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Monday, February 15, 2016

A Fox Musical Gone South Of Border

Down Argentine Way (1940) Sets Technicolor To Song

Good neighbor import of South American sound was well along pre-war, playgrounds nearer the equator tendered here by Fox to outshine even Euro haunts of pleasure, latter lately haunted by waves of war that would engulf once-free and easy climes. Escapism, then, was better aimed due south, and what more inviting spots than those captured by second units equipped with three-strip Technicolor cameras? Down Argentine Way may have been a lushest yet travel folder caught in motion. Had there been anything in the 30's to rival it? Most of action is laid outdoors, and even if principals (Betty Grable, Don Ameche) stayed at the Fox ranch, doubling as Argentina, still it's no stretch to imagine them amidst the pampas. This was an era where suggestion of the real thing was nearly as good, a stagecraft to last until Cinemascope, Fox's own Frankenstein creation, made travel an imperative for foreign-set films. Wide as they were, none of those would surpass sun-lit streets captured here by a best-of-all color process still a breathtaking novelty in 1940 when Down Argentine Way was released.

Captivating background was essential to tune-fest aimed at top tier. Otherwise, they'd be just musicals to lure lines half or less as long. Down Argentine Way and ones like it drew folks who figured a best (if not only) reason for going to movies was to see places they'd not experience otherwise. View-the-world options were for these confined to photo books, lectures with slides, or stereo-viewers picked up off parlor tables when visiting relatives. Beyond that, it was the Bijou and hope that shorts might include another Fitzpatrick Traveltalk, MGM's single-reel series on people and places most of patrons would never visit. Far-away seemed nearer when a Grable or Ameche came from, or went, there. Movies had helped make the world a smaller place since before the last war, and now with another to be fought, we'd have reason, and soon urgency, to ally our hemisphere against common enemies. Down Argentine Way was early incentive to join hands with a neighbor as postcard-attractive and congenial as we considered ourselves to be.

Argentina as depicted here is leisure headquarters, days spent breeding horseflesh for big-money racing, and neon-lit nightlife where Carmen Miranda leads a never-ending conga line. This is no mere happy place, it is a rich place. We may assume, as 1940 audiences undoubtedly did, that there was never a Great Depression in Argentina. A lot probably thought Argentina would be a nice spot to sit out the coming war. Did those with resource watch Down Argentine Way and pack bags for vacation, if not a longer stay? I don't get a sense of tie-ins, no luxury plane rides shown or travel agencies boosted, as would be case with Fox's Weekend In Havana that came a year after Down Argentine Way. What helped these shows was popularity ever on the rise of Latin music, being a happy association we'd have with places till then mere names on a map. Argentina and Havana were less suggestion of backdrop than cues to a type of attraction being offered. Dance as performed south-of-borders went back to early 30's and handshake that was Flying Down To Rio and specialty numbers performed since in one after another high-profile musical. There'd be little argument over Latin rhythm besting our own.

Of 40's musicals, ones from Fox seem most rooted to the era. This may be partly reason why they've sunk off radars, even radar maintained by buffs. There was no Astaire or Gene Kelly at 20th; in fact, leading men hewed more to watching partners perform than doing so themselves. Though Don Ameche and John Payne occasionally sang, recall of them doing so retreats quick after viewing. What sticks are the specialties, Carmen Miranda in Down Argentine Way before lift to greater prominence and at times excess of her novelty, and more so, the Nicholas Brothers, whose skill looks to derive from other planets where gravity is no issue. These two won't fail to astonish even in another seventy-years, at which time watchers might wonder if CGI wasn't deployed in 1940 rather than presumed twenty-first century. All the rest in song/dance looks stock still beside them. Down Argentine Way now streams at I-Tunes in HD, good reason to take plunge in this and other Fox musicals offered there and looking a best since true Technicolor prints were still around and occasionally shown.

Two items to note in the ad at left from Columbus' Ohio Theatre (which still stands and operates downtown, and is but short walk from Cinevent headquarters at the Renaissance Hotel). Roger Garrett was Ohio house organist from 1933 to 1942. He was a Columbus institution, at least as popular as any movie the Ohio ever ran. Overtures and recital by Garrett was reason alone for many a ticket bought. The organist would return to the Ohio for a final concert (and sing-a-long) in 1969. Friday night bonus with Down Argentine Way was a football rally featuring team members from Ohio State. Tie-in with sport groups was ongoing benefit to stadium turnstiles and theatre boxoffice. Athletes would take the stage, sometimes entertain, though just being seen was enough for fans and family members. These were pep rallies pure and simple, designed to whip patronage into mood for the weekend game and boost grid squad besides. Like with Garrett at his organ, football fever often tipped ticket-buyers to Ohio's favor rather than rivals down the street, even where they were playing a better movie. Yet further case where live events were more a draw than what was on screens.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

From the point of view of Argentina, this was an unremarkable film even if audiences received it well. The association between the country and the company goes way back to the days of the old Fox Film Corporation. In fact, they published tangos and fox-trots that were written as musical themes for their films.

This film is not revisited because of it's unreality and that affect similar titles from other studios as well. However, the contemporary Argentine films of the day manage to hold up rather well to this day. In fact, they were even exhibited in the United States and Spanish speaking audiences were paying more attention to them than to these kind travelogues.

I can illustrate this with this other film that is far more important and memorable, but ignored by people who write about films in English:

1:43 PM  
Blogger iarla said...

Unwatchable. The Fox musicals are dire. Never has a hugely popular star fallen so fast - and so far. Garson, maybe, but even she couldn't rival Betty at the turnstiles. It was the times.

3:09 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

James Fitzpatrick would move to Fox in the mid-50s, just so he could make his travelogues in CinemaScope.

5:14 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts deftly sums up past exposure to Fox musicals:

Yep, I can't say I was ever a great fan of Fox Musicals either, Faye and Grable are basically interchangeable to me, nice-looking blondes, the latter smiles a lot more than the former, whose hatred of working for Zanuck really shows through as time goes on, but both completely forgettable in terms of talent and memorable music or dancing ability.

The films all blend together, nice color, was it Don Ameche or Cesar Romero in that one, comic relief comics who can border on annoying when not reeled in: Jack Oakie, Ben Blue, Charlotte Greenwood (and three words: The Ritz Brothers, that eliminates a lot of the thirties ones too), interchangeable Latin American country or Gay 90's settings. Even the one they bring in Busby Berkeley for, THE GANGS ALL HERE, only manages a moment or two of weirdness otherwise slipping into total banality (can anyone remember the plot?), though I will admit the sight of Eugene Palette's singing/floating/dismembered head in the finale has appeared in the occasional screaming nightmare since.

In DOWN ARGENTINE WAY, which I have seen several times, all I ever take away from it are the specialty numbers. Carmen Miranda's opening song/introduction with one of her signature tunes "South American Way" to the audience before the titles is riveting, she was never better than when performing with her own Carmen Miranda Band as she does here, and we get a look at her as a performer before all the caricaturing and overblown silliness Fox loved to put her into takes hold. And yes, The Nicholas Brothers stop the show in any movie in which they appear, as for the rest of the film, is this the one that's yet another remake of FOLIE BERGERE or was that THAT NIGHT IN RIO?

The only time Fox musicals began to get interesting was when they has a genuinely dynamic performer under contract and that was in the early 50's with Mitzi Gaynor, films like GOLDEN GIRL and especially BLOODHOUNDS OF BROADWAY are much more entertaining just because of her, but even then, Fox didn't give her much to work with (Dennnis Day as her leading man in GOLDEN GIRL, Scott Brady in BLOODHOUNDS!) and she's fighting the patented Fox blandness once again. THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS comes closest, but gad, you have to get through Ethel Merman (and Johnnie Ray for that matter) to get to the good stuff (what the fast-forward was invented for, bless it), and even with Irving Berlin tunes it doesn't add up to a good movie.

So I will leave the admiration of the Fox Musicals to those who really like em, I have plenty of MGM, Warners, Paramount, heck, even Columbia, Universal, Republic, and Monogram musicals I like better.


7:06 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

Well, count me in as a fan of Faye and Grable! I can think of far more forgettable performers, if I could only remember any.

7:23 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Just forget the musicals from Fox... It is better to appreciate the real thing, like this classic from 1949 which is a far more believable masterpiece. It is not a musical film, but the star, writer and director, was a great singer and also performs a few songs.

7:33 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

Okay, but that actual cockfighting was a total turnoff, I must say.

8:11 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Wow! Not much love for Fox musicals so far! I must say on the whole I find them no more disposable or less lovable than the escapist stuff cranked out by all the other studios. I'm particularly fond of those late 30's entries built around real life scandals/events/celebrities shamelessly introduced with a full screen all-persons-fictitious disclaimer (ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE, HOLLYWOOD CAVALCADE, SING BABY SING, ON THE AVENUE etc.) I have nothing against Ms. Grable, find her vivacious and charming though not one of my particular favorites. But I must say the idea of Alice Faye being interchangeable with anyone else is a little jarring. Think she was one of if not the top female vocalist in 1930's Hollywood (am not really alone on this... pretty sure Berlin, Gershwin and Porter all said much the same.)

Got a hold of the Carmen Miranda DVD box set a few years ago and had just about the same reaction as the first Esther Williams set, namely, that these things were kind of a hoot. Super silly but fun.

8:55 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

Yes, I think Grable and Faye deserve more than what they're gettin' in this neighborhood, but that's okay. We have their movies.

11:01 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Something I always found interesting: Faye and Tony Martin were married, very briefly. Then Faye married Phil Harris and Martin married Cyd Charisse, and those marriages famously lasted forever. Evidently they both learned something.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

These Fox musicals of the early forties have as much a signature look and feel to them as do the Hammer horror films of the late 1950s-early 1960s.
The technical team behind these films really do seem to have hit a groove making them, particularly so once they started making them in color, as the whole lot of them have a look all their own regardless of how you may feel about the music and/or plotting and/or acting in any of the individual flicks.
I think they look great.

1:22 PM  

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