1942’s big splashy musical offering at MGM was Panama Hattie; a hapless mishmash of Cole Porter’s titanic 1940 Broadway smash hit. Producer Arthur Freed threw everything he could at the screen to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear but nothing stuck for too long. Despite fine performances scattered throughout, some enjoyable bits of slapstick and the debut of sultry Lena Horne, the film remains an episodic series of comedic and musical vignettes clumsily edited together with a total disregard for continuity or remaining faithful to the origins of the Broadway show.
Cast as the title character is Ann Sothern, a fabulous comedian and singer whose MGM career never went beyond the preliminary stages in some genuinely second rate fluff like this film. A retrospective of Sothern’s career yields morose disappointment because under MGM’s aegis she never quite became the glittery musical star to rival Judy Garland or even June Allyson. Undeniably, she had the ability but never the opportunity to showcase the full range of her talents.
Viewed today, Panama Hattie is an abysmal miscalculation on Arthur Freed’s part; what with his decision to considerably restructure the story to fit into the timely WWII propaganda motif while jettisoning all but a trifle offering of the urbane Cole Porter score in favour of some watered down pop tunes by E.Y. Harlan, Burton Lane and Roger Edens. As with the film’s musical program, its narrative is strangely off kilter, the claptrap screenplay patched together by Jack McGowan and Wilkie Mahoney, that stumbles through a strained series of vignettes that become more obtuse and disjointed the further along the film unravels to its apparent conclusion.
There are so many misfires along the way that it’s often difficult to appreciate the treasures haphazardly strewn about but lavishly photographed by George Folsey. Of these; Lena Horne’s brief interlude ‘It Was Just One of Those Things’ is a standout. Not in the original show, it’s a scintillating ode to love gone cold and warbled with Horne’s inimitable brand of smoldering sensuality. Today it’s easy to forget how ground-breaking this debut was, presented at a time when black actors were considered little more than mere comedic background or cast in roles as simpleton domestics. But Horne’s nightclub singer is a contemporary, not a suppliant, even if the studio tried to soften the shock for white audiences by lightening her skin with a special makeup (Light Egyptian). Yet, as Horne’s debut broke the mould it also regrettably set the standard for the rest of her MGM career as a ‘specialty act’ – usually playing herself and inserted into other star’s musicals so that her numbers could be easily excised when the movies were shown in the south.
It’s rather telling that this Panama Hattie opens with three comedians; Red (Red Skelton), Rags (Rags Ragland) and Rowdy (Ben Blue) - cast as a trio of foppish sailors – who dominate the screen time for the next 79 min. After a bit of lovable nonsense and a musical number that has absolutely nothing to do with anything, Panama Hattie (Ann Sothern) makes her debut, singing ‘I’ve Still Got My Health’. In the meantime, the boys are treated to the shoot-from-the-hip deadpan delivery of Virginia O’Brien as cigarette girl, Flo Foster. Getting absolutely nowhere with Flo, Red, Rags and Rowdy make a few feeble attempts at comforting Hattie who is anxious about meeting her lover, Dick Bulliard’s (Dan Dailey) daughter, Gerry (Jackie Horner).
The boys don’t care much for Dick – not because he’s a bad egg, but rather because he’s obviously Hattie’s romantic ideal. Unhappy chance for Hattie that her first meeting with the precocious girl ends badly after Gerry innocently reveals she finds Hattie’s flashy wardrobe quite silly. Hattie storms out and retires to her room in nervous sobs. The next afternoon she attempts another introduction only to have Gerry suggest that her new ensemble is equally as ridiculous. The girl has fashion sense, however, and Hattie allows her to snip off some garish oversized ribbons from the gown with a pair of scissors, revealing a plainer, though more elegant side to her wardrobe. Hattie and Dick come to a parting of the ways over the Admiral’s daughter, Lelia Tree (Marsha Hunt) who obviously knew Dick from way back when and continues to harbour romantic feelings towards him much to Hattie’s chagrin. After Lelia basically tells Hattie that she does not and never will belong to Dick’s social class, a tearful Hattie makes plans to leave Panama for good and return to New York.
The romantic angle of the plot painted into an impossible corner, our story shifts to Red, Rags and Rowdy who have inadvertently uncovered a spy ring after Red’s note of amorous seduction to Lelia gets exchanged with a cryptic message written by Nazi spy Hans (Lucien Privel). The boys follow the note’s instructions to meet up at an abandoned house on the outskirts of town and discover an arsenal of bomb-making equipment inside. In the drawn out scene of slapstick that follows, Red, Rags and Rowdy take on the colouring of The Three Stooges as they haplessly attempt to escape their locked room while dodging bullets being fired through the windows by unseen spies who obviously want their property back. The boys narrowly escape their fate, and a moat full of crocodiles before the derelict house is blown to bits by an inexplicable combustion of the bomb-making materials.
Red, Rags and Rowdy attend a party in town where they are heralded as heroes. The sequence proves merely an excuse to feather in another specialty number, The Sping, featuring Lena Horne and The Berry Brothers. Hattie announces to Lelia that she has just married Dick and together everyone belts out the flag-waving ‘The Son of A Gun Who Picks on Uncle Sam’. Thus ends Panama Hattie on a particularly obtuse note.
Director Norman Z. Leonard never warmed up to Ann Sothern and the two did not get along on the set. Perhaps this explains why Sothern’s Hattie is given so precious little to do in the final cut. On stage, Hattie had been a sounding board for Ethel Merman and then Betty Hutton. Regrettably, Merman’s personality was deemed ‘too big’ for the movies, while MGM had already missed the boat on Hutton who had signed a contract over at Paramount. During preliminary stages, Freed wanted George Murphy and Shirley Temple to play Dick and Gerry, but these casting choices never went beyond the ‘wish list’ stage. Dan Dailey – who would eventually find fame over at Fox – is underserved, as is the love story between Dick and Hattie that was the narrative crux of the stage play.
Arthur Freed’s sneak preview of Panama Hattie was a disaster, prompting MGM to go back and insert more songs – though regrettably none from the original Cole Porter score. Sothern pre-recorded ‘Did I Get Stinkin’ At The Savoy’ only to have the song reassigned to Virginia O’Brien who made the most of it. MGM also had Frank Hull tighten up Blanche Sewell’s editing. Curiously, when Panama Hattie had its premiere eleven months later it quickly became a whopping $3 million dollar hit for the studio.
On one hand, I find the film’s enduring popularity baffling. Panama Hattie isn’t a movie per say so much as it unfurls like a night in Vaudeville; a compendium of sketches that never come together as a story but represent some very fine junkets of comedy and song disjointedly thrust together with all the glitter and flash MGM could muster. On that score, I suppose the film works – superficially, at least – but without any staying power to make it truly memorable. Red Skelton, Ben Blue and Rags Ragland are obviously having a good time, and their comedic timing and rhythm is rather infectious. But the film isn’t supposed to be about them and that’s where this critic has the biggest issue. Correct me if I’m wrong but the movie’s title is Panama Hattie – not ‘Three Sailors’ – and as such I expected to see and hear a lot more of Ann Sothern. For a title character, Sothern is woefully undernourished in this film and all the more readily missed when one sees the flashes of brilliance she is allowed to offer us ever so briefly with the limited material she’s been given. In the final analysis, this Panama Hattie is a dud, illustrating rather painfully that not everything that makes money is art.
Warner’s MOD DVD is advertised as remastered and certainly looks that way. The B&W image is sharp and mostly free of age related artefacts. Clearly, some efforts have been made somewhere along the way in both restoration and preservation of the original elements. The gray scale exhibits superior tonality, really showing off George Folsey’s high key cinematography in all its lush glamour. The audio has also been cleaned up and is rather impressively clear and powerful, especially for a film that’s 72 years old. As with most other tiles in the Warner Archive the only extra is a theatrical trailer that shows us a brief – though extremely lavish sequence taking place aboard a battleship that we never get to see in the finished film.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)