Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Mexican Hayride (Universal-International, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Mexican Hayride, a 1948 Universal-International production and the next Abbott and Costello movie in sequence after Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. It actually began life as a 1944 Broadway musical, with book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields and songs by Cole Porter. The musical starred the great comedian Bobby Clark (who’d had a career in Hollywood making short films in the early 1930’s with his stage partner Paul McCullough, but after McCullough committed suicide in 1935 Clark made only one more film, The Goldwyn Follies in 1938, and otherwise concentrated exclusively on stage work) and June Havoc (Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister and the grown-up version of the “Baby June” all fans of the musical Gypsy will remember). Clark played Joe Bascom, a con man who flees to Mexico and meets his old girlfriend (Havoc), who’s now a woman bullfighter using the name “Montana.” She’s currently dating David Winthrop (Wilbur Evans, whom I know mainly as the male lead in Kitty Carlisle’s 1945 Decca recording of Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song) and of course ends up with him at the end, while Bascom teams up with a speculator to run a phony national lottery (as opposed to Mexico’s real one?). In the end, of course, Montana and David get together and Bascom gets busted. Universal-International bought the rights to Mexican Hayride and made the bone-headed decision to junk the Porter songs — I’d always thought they did that because Porter was considered over the hill by then (the original review of the stage version in Life magazine complained that “the composer of ‘Night and Day’ seems, at least temporarily, to have written himself dry,” and Porter’s next two projects, the Orson Welles musical of Around the World in 80 Days and the film The Pirate, were flops; fortunately, while the film Mexican Hayride was in production Porter was working on the magnificent Kiss Me, Kate, a smash hit and a major comeback for him), but an imdb.com “Trivia” entry said that Abbott and Costello fans were getting tired of having their films cluttered up by musical numbers. Come to think of it, maybe junking the Porter songs wasn’t such a bad idea after all: “I Love You” (the result of a bet Porter and a friend had going over whether Porter could write a song with such a banal and obvious title; needless to say, Porter came through brilliantly) was the only Mexican Hayride song that became a standard.

By the time Universal-International’s personnel — writers Oscar Brodney and John Grant (Grant was the author of “Who’s on First?” and their go-to guy for hilarious wordplay routines), director Charles T. Barton, producer Robert Arthur and songwriters Walter Scharf and Jack Brooks (who contributed an especially awful song called “Is It Yes, or Is It No?,” and one wonders why they took out all Porter’s song and gave us this) — got through remodeling Mexican Hayride as an Abbott and Costello vehicle, Joe Bascom (Lou Costello) was no longer a con man but an innocent dupe, framed by Harry Lambert (Bud Abbott). Montana (Virginia Grey) is still a matadora, and in the opening scene she’s supposed to pick a U.S. citizen from the crowd and throw her hat to him (in the stage original it was the ear of the bull she’d just killed), thereby designating him as the winner of the Anglo-Mexican friendship contest and entitling him to a cash prize and a week-long guided tour of Mexico. She and Lambert have set it up so the winner will be David Winthrop (John Hubbard) — who in this version is a crook instead of the romantic lead — because Lambert owes him money and has worked out a scheme to pay him off by rigging the contest in his favor. Only when Montana sees Bascom in the crowd, she gets so upset with him she throws the hat at him out of sheer anger. Lambert tricks Bascom into his latest scheme, having him work into the big speech he’s supposed to make as part of his tour a pitch for a worthless silver mine Lambert is selling stock in, and using the four women from the Mexican Chamber of Commerce who were assigned to greet Bascom and keep him company on his tour as the salespeople for the phony stock (which Bascom is shown printing out on what appears to be a mimeograph machine — I’m old enough to remember mimeograph machines). It’s a film of individual scenes rather than a particularly coherent plot — there’s a nice, if a bit overlong, sequence with Fritz Feld as an elocution teacher trying to train Bascom to make public speeches (The King’s Speech 62 years early!); another with Lambert and Bascom as roadside food vendors; and what’s by far the best part of the film, the exciting action climax in which Bascom ends up stuck in a bullring trying to escape being gored to death by a runaway bull who, unlike his real-life counterparts, is able to leap the wooden barriers that ring a bullfighting stadium and chase Bascom through them. The climax owes a lot to the Eddie Cantor vehicle The Kid from Spain, made 16 years earlier, though it’s pretty obvious that — unlike Cantor, who actually got close to the bull for a few close-ups even though most of his impersonation of a bullfighter was doubled (by Sidney Franklin, one of the few norteamericaños ever actually to train as a matador and make a living at it) — Lou Costello never actually faced the bull and artful editing by Frank Gross was used to make it look like he was (and some of the shots of the bull leaping the barriers look like they were done with a man in a bull suit).

Also one of the film’s running gags was that just before they had to flee to Mexico, Bascom had won a marathon-dance contest during which he danced the samba for 68 hours straight, and throughout the movie samba music has the same effect on him the word “Pocomoco” had on his and Abbott’s tormentor in Lost in a Harem and the sound of horns had on Oliver Hardy in the last Laurel and Hardy film for Hal Roach Studios, Saps at Sea. The gag has a rather nasty payoff in an ending scene in which Bascom and Lambert are taking a cart out of Mexico, with Bascom accompanied by his Mexican girlfriend Dagmar (Luba Malina, the one member of the stage cast who carried over into the movie) — apparently nobody told the writers that Dagmar is actually a Swedish name or that samba music is Brazilian, not Mexican — only sneaky Harry Lambert turns on a radio playing samba music and Bascom goes samba-ing out of the cart and out of the way of Lambert making time with Dagmar. It’s the sort of ending Bob Hope and Bing Crosby could get away with in a Road movie but here just disappoints us when we wanted to see Lou Costello get a girl for once. In some of their earlier films Abbott and Costello had got along so poorly they literally didn’t speak to each other except when they had a scene to do together (and their writers had accommodated them by giving them as few scenes together as possible!); in Mexican Hayride the hatred between the Abbott and Costello characters becomes a key issue in the plot and gives the film what little dramatic power it has. Otherwise it’s an amusing movie but hardly a great comedy, and though there are some nice second-unit shots of actual Mexican locations, complete with the red filter that after Eisenstein’s ¡Que Viva México! had become de rigueur for moviemakers shooting there, the bulk of the film was made on the Universal-International backlot, and looks it. (The final scene in particular takes us past all too many familiar locations from U.S.-set Westerns to be believable as Mexico.) Fortunately, at least in their next movie, Africa Screams (made not for Universal but for an independent company called Nassour Films), Costello got a rare triumph over Abbott at the end!