Saturday, February 2, 2013

Fiesta (MGM, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Recently Charles and I ran an intriguing movie from the TCM backlog I’d long been curious about: Fiesta, a 1947 MGM musical produced by Jack Cummings (who of the major MGM musical producers at the time probably has the least stellar reputation — Arthur Freed made MGM’s most stylish musicals and did most of Fred Astaire’s and Gene Kelly’s films there; Joseph Pasternack’s movies were famous for launching formidable singing stars like Deanna Durbin, Jane Powell, Kathryn Grayson and Mario Lanza and for taking place in so barely recognizable a simulacrum of reality that former MGM studio head Dore Schary called it the “Land of Pasternacky”), directed by hack Richard Thorpe (who put the entire cast one degree of separation from Elvis Presley, whom Thorpe directed in Jailhouse Rock) from a screenplay by George Bruce and future Hollywood 10 blacklistee Lester Cole. Though not as much a gender-bender as one might guess from the central premise — Maria Morales (Esther Williams, who goes for a brief dip in a lake early on but mostly stays out of the water and doesn’t get one of those incredible aquatic ballet sequences by John Murray Anderson or Busby Berkeley that marked her most entertaining films), fraternal twin sister of Mario Morales (Ricardo Montalban in his first American film, thereby earning him an “Introducing … ” card in the credits), takes over for him in the bull ring with nobody, especially their father, retired matador Antonio Morales (Fortunio Bonanova), the wiser — Fiesta is a fun movie whose sheer dorkiness and unwillingness to rise to some of the implications of its plot actually adds to its charm.

The film begins in the 1920’s, when Antonio’s wife (Mary Astor) gives birth to little Maria and, 15 minutes later, little Mario, and it works its way up through their childhoods. Antonio is naturally eager to train Mario for the corrida del toros so he can take over and become the star Antonio had been until an unexpected goring ended his career. With his sidekick, Chato Vasquez (Akim Tamiroff, surprisingly restrained — for him — and even charming in a comic-relief role), playing the bull (using two horns mounted on a crossbar, a standard technique for giving budding bullfighters an opportunity to practice safely). Mario trains — and Maria, a tomboy, watches, learns and ultimately gets better at it than their brother. All Mario is interested in is playing — and, eventually, writing — music, and eventually when he grows up to be Ricardo Montalban he composes a “Fantasia Mexicana” that is actually Aaron Copland’s marvelously rambunctious El Salón México tamed in an “arrangement” by Johnny Green (I couldn’t resist, at one point during the movie, referring to him by what his name would be in Spanish: Juanito Verde) that includes a part for piano solo and turns the piece into a miniature concerto. When I saw the Copland piece listed in the credits and saw that Johnny Green had been credited with arranging it I was hoping it would be used for a spectacular production number on the order of Gershwin’s An American in Paris in the famous film made 14 years later — also a pre-existing light-classical piece by an American composer which Green reassembled and conducted (stunningly) for a big production number — but my hopes were eventually dashed.

The way the plot plays out is, as Charles pointed out, yet another reworking of The Jazz Singer — dad wants son to follow in his footsteps but son has other ideas; Maria sneaks a copy of her brother’s piece to the great Mexican conductor Maximino Contreras (Hugo Haas), who agrees to premiere it and get Mario a scholarship to study music for two years. Only when he comes to the Morales manse to give Mario the good news, Antonio intercepts him, promising to let Mario know the next day that the great conductor came to see him. Of course, Antonio does no such thing, and instead prepares Mario for his debut as a professional bullfighter in Tlaxcala — but on the day of the fight Contreras shows up at the bull ring and pleads with Mario not to put his life, and his great musical talent, at risk of annihilation in the bullring. So just before he’s supposed to fight the bull, Mario wimps out and both he and his dad become national laughingstocks. But instead of going off with Contreras, Mario rejects both his real and substitute fathers’ plans for his destiny, runs away and takes a series of menial jobs. While on a bus taking him from one of those jobs to another, he meets a character identified only as “The Tourist” (Alan Napier), who tries to discuss music with him but is rebuffed — one does get the impression that Napier is taking a vacation from his regular job as Bruce Wayne’s butler even though the Batman TV series was 19 years in the future — until the bus passengers are in a cantina having lunch and Mario hears the broadcast of the Mexican symphony playing his piece, and immediately sits down at the bar piano and improvises a piano part. Though according to André Previn was the actual pianist on the soundtrack, Ricardo Montalban was a good enough pianist to synchronize with him impeccably and create the illusion he was playing himself.

While all this is going on, Maria hatches a plan to flush her brother out of hiding by disguising herself as him and going into the bullring herself, winning rave reviews for her first fight at Tlaxcala and getting a contract to fight at Puebla (where MGM actually went to shoot the film — at least the Mexican exteriors — though is silent over whether they did the studio work at a Mexican facility like Churubusco or back home in Culver City — and where, according to Esther Williams’ autobiography, her then-husband Ben Gage got in a bar fight and nearly got the entire company thrown out of the country: shades of Lee Tracy literally pissing away his career during the shoot of ¡Viva Villa! 13 years before — standing on his hotel balcony, he urinated on a company of Mexican soldiers marching by and the Mexican government responded by throwing not only him but the entire company out of the country, and MGM fired not only Tracy but director Howard Hawks). Only all the other characters, including Mario, converge on Puebla for the big fight and Maria, seeing her brother, loses her concentration, the bull comes after her (a running theme in the Bruce-Cole script holds that bullfighters only get gored when they lose their concentration and take their eyes off the bull) and Mario himself has to get the bull off his sister, using his suit jacket as a cape. The movie ends with both brother and sister appropriately paired off with other opposite-sex cast members — Mario with his dancing partner Conchita (Cyd Charisse) and Maria with José “Pepe” Ortega, a scientist who’s about to take a job with the Institute of Research in New York City (a name that reminded us of all those mad-scientist movies with Lionel Atwill like Doctor X and The Mad Doctor of Market Street — for the rest of the movie Charles and I even took turns saying the word “scal-PEL,” with that odd accent on the last syllable Atwill used in Doctor X) — and Antonio happy even though both his kids are forsaking the bullring permanently.

 Fiesta is a fun movie, with glorious three-strip Technicolor photography of Mexico (though, oddly, the bullfights themselves are dirtier than the rest — stock footage with Eastmancolor? — and the stunt doubling of both Williams and Montalban in the big fights, probably by the same person, is all too obvious; Eddie Cantor’s film The Kid from Spain is actually more convincing, mainly because Sidney Franklin, an American who had gone to Mexico to learn to be a torero, was not only his stunt double but also his coach, and while Cantor was clearly doubled in the long shots he was game enough to shoot a few close-ups with the bull in the same frame) and a plot that plays with gender roles even though the play remains pretty unserious (just think of what Preston Sturges could have done with this premise and this cast!), and it’s also a fertile field for degrees of separation: Charles reminded me that Montalban’s presence puts Esther Williams one degree of separation from William Shatner (Montalban was in the original Star Trek episode “Space Seed” and the second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, which was actually a sequel to “Space Seed”), while Fortunio Bonanova puts the cast of Fiesta one degree of separation from Orson Welles (as, come to think of it, does Alan Napier, the “Holy Father” in Welles’ Macbeth), since Bonanova played Susan Alexander’s hapless, overwhelmed voice teacher in Citizen Kane. Indeed, it’s especially ironic that Bonanova plays a character trying to keep his son from having a musical career, since he studied voice as a baritone and intended to make his career in opera before he settled on acting and his most famous role in a film is as a voice teacher.

As far as the musical program of Fiesta is concerned, aside from the Copland/Green/Previn piece, virtually all the songs are traditional Mexican stuff — when Montalban played the opening strain of the Copland I briefly mistook it for “La Paloma” and joked that there was an edict that song had to appear in every Hollywood movie about Mexico; actually “La Paloma” isn’t heard in this movie but the “Mexican Hat Dance” is (with some weirdly unauthentic trombone slides) and so is “La Bamba,” sung by a group called Los Bocheros in much the same style as Los Lobos performed it in “traditional” guise in the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba (and that film’s director, Luis Valdez —who turned in a work of quality and power instead of the hack job that was The Buddy Holly Story — marvelously had the song heard both ways, a traditional Mexican version and Valens’ rock ’n’ roll version, both played by Los Lobos), and while it isn’t particularly exciting music it is enjoyable, and it’s fun to see Montalban (who hadn’t sung or danced professionally before, though he’d made films in Mexico as a straight actor) almost holding his own with Cyd Charisse in their joint dance numbers. Ricardo Montalban’s career was launched with a major “push” from MGM but fell victim to Hollywood’s ironclad rules about how to use actors of color (though the much less prestigious Universal broke those rules in casting Turhan Bey), and he also suffered indirectly from the Hollywood blacklist; though he wasn’t blacklisted himself, John Howard Lawson was, and that put an end to the projects Lawson had been pushing for Montalban: biopics of Simón Bolivár and Emiliano Zapata!