Saturday, May 23, 2015

That Night in Rio (20th Century-Fox, 1941)

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

The film was yet another 20th Century-Fox musical from the Alice Faye boxed set, That Night in Rio, which also starred Don Ameche (who named it his favorite of his own films — which surprised me; I thought it would have been The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, a film that was such a hit that for a while “ameche” entered the language as a slang term for “telephone”) and Carmen Miranda (in her second U.S. film and her first actually made in Hollywood). It was also a followup to Down Argentine Way — in which Faye had had to give up the lead to Betty Grable (the film made Grable an instant star after over a decade during which she’d hung around Hollywood desperately hoping for a big break) — in the sequence of musicals set in South America which Fox, RKO and Disney made to help boost President Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy” to help our neighbors on the rest of the American continents (and, not incidentally, to keep them aligned with us if and when we got into World War II because many of the South American countries had important resources for maintaining military machines the Axis powers would dearly have loved to get their hands on to keep their war effort going, and FDR was anxious to keep those resources out of enemy hands and, if at all possible, get them for us instead).

That Night in Rio would be followed by Weekend in Havana (a film I wish the Faye boxed set had included instead of yet another pressing of The Gang’s All Here, which I bought on its own as well as part of the Miranda box), in which, instead of Grable replacing Faye as in Down Argentine Way, Faye replaced Grable. Carmen Miranda was in all three, though at least in this one she got to play her genuine white-Brazilian nationality (she was actually born in Portugal but her family emigrated to Brazil when she was three) even though the songs she sang were pretty silly novelties like “Chica-Chica-Boom-Chic,” “I-Yi-Yi-I Like You Very Much” and “Cai Cai” — the first two by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, the film’s overall songwriters, and the third an actual Brazilian song by Roberto Martins and Pedro Barrios with an English lyric by John Latouche. (When Miranda, flush with her U.S. successes with Streets of Paris on the Broadway stage and Down Argentine Way on film, returned in what she thought would be triumph to the stage of the Urca Casino in Rio and sang her big U.S. hit “South American Way,” she was booed by the Brazilians, who saw the song as a putrid U.S. knockoff of their national music.) The 1990’s documentary on Miranda, Bananas Is My Business, showed how Miranda saw her work in the U.S. as a kind of cultural emissary to build understanding of Latin American culture, and to that end she had a stipulation in her Fox contract that she would sing at least one song in Portuguese in each film (here she actually did three, though many of them were just portions of big numbers in which another performer or two were brought on to sing the same song in English). The documentary also noted that the way Carmen Miranda’s characters spoke — alternately in broken-English and rapid-fire Portuguese the way Lupe Velez played the “Mexican Spitfire” largely in rapid-fire Spanish — was the way she had spoken when she first arrived in the U.S.; she eventually learned to speak English perfectly but, like Jack Benny’s violin playing, Carmen Miranda couldn’t speak perfect English in public without blowing her carefully cultivated image.

Here she’s cast as a character named “Carmen,” co-star and girlfriend of U.S. nightclub performer Larry Martin (Don Ameche), who holds forth in a Rio nightclub and whose act consists of, among other things, an impersonation of one of Rio’s richest men, the fabulously wealthy investment broker Baron Duarte (also Don Ameche). Baron Duarte has an American wife (Alice Faye) — at least we assume she’s American because she’s not made up to look Latina, she’s kept in all her usual blonde glory and she speaks in American-accented rather than Latin-accented English — and he also owns an airline that has just lost its contract to deliver air mail in Brazil. Without that contract the company will be ruined and Baron Duarte will lose all his money. Duarte disappears on a last-minute trip to Buenos Aires (returning to the Argentinian setting of the previous film in the series) to try to get a bank loan to keep his company going until he can renegotiate the mail contract and get some revenue again, only in order to keep up his daily personal appearance at the Rio stock exchange and his appointment to be the guest of honor at a reception for the ambassador (Georges Renavent) — we’re never told what country he’s the ambassador of — Duarte’s business associates Penna (S. Z. Sakall, charming and cuddly as usual) and Salles (Curt Bois) pay Larry to impersonate him. Larry pulls off the reception but at the stock exchange he waves back and forth, not realizing these are buying signals, with the result that instead of owning 51 percent of an airline that’s about to go out of business, he now owns 100 percent. All of this is to ensure that Duarte’s hated rival Machado (J. Carrol Naish) doesn’t experience the satisfaction of throwing him out of business, but needless to say it also sparks a round of jealousy as Mrs. Duarte suddenly finds her husband — or Larry, or whoever — a considerably more attentive lover than she’s used to, while Carmen ends up with yet more reasons to be flamboyantly jealous of Larry.

That Night in Rio began as a 1934 play called The Red Cat which the (pre-20th Century) Fox company bankrolled for the movie rights; it only lasted 34 performances but Fox filmed it anyway as Folies-Bergère, Maurice Chevalier’s last U.S. movie for 20 years (he was still a major star in America but his wife, the French singer Mistinguett, was homesick and no longer wanted to live anywhere but in Paris). In 1951 they’d take this plot out of mothballs a third time and give it to Danny Kaye for a film called On the Riviera; I have never seen Folies-Bergère and I haven’t seen On the Riviera for decades, though I remember it as more fun than That Night in Rio, which is dazzlingly fun when it’s actually in the nightclub where Larry and Carmen perform but surprisingly dull during the long “comedy” scenes that separate the numbers. The film takes off and flies when Carmen Miranda is center stage — in a movie in which all the other performers (even such accomplished scenery-chewers as J. Carrol Naish and Leonid Kinskey, who repeats his Down Argentine Way role as a lounge-lizard gigolo after the blonde American heroine) seem oddly understated, her all out charge-the-camera-full-speed-ahead energy is welcome and easily the best thing about the film. Otherwise the best things about it are the glorious three-strip Technicolor (these Fox musicals are one set of films that come off considerably better on commercial DVD’s than home recordings or normal TV showings; the Fox transfers, ballyhooed as major restorations, are almost eye-strainingly vivid in their reproductions of the spectacular, sometimes garish hues of three-strip in the 1940’s, though as Charles noted Carmen Miranda managed to call attention to herself in the final number by not wearing anything blue but instead appearing in a green-and-red costume that would have done just as well in the more primitive two-strip process) and the energy of Warren’s songs. Alice Faye gets a couple of her usual foghorn laments, including the title song, and Don Ameche has the interesting challenge of singing in two voices (as the Baron he both speaks and sings in a lower register and at a slower pace than he does as Larry, which is why I suspect he was Larry rather than the Baron when he was doing the reprise of “Chica-Chica-Boom-Chic” that was cut from the film originally but is presented here as a “deleted scene” bonus), but it’s Carmen Miranda, her group (the Bando da Lua, a samba ensemble she insisted on importing to the U.S. and using in all her films) and the luscious photography of them by cinematographers Ray Rennahan and Leon Shamroy (including some interesting red-filter effects on the Bando’s samba drums, presaging Shamroy’s infamous experiments with color filters on South Pacific 17 years later) that make That Night in Rio watchable.