Friday, May 15, 2015

Down Argentine Way (20th Century-Fox, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I set the alarm clock for 2:45 so I could do another tape change and record Down Argentine Way, the 1940 musical directed by Irving Cummings that made immediate stars of Betty Grable (she’d been in movies for a decade at that point, but this was the first time she’d played a leading role — she was a last-minute substitute for Alice Faye and would soon eclipse her) and Carmen Miranda (it was her first American film — she’d made five in Brazil before that, of which only fragmentary clips survive — and she was so busy with her appearances in the Shuberts’ nightclub and their Broadway revue Streets of Paris that her numbers were filmed in New York and spliced into the rest of the film, which was made in Hollywood). As usual with these types of movies, the plot was meaningless (a depressingly obvious intrigue about Argentinian horse owner Henry Stephenson, his son Don Ameche — whose attempts at a Spanish accent were strictly hit-or-miss — and his long-standing hatred for the American family represented by Grable and her aunt, played by Charlotte Greenwood in a performance that virtually stole the movie). The color was typically luscious and overwrought 20th Century-Fox color, the recreation of Argentina in the Hollywood hills actually fairly convincing (this, of course, to someone who’s never seen the original!), and while it’s hard to see why this movie made Betty Grable a star (we got very few glimpses of the legendary legs, and she was an indifferent singer and not a terribly charismatic personality, though as a dancer she was quite good), Miranda’s charisma comes through even in the crudely filmed numbers (a giveaway to her absence from Hollywood during this film’s production is her non-appearance in the final scene, which unites all the other principals in a big send-off reprise of the title song) and Harry Warren turned out to be a fairly credible composer of “South American” music (though when Miranda returned home to Brazil and began her big homecoming performance at the Casino de Urca in Rio with Jimmy McHugh’s “South American Way,” the song which opens this film, the home-town crowd booed her and the song as a pathetic imitation of their own musical styles). — 1/22/97


I got to Charles’ place, and since I didn’t want to do anything particularly “heavy” I brought the tape of Down Argentine Way and watched it with him. I’ve already commented on the film recently so I’ll just give Charles’ reactions; he was amused by it, amazed by the sheer athleticism of the Nicholas Brothers’ performance, and enthusiastically pointed out the profusion of blue objects in the film. I had told him earlier that once three-strip Technicolor was introduced, and filmmakers now had the ability to photograph blue, often they seemed to go out of their way to include blue objects just to show off the fact that they now could — both photographing things like the ocean and the sky that are naturally blue, and by making as many objects in the movie blue as they could where they had a choice in the matter. Much of Down Argentine Way takes place in nightclubs, and virtually all the nightclubs are painted blue, while almost all the people in them are wearing blue clothes — the men in dark-blue suits and the women in powder-blue dresses. When Don Ameche (in a dark blue suit) and Betty Grable (in a white blouse and a light-blue dress) venture out to the patio of one of the New York nightclubs, the furniture is blue, the railings are blue, the New York skyscrapers are blue and even the sky — the night sky, mind you — is blue. Later, when they have a similar scene together in a nightclub in Argentina, they step out onto the porch and even comment in the film’s dialogue how much it looks like the one in New York. It does, too — it also has blue furniture and a deep-blue night sky in the background! — 1/25/97


I broke open the Betty Grable DVD boxed set and ran Down Argentine Way, the 1940 musical in which Grable, after kicking around Hollywood for over a decade (she signed a contract with Fox when she was only 13, lying about her age to do so, and made her film debut in a huge chorus line in a 1929 revue film called Happy Days, then worked her way through Sam Goldwyn, RKO and Paramount, getting a featured number in the Astaire-Rogers classic The Gay Divorcée but otherwise going unnoticed until she went to New York, got cast in the second lead in the Cole Porter musical DuBarry Was a Lady and was signed by Fox again), stepped in at the last minute to replace an indisposed Alice Faye in an odd project that had originally been planned to co-star Faye and Desi Arnaz (of all people), only Desi also pulled out of the project at the last minute and Don Ameche replaced him. Down Argentine Way was one of a cycle of musicals made by various studios — primarily 20th Century-Fox, RKO and Disney — to depict South America and help build public support for President Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy,” his attempt to improve U.S. relations with Latin America by making them less paternalistic. (FDR also was looking ahead to World War II and wanted the Latin American countries on the same side as the U.S. — had Nazi Germany been able to make trade deals with Latin American countries and obtained valuable resources, they could have kept the war going a lot longer than they did.) Grable got plugged into this movie when Faye had to withdraw at the last minute (an “trivia” poster says Faye got appendicitis, though other sources I’ve read say she got pregnant) — and it made her an overnight star. It’s hard to see why; her performance is perfectly fine for a limited, multi-dimensional role, she dances superbly (she must have learned something from being on the same sets as Fred and Ginger!) and she projects an infectious personality, but only in the last number does she actually get to show the fabled “Million Dollar Legs” Fox later had insured for that amount with Lloyd’s of London. As Charles noted the last time we saw a Grable film in color (The Dolly Sisters, made in 1945), the real star of Down Argentine Way is Natalie Kalmus, the technical advisor who ran the Technicolor company (her estranged husband Herbert had invented the process and they continued to work together for two decades after they broke up as a couple) and insisted that the colors be neon-bright. From the moment we see the opening credit, with the film’s name and the cast (no one is billed above the title) in off-white against a throbbing blue background, we know we’re in for a visual feast. Scene after scene dazzles the eyes, though director Irving Cummings and cinematographers Leon Shamroy and Ray Rennahan (Rennahan was the Technicolor technician sent out to assist the studio cinematographer, yet another practice the Technicolor company insisted on if you were going to use their process) managed to dazzle without making the colors so overbearing that they become exhausting.

The very first scene we see is Carmen Miranda, making her U.S. film debut singing a Portuguese-language version of her hit song “South American Way,” which had made her a star in the Broadway revue Streets of Paris (also the show that made stars of Abbott and Costello) — it was in her contract with Fox that in every film she would get to sing at least one song in Portuguese, though she hadn’t moved to Hollywood yet. She was still performing at a New York nightclub owned by the Shuberts, who had brought her to the U.S. from Brazil, and as a result all her scenes were shot in a New York studio, which meant Fox’s set construction crews had to build two exactly identical interior sets of “El Tigre,” the nightclub in Buenos Aires where Miranda’s character performs, so Cummings and editor Barbara McLean could cut smoothly from the Hollywood set to the New York version so it would appear they were the same place. (This also explains why Miranda doesn’t appear in the big finale featuring the rest of the cast.) When the cast members aren’t singing and dancing, Down Argentine Way is a pretty conventional movie about, of all things, horse racing. It actually starts in New York, where Don Diego Quintana (Henry Stephenson doing his best C. Aubrey Smith impression, on top of which he tries to put a transparently phony “Latino” accent) has gone to show his horses, and the Crawford family — aunt Binnie (Charlotte Greenwood, a superb eccentric dancer and comic singer who practically steals this movie from the principals) and her niece, show rider Glenda (Betty Grable) — are also there, attempting to buy one of Don Diego’s horses despite Don Diego’s fierce animosity towards the entire Crawford family, which isn’t explained for several more reels but seems to have had its origins in 1925, when a jockey riding a Crawford horse deliberately fouled Don Diego’s star racer Tempestad, leading to the horse’s death. Of course, Don Diego’s son Ricardo (Don Ameche) not only doesn’t share his family’s animosity towards the Crawfords but falls in love with Glenda at first sight — and she with him, though the course of true love hits a few minor speed bumps thrown in its way by writers Rian James, Ralph Spence, Darrell Ware and Karl Tunberg (the last far more famous for writing another movie involving horses, the 1959 remake of Ben-Hur).

About half an hour into this movie the characters finally relocate to Argentina, where first Glenda and then Binnie fall in with the comic-relief character of a professional tour guide (Leonid Kinskey — yet another last-minute replacement for a cast member, Cesar Romero, who had to drop out at the last minute — who puts this whole cast one degree of separation from the Marx Brothers) and end up at El Tigre, where they get to hear Carmen Miranda sing “Mama Eu Quiero” (which I hadn’t realized until years later was a Brazilian song originally written in Portuguese, since I’d first heard it on a Victor 78 by Xavier Cugat, who sang it in Spanish) and see the Nicholas Brothers do a dazzling dance routine to the title song (excerpted years later in the MGM compilation That’s Dancing) that’s easily the best number in the movie. When Pepe Guizar’s guitar ensemble comes out next to re-establish the romantic “Argentinian” mood, all I could think was they must have been lamenting, “We have to follow the Nicholas Brothers?” The finale is a big horse race for which Ricardo, Glenda and the Quintanas’ stable boy Casiano (J. Carrol Naish) have secretly trained Furioso, Tempestad’s grandson and a potentially great flat-racing horse Don Diego has tried to remold into a show jumper (a reverse of the plot of the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races), for the big Argentinian handicap race at San Isidro, and Don Diego — who gave up horse racing after the death of Tempestad — reluctantly gets dragged into allowing Furioso to race. We’re supposed to believe that the horse is so good he wins the big race even with a crooked jockey (substituted at the last minute due to machinations by a syndicate of which that tour guide is part) trying to hold him back — actually I was hoping for a National Velvet-style finish in which Glenda, who’d been established as a horsewoman in the opening scene, knocks out the crooked jockey and takes Furioso’s reins herself to win the big race — and all ends happily. Down Argentine Way isn’t much as a movie — the songs aren’t all that special and the fake Latin accents of Don Ameche and the other white cast members playing Argentinians are risible (though Charles told me the Anglo actors actually pronounced Spanish pretty well) — but it holds up as entertainment thanks to the vivid colors, Grable’s infectious personality and the incredible specialties of Miranda and the Nicholases. — 5/15/15