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Monday, August 20, 2018

From Metro's Postwar Songbook


Holiday In Mexico (1946) Seals The Latin Deal



Viva the Latin takeover of popular music during the early 40's! We think rock and roll in the 50's was the big noise, but for me the samba, conga, a whole piƱata-full, was bigger. Not that I was there --- just seems that way for exuberance of south-of-border sound as resonated in collecting discoveries like The Gang's All Here (Carmen Miranda and company perform "Brazil" for the film's opener), The Three Caballeros (Disney having much to do with popularization of Latin sounds), plus Conga lines formed by Deanna Durbin and Charles Laughton in It Started With Eve, the cast of Since You Went Away at a soldier's hop, cartoon caricatures in Hollywood Steps Out --- it was a full-out cultural phenomenon dancing through a World War and for some time after. Holiday In Mexico was late to the sensation, but a near-definitive summary of it, at least in Technicolor-full and maxed-out lavish terms. The pot labeled  Something For Everyone was never more vigorously applied --- I'm dizzified over elements here, be they Xavier Cugat, classics-leaning Jose Iturbi, trilling Jane Powell, mature songstress Illona Massey, cutesy-kids, and pratfalling awkward-aged Roddy McDowall in extended routine I'm satisfied was staged by Buster Keaton. All this plus overlength and Metro spending at ruinous level ($2.3 million in the negative). No wonder something had to give, or better put, crash.








Holiday In Mexico still got large profits, 1946 a year where wickets wealth flew on wings of returned servicemen and their wives/dates. A year or two later and Holiday In Mexico might have sunk, as did other musicals where Leo broke piggy banks and paid a piper for it. Who saw slumps coming? It's easy to look back and wonder why Hollywood didn't tighten up to accommodate postwar changes, but as we still can't divine the stock market or winning horses, what gives us leeway to tsk-tsk studio profligacy? A lot thought peak prosperity would last right along, being picture-makers after all, not social scientists with view toward wider horizon and down-trends to come. Old approaches were still figured a best, especially at MGM. If the 30's could give birth to singing miracle that was Deanna Durbin, why not incubate a successor in Jane Powell? Latter was brought along as carefully, signed by Metro, loaned for two B/W musicals that let others test a market, then back to home and Holiday In Mexico, the Lion's vote of confidence that Powell would be at least an equal to Durbin or whatever others of singing capacity. Maybe she was, or could have been, but musicals at MGM, even smaller ones, cost far more than Durbins' at Universal ever did, and so were harder pressed to return profit.








Metro led at trying to make personalities, even actors, of musicians. Jose Iturbi glided the keys admirably, his mirrored piano giving impression of multiple sets of hands at work. He also had fish out of water likeability, as if one from the audience were plucked from seating and told they must act alongside pros. Trouble was when Iturbi got too heavy a load, like playing Jeanette MacDonald's husband in Three Daring Daughters, a part figured for Nelson Eddy which he unfortunately did not take (and why not? I've long wondered, as it would have been a nice reunion). Iturbi stood up for the classics, Metro still a bulwark for popularizing them, their audience still of an open mind where musical tastes went. Fresh and vibrant to the mix was Xavier Cugat, who had come aboard at Culver for wartime musicals and put Latin accent on swing that without him sounded prosaic what with the peak now passed. South-of-border sound had US-begun as an outlier, kept at margins while powerful ASCAP licensed most radio play, but then ASCAP fell out with broadcasters, upstart BMI getting a whack at music previously sidelined and making oceans of it available to home listeners. That's when Latin really exploded onto the scene. Metro took a lead in translating excitement to screens, Holiday In Mexico plenty more than mere vehicle for Jane Powell. It thrives still as barometer of a biggest tent that was popular music in 1946. Warner Archive offers Holiday In Mexico in a lovely transfer.

5 Comments:

Blogger radiotelefonia said...

For me, despite everything, this is nothing more than another unremarkable Joe Pasternak musical formula trying to regain what he achieved with Deanna Durbin at Universal.

But I always prefer the real Latin thing, like this commercial featuring a milonga from 1944.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-2jzJgbW_w

4:24 PM  
Blogger Dr. OTR said...

I just listened to a 1946 radio episode of the Xavier Cugat Show the other day. It was quite pleasant stuff, and Cugat was quite a capable MC and bandleader. It was the final show of the season, and he played a medley of tunes he had introduced to the public, some of which were still familiar (including, most notably, Begin the Beguine).

1:05 PM  
Blogger iarla said...

Powell wrote an odd, not too well received memoir. By the standards of MGM star bio's, it's
rather melancholic. She does describe working at Metro - and those she worked with - well enough. Nice observations. Her films are mostly dirge.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

"Six Lessons From Madame LaZonga," a scrappy little B from Universal, includes my favorite Conga number - and that's because Shemp Howard is an enthusiastic participant, strutting his stuff as only he can.

2:55 AM  
Blogger Sooke said...

"Miss Powell shows her skill as a tonsorial artist...".

How did that one get by the censor?

2:17 AM  

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