berkeley, in some respects maybe the most representative piece of his career, hitting every major box on the Berkeley checklist.  The only things missing are pronounced prurience or silly comedy, but otherwise, "Don't Say Goodnight" has everything you'd actually want out of the choreographer, from the architectural component, to the love of optical illusions, to the human kaleidoscopes, to the floaty, elliptical editing, to the vaguely mystical feel, to the huge emphasis upon pageantlike geometric "dance" that required approximately zero actual dancing talent, but demands other rarefied skills in its stead, namely a regimented sense of timing and an ability to find one's place within insane, constantly-moving patterns—though I suppose, in this instance, Berkeley's chorines did need to be able to do a little bit of ballroom, since it has a hundred of them doing so shoulder-to-shoulder.

We enter the dreamscape at Inez and Harry's invitation, though we see it coming when the silhouetted heads of chorus girls enter the frame at each side, singing along with Dick Powell.  (Incidentally, Berkeley has made no effort to hide that he's using the same set of deeply-unconvincing blonde wigs from his number in Fashions of 1934, and it's still a bit of a fly in the ointment, though perhaps less so here since it's not one of this number's major goals to show off how hot these women would be, if they were blonde.)  Well, Harry and Inez raise a curtain, revealing a grid of enormous white columns, and that's when the columns start to move...  And it goes on from there, as female and then male chorines emerge from behind the wandering pieces of semi-Freudian masonry, and the very nebulous story being told is about how there's someone for everyone, but they're so easy to lose in the crowd.  Obviously, the story is not really that important, though it's a sturdy enough frame for the shimmering fugue that Berkeley's interested in, playing with gently satiric ideas about true love in this black sea of interchangeable white shadows.  In other words, as always, what it's really about is how superbly, beautifully surreal Berkeley's images and quicksilver editing can get.  If we begin with the barely-plausible, and venture shortly thereafter into the insensible, Berkeley ultimately takes us into the full-on impossible.  The essential tools of "Don't Say Goodnight" are mirrors (I understand there were, in all, twelve mirrors, and very large ones).  Nonetheless, Berkeley starts small with them, so small, indeed, that there are several individual shots where the joy comes from not being able to tell whether he's using the mirrors, or it's simply very precise dancers mirroring each others' moves.  But then the denouement arrives: the reveal of a mindblowing infinity shot, filled with an infinity of dancers, suggesting a fantasy of leisure and pleasure and love that you can access if only you have the right partner, and which lasts forevermore—or at least lasts as long as anything in this world does, as represented by the number's close upon a golden fall night, with our destined lovers finally reuniting in a pile of metallic autumnal leaves.  But, again, I'm almost certainly doing it wrong by ineffectually parsing out the symbolism in what is, at heart, as purely ornamental as cinema could possibly be.

It's immense and trippy stuff, then, Berkeley at his very best; and, in fact, Wonder Bar, unlike the earlier Fashions, is not lying to us when it says it has Berkeley numbers, plural, and there's another yet to come.  Still, I said it peaked early, and gosh, does it ever.  It has a lot else going for it, and to get it out there, I think it is a "good movie," and more than that, it's a surprising movie.  It is avowed Hollywood frivolity, right up until the point it isn't, whereupon it takes an enormously dark turn into—I don't know what you'd call it, farce noir?—that you would never expect out of what was billed as, essentially,  42nd Street Part V.  The heck of it is, it works, reorienting what had seemingly been a flimsy romantic comedy with a faint mean streak toward a very melancholy (and ultimately rather brutal) tragic romance.  And the more I think about it, the more I half-believe the splendor of "Don't Say Goodnight" really does comment upon the uglier proceedings of Wonder Bar, to the point that I rather wish it was the climactic number, instead of what we actually get.  Because what we get—well, let's just say, for now, that Wonder Bar is the movie with Al Jolson where the soul-curdling blackface routine he puts on might not be even the second-worst sin that his character commits, but one sure is a lot less thrilled to see that sin play out.

So what we've got here is a Grand Hotel sort of thing, the story of one epically bad night at Al Wonder's (Jolson's) eponymous Wonder Bar, the most happening nightspot in Paris thanks to the amazing shows its stars put on.  We begin by spinning out the dizzying number of plot threads that will concern us over the course of the film's brief 84 minutes.  For example, we have a pair of drunken, poorly-aging American businessmen (Hugh Herbert and Guy Kibbee), who want to cheat on their dowdy wives (Ruth Donnelly and Louise Fazenda), which shall naturally result in their dowdy wives trying just as hard to cheat on them.  Likewise, we are introduced to the humorously-depressed old Captain Von Ferring (Robert Barratt), who has determined that tonight shall be his last hurrah, in the most final sense possible.  Mainly, however, we have the inordinately complicated love polygon at the center of our tale: between Wonder, who loves Inez; and his orchestra conductor, Tommy (Powell), who also loves Inez; and Inez, who loves Harry; and Liane Renaud (Kay Francis), the married woman, who also loves Harry; and R.H. Renaud, the older, wealthy Parisian that Liane clearly doesn't love anymore, if she ever did; and finally Harry himself, the heel whose only desire on Earth is to disentangle himself from the mess of women who want him and whom he appears to hold in utter contempt (I feel like it takes a special commitment to woman-hating to be this violently dismissive to a Dolores Del Rio who, for some insane reason, has decided to worship you), and presently Harry's shopping around Liane's purloined diamond necklace as a way to get some fast cash so he can get the hell out of Paris.  Whew.  That's a lotta plot.

Now, most of these threads are integral; most of them ultimately intersect.  Then there's Herbert and Kibbee's comic adultery B-plot, which appears to operate in a completely alternate dimension and has no bearing on anything, sometimes even itself.  It's reasonably funny (and comes to a genuinely very funny "all are punish'd" conclusion, that would probably be funnier still if the film was structured in such a way as to actually put some kind of bow on it, rather than just gesturing at a funny concept).  It's hard not to be a little dubious as to what legitimate function it serves, however, at least beyond adding about ten minutes of runtime to an otherwise too-short film.  But despite having, like, three movies' worth of plot, Wonder Bar is somehow predominantly padding, and this is the case for about half of Jolson's performance, too.  Obliged to spend a significant portion of his screentime working through creaky, ancient bits for the amusement of his customers (and, more hypothetically, for the viewer), it's more of an impressive commitment to the idea of "being a funny person" than it is telling actual funny jokes.  The real value of it, then, is that Wonder's manic extroversion always feels like work, and Jolson allows a tiredness to creep around all the corners of his performance, considerably deepening the sadness the screenplay finds not very far under Wonder's smarmy surface.  Of course, even then, there's simply no justifying the interminable (and largely-unintelligible) sequence that's dropped into the middle of this movie about, apparently, Wonder's instant rapport with another Russian expatriate.

The plus side is that, with its gnarly latticework of a romance crushed into scarcely even thirty minutes of screentime, Wonder Bar has no other option except to viciously pound its way through the tumultuous emotions of six people who all desperately want what they want, yet are in very few cases actually going to get it.  And so what we get is soap opera at high speed, all killer, no filler (which I mean fairly literally), and one better-acted, by far, than its accurate description ("narrative material used to justify Busby Berkeley numbers") would imply.  It's not just from an unusually-sordid Jolson, either.

It might be his movie, but Del Rio is doing more legitimate acting than anybody else here (and, mind you, Cortez's empty, superficially-charming sociopath is exactly right for his part; plus, I imagine it didn't hurt that Cortez hated Jolson's guts in real life).  Del Rio is doing more than a film like this could have ever actually rewarded—though director Lloyd Bacon at least seems to have noticed, privileging Del Rio both in terms of composition and, especially, editing.  Bacon gives her all the space and focus necessary to fully develop all the remarkable shades of self-loathing that constitute poor Inez's broken personality, from the way she almost has to choke back bitter self-recriminating laughter at the overtures of the sweet milquetoast Inez clearly realizes she should like better than her scumbag boyfriend, but doesn't (and so Powell represents some pretty spot-on casting himself), all the way up to the desperate, needy violence of her BDSM-tinged, whip-based dance number with Harry ("tinged" not really being a strong enough word) that provides the impetus for the grim borderline-nihilism of the third act.  And I want to emphasize, again, events flow into that nihilism in a way that seems like a completely inevitable consequence of the "romantic comedy" we had before.

Or, at least, they would've, because there's one thing in this movie that does not work, and you need not be a race scholar to guess what that might be.  (More's the pity, since on the margins, Wonder Bar can be surprisingly modern in its sensibilities: one of the last gasps of pre-Code Hollywood, there's a very nice little joke here about the unwarranted assumptions you shouldn't make about who else your dance partner might want to dance with.)  Anyway the thing to know about Wonder Bar is that it was based on a Broadway play (based, in its turn, on the Austrian play, Wunderbar, which doesn't seem like it's still a pun), and this Broadway play represented Al Jolson's return to the stage after almost half a decade making movies.  Naturally, when Warners saw fit to make the film version, they tapped Jolson.  But while the stage Wonder Bar ended on a Jewish folk song, Warners, now armed with the star of The Jazz Singer, pushed Jolson to play yet another variation on his greatest hit.

Oh, no, wait, I take it back.  You've achieved a real cultural synthesis, Al.  Congratulations.

It's called "Goin' To Heaven On a Mule,' and it is, needless to say, fucked.  It's inventive, I'll give it that (it involves a sharecropper character musing on the Day of Judgment, which coincidentally happens to arrive, and he hopes to take his beloved mule, Zeke).  Still, "inventive" is about all it is, Berkeley just using it as canvas for whatever racist ideas he was able to cobble together for his segregated heaven and its blackface inhabitants (and his heaven is indeed presented as exclusively black—possibly because white people keep doing things like making movies like Wonder Bar).  It has a few technically neat bits (the fanciful effects shot of crossing the bridge into heaven on a mule is vastly better than this deserves), and it has a lot more defamatory japery (if you guessed black person "hebben" has giant watermelons, good job, and it makes me a little uneasy to realize that the evolutionary line of the giant banana dance in The Gang's All Here, which I guess isn't super-culturally sensitive in its own right, but at least isn't a full-on hate crime, must lead straight back here).  Strikingly, though, it's a bit sloppy: when Berkeley repeats his infinity shot trick, this time we can see the joins in the mirrors, and there's not a lot of obvious thought put into the choreography itself.  Part of this, no doubt, was Jolson's flex against Berkeley's control—Jolson insisted that his performance be captured with standard, on-set sound recording, which Berkeley disliked for obvious reasons—but still, maybe the highest compliment anybody could pay Berkeley for "On a Mule" is that, hey, at least he didn't care about it very much.

Meanwhile, it mangles the film around it, even beyond just staining it with Jolson's lifetime supply of shoe polish.  Whether it "had" to be done in the first place, let alone done with exclusively white actors and extras shaming themselves, is a matter for Warners studio historians.  But Bacon, or Berkeley, or somebody surely ought to have had second thoughts about putting it here (and, as a Berkeley blackface number, it's even more arbitrary than usual, so it certainly didn't "have" to go specifically anywhere).  As it stands, it slices right through the third act, so that almost the very instant the plot develops that terrible sense of momentum I mentioned, it crashes directly into "Goin' To Heaven On a Mule," like they deliberately put a brick wall in its way.  There's enough beautiful and compelling about Wonder Bar to still recommend it (with serious disclaimers, of course), but even Berkeley's best musical number might've still been unnecessarily disorienting; this is a straight-up catastrophe, and Wonder Bar only barely survives it.

Score: 6/10 

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