Friday, June 19, 2015

Moon Over Miami (20th Century-Fox, 1941)

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

Three nights ago Charles and I watched Moon Over Miami, a not very “special” but nonetheless entertaining 1941 20th Century-Fox musical reuniting the co-stars of Down Argentine Way, Betty Grable and Don Ameche (she had had an explosive success with Down Argentine Way but was still being billed below him!) in a considerably less splashy but still tuneful and spectacular-looking Technicolor extravaganza. The ostensible basis of the plot of Moon Over Miami was a British play by Stephen Powys that opened in London in 1938 (the film credits future director George Seaton — who would make Grable’s best film, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, five years later — and Lynn Starling with “adaptation” and Vincent Lawrence and old Warners hand Brown Holmes with “screenplay”), but the plot has more than a family resemblance to another play, The Greeks Had a Word for It, written and premiered by Zoë Akins (the quite interesting writer who was responsible for the scripts of Katharine Hepburn’s second and third movies, Christopher Strong and Morning Glory) in 1930 and first filmed by Sam Goldwyn in 1932 — though the Production Code Administration (even in those so-called “pre-Code” days!) forced him to change the title to The Greeks Had a Word for Them, and in the definitively post-Code era of the later 1930’s Goldwyn had to do another title change — to Three Broadway Girls — to be allowed to reissue the film.

The page on Moon Over Miami lists no fewer than four versions of this same basic story besides Goldwyn’s Greeks and this one: Three Blind Mice (1938), Three Little Girls in Blue (1946), an Asian film called Kuang Lian (1960) and the most famous of the remakes, How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) — also a Fox production and also starring Betty Grable! (Grable quite frequently appeared in remakes of her old movies; she recalled years later that some of the dialogue in her 1950 film Wabash Avenue sounded familiar and wondered if she’d seen a film containing it. Later she found she had been in a film containing it; the writers of Wabash Avenue had not only recycled the plot of her 1940 movie Coney Island but had ripped off some of the lines as well!) And just what about this plot made it so appealing to generations of moviemakers? Well, Moon Over Miami starts with an unlikely trio — sisters Kay and Barbara Latimer (Betty Grable and Carole Landis) and their aunt Susan (Charlotte Greenwood, whose dry wit is a large part of this film’s appeal) — working as waitresses at “Texas Tommy’s,” a drive-in supposedly famous for its hamburgers and blue-plate specials (though no one seems to come in for anything more than coffee, tomato juice and bicarb — obviously the place’s real reputation is as somewhere to go after you’ve been drinking all night and want to recover from your hangover). The women are expecting an inheritance of $55,000, but when they receive the check they find that attorney’s fees and high taxes have reduced the award to $4,000 plus change — whereupon they hit on the idea (possibly from having seen one of the previous versions of this story) of using the residual amount they did get to rent a room at a fancy resort in Miami (the establishment is called the Flamingo, which made me wonder if inveterate movie-buff Bugsy Siegel had got the idea from it to call his pioneering resort on the Las Vegas Strip the Flamingo) and see if they can snag rich husbands by posing as rich themselves for as long as their bankroll holds out.

They run into bellboy and housekeeper Jack O’Hara (Jack Haley), who hates gold-diggers with a passion and appoints himself to make sure Kay in particular isn’t entrapped by one — which of course creates a lot of comic suspense that leaves the girls worried that he’s going to “out” them as gold-diggers themselves — and at least two of the young rich men who they went there to target: Jeffrey Boulton (Robert Cummings), whose big party is now in its third day (though his guests seem so exhausted by the ordeal all they do is slump in chairs and wonder what they’re going to get to eat); and his principal guest, Phil McLean (Don Ameche), who when we meet him has a napkin or towel or something over his head, reflecting the drunken stupor he’s in. Kay and Barbara go after these unlikely pigeons and there’s a comic rivalry, sort of like the one in Holiday Inn but considerably less nasty, in which Jeffrey and Phil have a speedboat race (a lot of exciting stunt driving by their doubles) and at one point Jeffrey takes Kay for a ride in a submarine and Phil turns up staring at them under water (how did he hold his breath that long?). The studio actually sent a second unit to real resorts in Winter Haven and Ocala, Florida, and it boosts the entertainment value of the film considerably, though we do get the stars performing some not particularly interesting songs by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger (low point of the score is a big dance number in which the principals and chorus are supposedly playing Seminole Indians — watching this right after reading Steve Inskeep’s Jacksonland, which is mostly about the Cherokee removal in the 1830’s but touches on the Seminoles and their resistance as well, was weird, and Charles found this more racially offensive than the minstrel numbers that afflicted too many of the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland films) and listening to an undistinguished assemblage of 20th Century-Fox studio musicians trying to imitate a swing band (the next year Grable would make Springtime in the Rockies, not a particularly great movie either, but at least that one had a real swing superstar, Harry James, and Grable was so taken with him she married him for real) wearing blue suits as they play for a crowd dressed mostly in blue who are dancing on a blue dance floor. (Remember that the biggest improvement in three-strip Technicolor over the older two-strip version was it could photograph blue, so filmmakers took advantage of that and showed as much blue as they could; even the night skies in this film are a deep, rich blue.)

Eventually Kay gets as far with Boulton as a formal proposal and a chance to meet his family, but in the end she realizes that it’s Phil she really loves even though he’s broke — his family did own the McLean steelworks but their business has dwindled down to nearly nothing (if this had been a Warner Bros. movie she’d have been shown pushing him to take over the mills and build them back up to their former repute, but at Fox they couldn’t have cared less about that sort of thing) — and it’s Barbara who gets Jeffrey, who at the behest of his parents has agreed to give up his playboy ways and take charge of their company’s operations in Brazil. As for Aunt Susan, she ends up with Jack O’Hara — after having spent most of the movie locking him in various bathrooms and closets (in one of the bathroom there’s a solid wall of little square mirrors, and the door to the medicine cabinet is concealed in the middle of the array) — given Jack Haley’s most famous credit, I couldn’t help but joke, “The Wizard of Oz gave me a heart, and all I could do with it was get Charlotte Greenwood?” Moon Over Miami is a fun movie, all things considered, not as entertaining as it could have been but still entertaining (put Grable in a movie with a better director than Walter Lang — like George Seaton in The Shocking Miss Pilgrim or Preston Sturges in the underrated Western spoof The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend — and she could rise to the occasion, but for the most part Fox gave her complaisant hacks who knew how to put her through her paces but not to do much interesting with her), though it hovers in the shadow of How to Marry a Millionaire, which took place in New York City but otherwise had the same plot, with Grable repeating her role, Marilyn Monroe taking the Carole Landis part (and, not surprisingly, bringing a lot more to it) and Lauren Bacall the Greenwood role — and it also doesn’t help that, while it has some of the same elements as Down Argentine Way, it doesn’t have Carmen Miranda (though given how much Latino/a culture there is in Florida she certainly could have been fit into it) and, instead of the Nicholas Brothers, we get the Condos Brothers, a couple of white Nicholas Brothers wanna-bes who are formidable tappers but lack the Nicholases’ incredible acrobatics and athleticism.