Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Weekend in Havana (20th Century-Fox, 1941)

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

The film was Week-End in Havana (that antique spelling of “Week-End” as a hyphenated word instead of the more common “Weekend” was on the original title credit and also is how the film is listed on imdb.com), third in the sequence of 20th Century-Fox color musicals made to assist President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy” towards Latin America (inspired, as I’ve suggested earlier in these pages, at least in part by the desire to get Latin American countries on board with the Allied side in World War II so the Axis couldn’t get badly needed war materiel and resources from them) and offer lush, gorgeous depictions of our neighbors to the south. The first in the sequence, Down Argentine Way, co-starred Betty Grable and Don Ameche — Grable, who’d been kicking around Hollywood for over a decade, became an “overnight” star with this film even though it’s not much of a showcase for her (only in the final dance number does she get to show her soon-to-be-famous legs) — while the second, That Night in Rio, co-starred Ameche (in a dual role) with Alice Faye, who had been scheduled to make Down Argentine Way until she got an attack of appendicitis just before shooting was supposed to begin. Weekend in Havana was the third in the sequence, and this time around Faye was a last-minute replacement for Grable — while her co-star was John Payne, who’d had a middling career mostly stuck in the “B”’s at Warners, then got lured to Fox with the promise of co-starring in major musicals like this, only when the wartime musical boom and his popularity dipped, Payne started making independent films and tried to duplicate Dick Powell’s successful transition from musical star to film noir actor.

The “series” nature of this production was emphasized by the use of the same credit design as in the previous movies — the titles in yellow on a red background printed as a diagonal ribbon across the screen — and also the appearance of Carmen Miranda, whose over-the-top “Brazilian Bombshell” act is (as usual) the best thing about this movie. Weekend in Havana was written by Karl Tunberg (his most famous credit was the 1959 Ben-Hur, for which he was the only credited writer even though more highly regarded scribes like Christopher Fry, S. M. Behrman and Gore Vidal had also been involved) and Darrell Ware, and directed by Walter Lang — a slight improvement over Irving Cummings, who’d done the previous two — and it has a marvelous score by Harry Warren and lyricist Mack Gordon, including the title song (sung by Carmen Miranda in fractured English — though not as fractured as I remembered it; I had thought she sang “Would you like to spaind a weekaind in Havana?,” but instead she says “spend” and “weekend” in the normal fashion) and the lovely “Tropical Magic,” sung by Alice Faye in a nightclub (she picks up the melody from a trio who do it in Spanish and magically knows the English lyric already) and later reprised for a duet between her and John Payne as they’re lying together in a cart carrying newly cut sugar cane to be refined. (It’s one of those odd duets, like those records Neil Sedaka made with his daughter in the 1970’s, in which the woman has a lower voice than the man.) Jimmy Dorsey also made a record of “Tropical Magic,” with Bob Eberly as the vocalist, and the song brought out the very best in both him and Alice Faye (the less said about John Payne — whose voice wasn’t bad, just serviceable — the better). According to American Movie Classics host Bob Dorian — Charles and I were watching this off a DVD dub I’d just made from a 1988 showing on that late, lamented network (it’s still in business but has been thoroughly Debbie-ized and is now best known for “original” series like Mad Men and The Walking Dead) and I had included Dorian’s intro but had cut off the beginning so I wasn’t clear which writer he said that had happened to, but when one of the writers was on a cruise ship and the ship ran aground close to a coastline, he had the idea to use that as the basic plot for Weekend in Havana. 

So the action of this one — after a hot opening performance of Carmen Miranda singing the title song — begins with a panicked meeting at the McCracken Steamship Company between its owner, Walter McCracken (George Barbier), and his assistant and ace fix-it man, Jay Williams (John Payne). It seems that their liner Cuban Queen has just run aground off the Florida coast, thereby blowing the vacation of everyone who’d booked passage on it for a “weekend in Havana,” and Jay — whose omnipresent reading glasses make him look vaguely like Harold Lloyd — is sent down to get release forms from everyone so the steamship company isn’t going to get sued. Only Macy’s shopgirl Nan Spencer (Alice Faye), who tells Jay (and us) she saved for years to go on that vacation, including skipping lunch to buy the spectacular clothes she wanted to travel in, is unwilling to sign until she’s actually had her vacation and enjoyed it. So Jay has to squire her around Havana himself, and when she proves unresponsive to his charms he hires professional gigolo and gambler Monte Blanca (César Romero — and just why does this character have the name “white mountain”?) to romance her — thereby pissing off Monte’s regular girlfriend, singer Rosita Rivas (Carmen Miranda). The plot of this one is even more beside the point than usual — at times Tunberg, Ware and Lang are able to make it passable and even genuinely amusing French-style farce, but for the most part it plods leadenly and just gets in the way of what we really want to watch, including the singing (especially Miranda’s), the dancing and the spectacular second-unit shots of the real Havana. Imdb.com reviewer “bkoganbing” praised Fox for sending a second unit, with director James Curtis Havens, to Havana and shooting new backgrounds for the film instead of just using old newsreel footage, forgetting that since this film was in color and colorization hadn’t been invented yet, they needed footage of Havana in color and that probably did not exist in newsreels or stock-footage libraries. Just why Weekend in Havana is considered enough of a stepchild among Faye’s or Miranda’s movies that it’s not available in the three boxed sets of Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda 20th Century-Fox Home Video has thus far released even though they’re both in it is a mystery, but it’s a nice, entertaining little movie, with great location shots, glorious Technicolor (even though the whole image was so bathed in blue Charles complained that in one scene Carmen Miranda looked like Krishna), great songs and good (and, in Miranda’s case, great) singers to sing them.