Bonita Barker was firmly cast in a Hollywood stereotype – a pretty girl from a good family who wanted to dance since she was a toddler, and slowly her “talents” morph into a wish to become a movie star. Heard that story before? Oh yes, and most of them ended dismally – with the girls in question out of Hollywood before they did anything of worth. Same can be said of Bonita – after three short years and some dancing roles, she retired, married and led a quiet life of domesticity. Let’s hear her story!
Bonita Beryl Barker was born on July 21, 1916, in Rocky, Oklahoma, to Omar Barker and Mable Morris. She was their only child. Her father worked as an automobile salesman, her mother was a housewife.
The family moved to Hobat, Oklahoma, in about 1918, where Bonita attended elementary school, before moving to Ventura, California in the mid 1920s. Her father ditched his auto business and went into the sand/gravel business, again as a salesman. He became quite successful and was an esteemed member of the Ventura society, making Bonita a type of young, up-and-coming socialite.
Bonita caught the dancing bug as a pre teen girl, and always by 1926, when she was barely 10 years old, she was dancing in various local events where the genteel people of Ventura would gather. She was the best pupil at the Meglin Dance Stadio and perhaps one of the few that went into dancing professionally. She became a dancing fixture in town and was well-known for her skills.
Pretty soon, by the early 1930s, she was appearing in the famous Hollywood Bowl in ballets and in more than a score of amateur and little theater programs all around the US.
In 1933, barely graduated from high school, she was noted by agents and brought to Hollywood.
Bonita made her debut in the semi-idiotic musical, It’s Great to Be Alive. Whoa boy what a way to start your Hollywood career! She fared a bit better in her next show, Arizona to Broadway, a very polarizing movie that gets many things right but ultimately goes wrong. Whats starts as a promising story about con-artists trying to con other con-artists melts into a cheap, no-brainer stupidity. Too bad! But still, things got better, and they got even with Dancing Lady. i know this movie is not top of the class, best musical ever made, but I for one love it. Joan Crawford looking her best, playing an independent, strong-willed dancing lady, Franchot Tone as a wealthy suitor plus Clark Gable as a rough around the edges choreographer – whats not to like? And a special bonus – Fred Astaire in one of his earliest movie role! Whauza!
Like tons of other chorines, Bonita appeared in Stand Up and Cheer!, which is less a movie with a normal narrative and more of a pastiche – depends if you like these sort of things – I prefer my movies with more story and characterizations, sho skip! And then Bonita went the usual downhill route – she started to appear in low-budget westerns. I know I may be too critical towards this, but most actresses that went this way ended up nowhere (there are exceptions of course, but Bonita ain’t one of them). The movie was Outlaw’s Highway and there is nothing substantial to be said about it.
Bonita made her first and only college musical (a genre popular back then) in 1934, called College Rhythm. It’s quiet a good example of the genre, with a solid cast and some decent music. The stories are more or less all the same – young people goofing around in college (and nobody ever studies!), but it’s the energy and the charm that count, and this movie has them enough.
After so many happy-go-lucky musicals, Bonita appeared in a bit more serious fare – Rumba – it’s not a cry your eyes out drama, but it’s more than fluff. Leads are played by George Raft and Carole Lombard (who were involved in real life – love there small trivia trinkets!). Unfortunately, it’s a pale version of the superior Bolero (with the same acting team) and with a somehow similar story (Raft is a dancer who comes from the wrong side of the tracks, Carole is a ritzy society girl). Raft can dance, that much is obvious, and Carole is a very capable actress and stunningly beautiful, but the movie lacks bite. One of the reasons is probably the newly minted production code that forced producers and directors to water down most stuff – and the white-hot chemistry between George and Carole was definitely one of them.
The Big Broadcast of 1936 is another of the pastiche musicals – IMHO, skip. There are tons of talented performers here, but that ain’t enough for a truly good viewing experience. Bonita’s last movie, made in 1936 was Anything Goes, an adaptation of a Cole Porter musical with Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman. Yep, this is one of the few movies La Merman appeared in, and this is perhaps the strongest reason to see it. Of course, that isn’t saying much – the movie suffers from the “censoritis” syndrome. We all know how witty and punny Cole was, and the censors hated such a witty and punny men and tried to put them to size any time they could. Yet, there a some good stuff to be enjoyed int he movie, and it’s from the bottom of the barrel.
And that was it from Bonita!
When Bonita came to Hollywood, she expressed a particular lack of enthusiasm as far as men are concerned to the papers. This of course was all tell and no-show – girls sometime did this to gather publicity (“she doesn’t want to get married, gasp!!” effect).
Bonita’s first Hollywood beau was Sammy Finn, who was toting her around the Club Colony for months but it didn’t get to the altar.
Like most young, unestablished starlets, Bonita appeared in the fashion and coiffure columns with some frequency. here is an example:
A coiffure like Bonita Barker’s would be becoming to you. The hair is parted on the right side, combed off the brow with a curl coming down over the left temple to the eyebrow, a wave below this and curled ends over the ears.
Bonita also wrote about her eating habits. Due to being in the chorus, she had to work long hours and did strenuous dance routines, and dieting too much just didn’t cut it out for her. As they said about chorines:
A dainty little sandwich and a soda may be good for the thinning office girl at noon, but not enough for the girls who want to keep their curves to stay in the chorus, these days. These screen dancers must eat, to regain the weight they lose daily in their work, and eat they do, even if it’s a soda between meals.
It seems that Bonita was a serious antiques collector. Her prized possession was pipe with a twenty-six-inch stem which once belonged to Emperor Frederick III, father of Kaiser Wilhelm. Famous director Lewis Stone used to smoke from it when Bonita loaned it to Paramount.
In the late 1930s, Bonita got engaged to Oren William Haglund , and actor and former husband of Warner bros actress Priscilla Lane . Oren and Priscilla were married for one day sharp – imagine what an awkward marriage that was. A wedding date between Oren and Bonita was set, but never reached. Yup, they never married. Who knows what happened between them, although Hollywood is notoriously cheap in this department – engagement were made and broken almost daily, like something extremely mundane.
Bonita traveled extensively after her Hollywood career. She visited Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Europe several times. In fact, she was in Italy when WW2 started – she returned to the US from Genoa just a few days after September 1st. In 1940, she visited Cuba.