Sunday, 1 December 2013

Down Argentine Way (1940)

When you're having trouble sleeping (which unfortunately does happen from time to time), better than turning on lamps to read and disturbing the rest of the world, sneak off to another room and watch a creaky old flic on DVD, which should be guaranteed to put you back to sleep. Or not, as was the case, with this hokey yet thoroughly enjoyable Technicolor extravaganza from 20th Century Fox.

It's been a while since I last saw this bit of fluff, hoicked together like Frankenstein's monster to showcase a number of the day's talents. The very slim and empty-headed story has Don Ameche sent to Tuxedo Park, New York from their spread in Argentina by grizzled aristocratic dad Henry Stephenson to sell some of their champion horseflesh to eager Yankee buyers. There he meets socialite Betty Grable (talk about unbelievable casting) who is eager to buy his show horse; it's a quickly done deal, especially when he falls for the 'vivacious beauty' (Trademark) at first sight; however, it turns out that she is the daughter of his dad's sworn enemy, and he must renege on the bargain. Miffed as she is, she can't quite forget him and is off to Buenos Aires with her aunt in tow (Charlotte Greenwood, the leggy Aunt Eller from "Oklahoma"). She quickly re-connects with Ameche (who is also hopelessly hooked) and is introduced under a fictitious surname to his father. Soon the pair are conspiring to train Dad's best jumper as a flat race champion, assuming that the horse's success will inspire Dad to overlook all of the lies and welcome Betty into the family. If that was all, I doubt that the film would be fondly remembered today -- but there is so much more to commend it.

Despite being considered the breakthrough role for Grable -- she was brought in as a replacement for Fox musical diva Alice Faye, it is hard to see just how she became the forces' pin-up during World War II. She is no looker by today's standards and is neither a particularly good vocalist nor great dancer. In fact most of her numbers seem to showcase a clunky-footed hoofer and in her final dance before an admiring crowd of South American peasants, she comes across as the worst sort of cooch-dancer. Even her famously insured legs are rather unshapely and very undancer-like. Ameche is as ever the smooth charmer and if his singing was dubbed as is rumoured, it did not detract from his screen presence; even his 'Latin lover' accent seems possible. His father Stephenson didn't bother with a make-believe accent, but was fine nonetheless. (I would have sworn early on that it was the great C. Aubrey Smith in the role -- but no). Another weird bit of casting was Russian-born Leonid Kinskey in the role of a local tour guide cum gigolo; apparently Cesar Romero was originally considered for the part which would have been rather more believable, if not as goofy fun.

What makes the movie special however are the specialty numbers. It was the first film role for Brazilian Bombshell Carmen Miranda who has three songs. The Technicolor was chosen to spotlight her colourful costumes in all their glory -- pity therefore that she has no costume changes at all! The second bit of stupendous entertainment is courtesy of the dancing Nicholas Brothers, who brought so much amazing energy and entertainment to any number of 40s' musicals, with their amazing gymnastic splits and general flexibility. Other acts, less well-known today, include the cutely named singing group of Six Hits and a Miss, the dancing Dowlings, the Flores Brothers, and Pepe Guizar. With all of that talent on display, including J. Carrol Naish, as Stephenson's horse-trainer (one of his never-ending stream of ethnic roles), the dubious charms of Miss Grable are quickly wallpapered over.

The film was made at a time that the United States was pursuing its 'Good Neighbour' policy and wooing their South American neighbours as potential allies against the Axis powers and the looming world war. The film manages to present Argentina as a gorgeous and colourful picture-postcard destination. Ironically, the movie was ultimately banned in that country, as the powers that be objected to the fact that few locals were employed, that phony accents prevailed, that intimations about the country's class structure were stereotyped, and mostly that spotlighting the 'foreign' Miranda (who of course spoke Portuguese and not Spanish) was the ultimate insult.

Despite this, all of the cast and of course the studio found that they had a popular hit on their hands, giving them all a career boost, and none of them looked back for some years to come.

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