Sunday, January 26, 2014

The South-of-the-Border Musicals

When Carmen Miranda sambaed her way into the Broadway musical revue scene in 1939, her energetic style and eye-rolling fractured musical interpretations of English words, took America by storm. Soon everyone was swaying their hips to the bongo-beating rhythm of the Bando de Lua and taking six easy dance lessons from Madame La Zonga. 

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, 20th Century Fox was getting their top talents together to produce a colorful musical treat to dazzle the moviegoers and please the president. President Roosevelt, that is. He was reaching his hand across the border to encourage trade and wanted all of Latin America to know we were their neighbors. Darryl Zanuck, always a friend of the Washington politicians, was more than glad to help. He saw the Good Neighbor Policy as a good box-office policy and quickly thrust the studio's loveliest leading lady, Alice Faye, into their most entertaining new musical to date, Down Argentine Way. Alas, the lovely lady had an attack of appendicitis and so the glamorous Betty Grable stepped into a role that would ultimately launch her into pin-up stardom. 

Down Argentine Way tells the story of a wealthy girl who has a romance with a dashing and equally wealthy Argentine horse breeder, Don Ameche. The movie dispensed good cheer and tropical radiance to moviegoers nationwide whilst it gaudily painted a Utopian perspective of the elite Argentine horse set in lush Techni-colors. But, more astonishing than the fiery new Latin scenery it showcased, was the introduction of the much publicized Brazilian sensation, Carmen Miranda. Never was there a performer more delightful and engaging to watch. She was mesmerizing. With arms waving, fingers clicking, and her fruit bowl top jiggling, she cheerfully invited the audience to taste life, love, and romance "The South American Way". In one short musical number she did more to promote South America then ten ambassadors could have. A strong supporting cast which included Charlotte Greenwood, Henry Stephenson, and J. Carroll Naish, and Fox's customary vivid tones and razor sharp imagery helped to ignite Down Argentine Way into a zesty box-office bombshell. 

In 1941, Betty Grable took a trip to the sunshine state in Moon Over Miami and then paused for some dramatic roles in black and white films, which gave Alice Faye plenty of time to recuperate and then have a moonlit romance with Don Ameche south of the border herself - this time in Rio. In That Night in Rio, Don Ameche takes on the duel roles of an aristocratic baron and a debonair entertainer, with Faye playing the baron's confused wife. The story was a reworking of Folies Bergere ( 1935 ) starring Maurice Chevalier. Even though the risque quality of the original was replaced by Ameche's more humorous performance, the film was visually appealing, featured a supporting cast including S.Z. Sakall, J. Carroll Naish, Frank Puglia and Leonid Kinskey and spotlighted some splendid Mack Gordon/Harry Warren numbers, including two of Miranda's most imitated songs, "Chica Chica Boom Chic" and "I'yi, Yi, Yi, I Like You Very Much". 

Having a look-a-like husband must have been too much stress for Faye, for that very same year she was off with the tall, dark, and handsome John Payne for a Weekend in Havana. This light-hearted comedy/musical cast Payne as the son of a ship company's owner who travels to Cuba to handle a case involving one of the company's ships which has gone aground. One passenger ( Faye ) refuses to sign a waiver unless she gets reimbursed for her And with a guarantee that she'll have a good time. Payne undertakes to personally show her a "good time" and ends up falling for her charms instead. 

Weekend in Havana was originally written as a Henry Fonda vehicle, but when he declined the part it was offered to Don Ameche, who also refused. Step in Payne! The movie has a quick pace, beautiful sets, lovely costumes ( by Gwen Wakeling ) and a great supporting cast including George Barbier, Cobina Wright, Leonid Kinsky and Billy Gilbert. Cesar Romero, the debonair dancer, was featured in an entertaining supporting role as Carmen Miranda's wayward beau who had a fancy for the pretty women and high stakes gambling tables. The role suited Romero's personality and gave him a chance to showoff his fancy footwork in several numbers.

In 1942, Fred Astaire danced his way across the border to Argentina with Rita Hayworth, who never looked lovelier than in You Were Never LovelierThis monochrome musical told the story of the Acunas, a rich family who must marry their daughters off in accordance with famiyl tradition...eldest first, down to the youngest. As second sibling, Rita feels the pressure from her younger sisters but has not yet met a man that she liked.....until an American dancer ( Astaire ) stumbles into her life. 

Shortly before the United States' entry into WWII, the US Department of State commissioned a Disney goodwill tour of South America in the hopes that Walt Disney would produce a film based on the material he gathered on the journey...which he did. Nelson Rockefeller guided Walt Disney and a staff of animators, technicians and composers on a several week tour of the samba land. They came back with rumba on their brains, tropical colors in their washes, and a heap of new material to work with, resulting in a series of short cartoons inspired by the colorful nations. The government wasn't all too pleased with this however, since each cartoon would only be valid in the country at head, so Walt Disney had his four shorts strung together and filled with some of the 16mm color footage taken during the trip. What then resulted was a cartoon too long to be a short, and too short to be a feature. Nevertheless, upon its release ( in 1942 ), Saludos Amigos was a tremendous success and unlike the previous Fox musicals, actually showed its audience footage of South America. 

In the first of the four cartoon segments we find Donald Duck, a typical tourist, exploring the surrounding mountainside region of Lake Titicaca with a stubborn llama. We are given a brief aerial tour of the route from Santiago, Chile to Mendoza through the eyes of Pedro, the little airplane, and then Goofy learns the way of the gauchos in the Pampas region. A visit to South America is not complete without seeing the Carnival in Rio and so, in the final segment, Joe Carioca gives Donald a watercolor tour of the continent. 

Saludos Amigos allowed the Disney animators to dabble with new animation "gags" and its commercial success encouraged Disney to produce a similar South American cartoon - The Three Caballeros, released in 1945. This kaleidoscopic film centered around Donald Duck's birthday and the special box he received as a present from his South American pal, Joe Carioca. Inside he finds a reel of film bearing the titles Aves Raras ( rare birds ) which introduces us to a Pablo the penguin cartoon. An old Uruguayan gaucho then tells us the story of another "strange bird" - the flying donkey : the playful Burrito and his young friend Gauchito. Donald opens his last gifts which include a wild rooster and Joe Carioca himself, who then take Donald on a whirlwind flying carpet tour over the beaches of Acapulco. 

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer missed the Latin frenzy of the early 1940s but decided it was better late than never to join the bandwagon and in 1945 they released Holiday in Mexico starring their newest singing sensation Jane Powell.  In this frothy musical, Jane Powell plays mother to her widowed father ( Walter Pidgeon ) and gets into a tither when she finds out he is about to remarry to an opera star ( Ilona Massey ). A puppy love romance with another MGM juvenile star, Roddy McDowall, drew in the younger crowds.  

Jane Powell was Louis B. Mayer's latest find and Holiday in Mexico was the perfect vehicle to showcase her beautiful voice and delightful personality. Alas, this role would also determine the character for all her future projects with the studio - that of a sprightly ingenue determined to take matters in her own hands with the help of a few benevolent friends - in this case, pianist Jose Iturbi and bandleader Xavier Cugat. 

Iturbi was a famed pianist who signed a contract with Metro in 1943 and, even though he was Spanish, often portrayed Latin Americans. "Turbolent Iturbi", as he had come to be nicknamed, had refused an earlier offer to perform on film but later excepted MGM's request since they allowed him more creative freedom. He also had an easy job of acting, since he portrayed himself! Some of his best films included Anchors Aweigh, Two Girls and a Sailor, That Midnight Kiss, and Three Daring Daughters. 

Xavier Cugat was another talented musician who reached his peak in popularity during the early and mid-1940s when he appeared in a number of MGM musicals with his orchestra and his pet chihuahua, whom he often smuggled under his dinner jacket. Prior to the South American film fever, Cugat appeared in several short films in the late 1920s and 30s : A Spanish Ensemble ( 1928 ), Mexicana ( 1929 ), and Let's Go Latin ( 1937 ). Like Carmen Miranda, he had a magnifico personality that lit up the screen when he appeared and his infectious rhythms always gave the films a boost.  

The studio kept Jane Powell busy in three pictures in 1948 - Three Daring Daughters, A Date with Judy ( also featuring Miranda and Cugat ) and Luxury Liner - before sending her south-of-the-border once again in Nancy Goes to Rio, a tepid - albeit colorful - remake of a Deanna Durbin classic ( It's a Date ). Aside from some cardboard backdrops, very little of Rio is seen while the cameras instead focus their close-up lens on its two leading ladies ( Powell and Ann Sothern ) and the tutti-frutti Carmen Miranda, this time appearing in a refreshing change of role - that of Barry Sullivan's secretary. 

By 1945 Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters were singing "South America Take it Away!" , pleading for them to "take back your samba - ay! - your rumba - ay! - and your conga - ay, yi, yi!" and complaining of aching spines and creaky sacroiliacs. Audiences still adored Latin American themed films in spite of the fun words, but by the late 1940s the movie studios had gone Continental and wanted to showcase the glamorous post-war Paris and London scene. 

One exception however, was Carnival in Costa Rica ( 1947 ), a now forgotten musical starring crooner Dick Haymes, Vera-Ellen, Cesar Romero and Celeste Holm. It told the story of two pairs of Costa Rican lovebirds both trying to thwart their arranged marriages with each other. Anne Revere, J. Carroll Naish, and Pedro de Cordorba rounded out a great cast. Many of the location shots used in Carnival in Costa Rica were filmed just prior to the civil war of 1948, and many Costa Ricans consider this film to be of historical value because of that. 

One of the last forays MGM would take south of the Tropic of Cancer would be Latin Lovers, released in 1953, a vibrantly colored musical featuring the beautiful Lana Turner and a true red-blooded Mexican, Ricardo Montalban. Fernando Lamas, the Beunos Aires born playboy, was originally slated to play Montalban's role, but recently he had broke off an affair with Lana Turner and she insisted he be replaced. They be Latin lovers no more. 

Latin Lovers told the story of the hazards of being a wealthy woman. Nora Taylor, a millionairess, is afraid that every man she meets is just after her money, until she falls in love with Roberto, a man she thinks is a poor farmer...but in fact has a crop of healthy cabbage of his own sitting in the bank. The film featured plenty of samba, romance, lush settings and even a polo playing sequence. 

The south-of-the-border musicals were a product of their time and it is unlikely that a Latin frenzy will ignite in Hollywood anytime again soon, at least not one resulting in such colorful and entertaining musicals. These were stress-free, light-hearted films that captured the essence of South America - the gaiety, the charm, the romance and the hip-shaking splendor of the continent. If you cannot afford a trip to South America yourself, sit back, grab some bananas and a bowl of fruit and enjoy one of these south-of-the-border musicals. Ay yi! they will surely not disappoint you!  


  1. Great review and pictures. Thank you.

  2. My goodness, you certainly covered a lot of ground in this informative and entertaining article. My kids would play "Saludos Amigos" and "The Three Caballeros" on a continuous loop when they were young until I would start to sing like Bing and the Andrews Sisters "take it away"!

    1. You're quite right, too much of a good thing does become rather tiresome. Even with Disney films. Although, I rather wish this Latin phase lasted a bit longer over at MGM. Those musicals were so entertaining. Too bad Deanna Durbin never went south of the border too. She would have looked grand in a sombrero!