Monday, September 9, 2013

Latin Lovers (MGM, 1953)

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

The film was Latin Lovers, a 1953 production by MGM, a bit late in the day for something this bizarre and slight, a sort of semi-musical in which Lana Turner plays Nora Taylor, daughter of a Texas mailman who dug for oil in his spare time, struck it big and amassed a fortune which Nora’s own business acumen has expanded to $37 million. The one thing that frustrates her, this being an MGM movie, is she doesn’t have a serious boyfriend; she’s been dating Paul Chevron (John Lund), who’s decent-looking and has an even bigger fortune, $48 million, but she’s not interested in him because he’s at once too stuck up and too deferential (on the advice of his analyst — both Nora and Paul are seeing psychoanalysts; hers is a man and his is a woman, and the gags involving their therapy sessions are funny even though writer Isobel Lennart obviously borrowed this from the Kurt Weill musical Lady in the Dark). Paul is planning a trip to Brazil to play polo (at which he’s spectacularly terrible, always falling off his polo ponies, breaking or spraining various limbs, and blaming it on the allegedly poor training of the animals), and Nora follows him — and falls head over heels in love with rancher Roberto Santos (Ricardo Montalban). The rest you could practically write yourself; it’s a romantic triangle that we’re not in much suspense over how it’s going to turn out — not when John Lund is as repulsive a screen presence as ever — and quite frankly both the chief glory of the film and its most annoying aspect is the incredibly rich, overripe, garish three-strip Technicolor by cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg and Technicolor consultant Henri Jaffa. The film goes out of its way to make so many objects blue, including the cars and Ricardo Montalban’s suits, Charles thought it seemed like a throwback to the mid-1930’s, the early days of three-strip, when filmmakers not only threw in as many things one would expect to be blue (like sea and sky) but made as many objects as possible blue — clothes, walls, furniture, props — just to glory in the fact that now color film could photograph blue. The colors have a richness and vibrancy that’s astonishing and spectacular at first but soon becomes wearing — it’s a nice change from the dank browns and greens that dominate color films today (and lead me to ask the rhetorical question why, if they’re going to use so little of the visible spectrum anyway, they don’t just film in black-and-white), but in the end all those shrieking colors start to feel like they’re assaulting the eyes instead of pleasing them.

There are some interesting supporting characters, including Nora’s long-suffering secretary Anne Kellwood (Jean Hagen in a nicely controlled performance that will be a shock to anyone who knows her only as the ditz she played in Adam’s Rib and Singin’ in the Rain), who ends up paired with Paul at the end after Nora has paired with Roberto; and a quite engaging comic-relief character called Howard G. Hubbell (Archer McDonald), a staffer at the U.S. embassy in Rio de Janeiro whom Nora engages to teach her Portuguese so she can communicate with Roberto, not knowing that he speaks English (and if this film was ever shown in Brazil with its original soundtrack — which, as Charles pointed out, is highly unlikely because most South American prints were dubbed — audiences probably got a hoot from hearing Montalban speak Portuguese with his Mexican Spanish accent), and who goes through the whole film wearing thick glasses that make him look as if his eyeballs are popping out, cartoon character-style, as Lana Turner’s sheer beauty overwhelms him. Eventually Isobel Lennart, who was one of those women writers who made millions telling other women they should stay at home and be submissive little housewives, concocts the most sexist ending imaginable as she has Nora realize that the only way she can be happy with a man is if she gives all her money away (how? In the real world rich people don’t just start handing out money; if they want to be charitable they set up foundations) and just lives on his money. Since Roberto is obviously quite well fixed himself — this is an MGM movie, after all, and therefore it’s a paean to the 1 percent rather than one of those kinky films we got in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s in which the fabulously wealthy heiress fell in love with a proletarian and could have him only if she descended to his lifestyle — this doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice, but the idea that a woman could have both a business career and a husband was strictly verboten in 1950’s films.

Latin Lovers is a film of surpassing mediocrity, a romantic melodrama that isn’t particularly romantic or melodramatic, and a quasi-musical in which neither of the two leads sing (and Lana Turner doesn’t even try, though Ricardo Montalban gets two numbers in which he’s dubbed by a stentorian “Latin” singer whose voice doesn’t even begin to match Montalban’s speaking voice); it’s not actively unpleasant but it’s not all that much fun, either. Frankly, I had a hard time watching it and not comparing it to Flying Down to Rio as a U.S.-made musical set (mostly) in Brazil — and the 1933 film has it all over this 1953 ones in terms of creativity, ingenuity, credibility (it had stars, including Gene Raymond and Raul Roulien as the two males in the romantic triangle as well as, of course, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers making their joint debut in supporting roles, who could actually sing and dance) and sheer exuberance, along with impressively atmospheric black-and-white cinematography instead of shrieking, garish Technicolor. (Remember that Latin Lovers was made when Technicolor was trying to hold its own commercially against the less spectacular but considerably cheaper and more convenient Eastmancolor process.) The most interesting thing about Latin Lovers is that it was originally planned as a follow-up to the 1952 movie The Merry Widow, a vehicle for Turner and her real-life lover Fernando Lamas — only Turner and Lamas broke up just before Latin Lovers was about to start shooting, she insisted that MGM replace him, and Montalban was the only other Latino they had under contract who would be suitable for a romantic lead (which is how an actor went within a decade and a half from appearing opposite Lana Turner to playing a key role in the Star Trek cycle on both TV and film).