Anyone desiring a textbook example of the typical frothy 40’s Technicolor musical need look no further than director, Irving Cummings’ Down Argentine Way (1940); an unabashedly sentimental, tune-filled and lighter-than-air confection from the Fox stables that unequivocally proves ‘substance’ is not required when ‘style’ is in abundance. Exploiting the ample ‘lucky’ charms of rising glamor ‘gam’ gal, Betty Grable, swarthy Don Ameche, the incomparable Nicholas Brothers and a ‘discovery’ made by Darryl F. Zanuck – Carmen Miranda (who fairly steals this show, despite appearing in only three musical numbers that have absolutely nothing to do with the plot and were not even photographed at the studio), Down Argentine Way is a cornucopia of musical pleasures; its screenplay by Karl Tunberg and Darrell Ware, not particularly its strength. Does it matter? Not really. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy sings songs and gets girl. She helps a little. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. It’s serviceable, at best. But oh, what 2oth Century-Fox could do with a dash of Grable and a splash of Technicolor in those halcyon days before the war, when the dream had yet to turn ugly and dark. Down Argentine Way is a delicious bonbon; its biggest asset, undeniably its’ uber-glamorous trappings, jointly photographed by cinematographers, Ray Rennahan and Leon Shamroy; the pampas and gauchos never looking more exquisite, and, the surreal mixture of process plates and studio-bound sets, seamless as a South American oasis where love blooms richly as the crista-galli.
The picture’s other great asset is its songs, mostly written by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon; the pairs’ best, probably, the title number, performed as a rumba in one of those impossibly posh and parquet-floored nightclubs that could only fit inside a cavernous soundstage, complete with crystal cut chandeliers (borrowed from the Maharaja’s palace set from The Rains Came, 1939); the other, ‘Two Dreams Met’, a luscious love ballad, set against the moonlit lingering magic of an out of the way hacienda. In both cases, Grable and Ameche give us their all. Viewing Down Argentine Way today, it is fairly easy to see why Grable became one of the studio’s biggest assets for a time. Like Marilyn Monroe, who would follow in her footsteps and eclipse Grable’s legacy in the fifties and sixties, Grable herein is exactly the sort of fresh-faced, platinum-haired sex bomb any Johnny Doughboy could fall in love with; oddly, the girl-next-door and an exotic bird of paradise, inscrutably rolled into one.
An ample bosom will only get you so far. Thus, Grable – unlike a good many who tried to emulate her aura later on – relied on more than just a good set of legs to see her popularity through the war years. Grable would, of course, discount herself frequently, claiming, “I’ve got two reasons for success…and I’m standing on both of them.” Yet, Grable’s beauty may not be immediately apparent to today’s movie-goer; her chipmunk cheeks and smiling eyebrows exuding wholesomeness utterly lacking in today’s bumper crop of Hollywood starlets. But it is precisely because Grable does not play to the va-va-voom of her sex kittenish physicality that she comes across far sexier and more desirable than most of her contemporaries. After all, there is nothing quite so erotically satisfying to a real (reel) man than a real (reel) woman who knows her best feature is her brain and has a plan how to use it to get what she wants. Grable’s enterprising Glenda Crawford, a spirited breeder of champion race horses, on a working holiday in Argentina, is just the gal to win the heart of our Latin Lothario, Ricardo Quintana (Ameche). Ric’s been sent to New York by his father, Don Diego (Henry Stephenson) to auction off a small contingent of his prized race horses. Alas, Diego has informed his son no horse shall be sold to Binnie Crawford (Charlotte Greenwood), due to an old blood feud with her brother, Willis (Edward Fielding). The wound from this betrayal has festered for too long, but like the scenario in this carefully plotted musical, it is bound to be healed by merriments aplenty, after a very brief case of mistaken identity is cleared up.
Zanuck likely saw Down Argentine Way as Fox doing its part in support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘Good Neighbor Policy’. For those unfamiliar, the growing Nazi influence in Latin America prompted the U.S. government to develop an administrative agency, The Office of Inter-American Affairs, meant to stem this tide of Axis influences abroad and encourage ‘good relations’ with our Latin American neighbors. Although Down Argentine Way precedes the establishment of this agency, Zanuck’s timing for an escapist Latin-themed movie musical could not have been more apropos; ramping up the studio’s output of pro-South American propaganda with two more lavishly appointed musicals in 1941 - That Night in Rio and Week-End in Havana. The inclusion of Carmen Miranda in Down Argentine Way occurred almost by accident – and narrowly, did not happen at all. Miranda, a Portuguese Brazilian samba singer/dancer, was already a formidable radio and nightclub talent in her native Brazil, when Broadway impresario, Lee Shubert imported her for his all-star revue, The Streets of Paris. Miranda’s dearth in English comprehension, indeed she could not speak a word, did not prevent this diminutive powerhouse from bringing audiences to their feet nightly.
Zanuck had seen Miranda in The Streets of Paris and simply had to have her. Alas, he was forced to concede to two requests made by the star: first, that she only appear in musical numbers accompanied by her Bando de Lua and sung in her native tongue; second, her work be shot in New York, as Miranda was then under an ironclad contract and could not go to Hollywood under any circumstances. Undaunted, Zanuck rented space, built sets and sent a small crew to Manhattan to film three production numbers featuring Miranda in all her gaudiness; two traditional - Bambu Bambu, and, Mamãe Yo Quero, and South American Way; the latter, an infectious ditty, written by Jimmy McHugh and Al Dubin in English, then translated into Portuguese, for which Miranda was only required to infrequently utter the ‘title’ in lovingly-fractured English. In hindsight, Miranda’s latter day career at Fox would remain something of a lost opportunity – often billed above the title, yet never appearing in anything more than novelty cameos in any of the fourteen movies she made between 1940 and 1953. Miranda’s greatest asset was undeniably her uniqueness. A bowl of fruit adorning any other head in the biz would look ridiculous. On Miranda, it was an absolute essential. Throughout her brief, but luminous career, she sported absurd costuming, tailor-made for the Technicolor camera; a veritable bombshell of colors, sequins, spangles and glittery turbans, bedecked in a baffling assortment of tinsel, artificial flowers, bananas, cocktail-umbrellas, and, in what must rank as her most curious headdress of all – a lighthouse tower with a functioning swivel lamp.
It is one of Hollywood’s ironies that of the three stars featured in Down Argentine Way, the one with the greatest workaday longevity, in terms of career prospects, is also ironically the one least remembered today. For a time, Wisconsin-born, Don Ameche was Fox’s most amiable leading man, with a shock of heavily pomaded jet-black hair and a captivating toothy smile, capable of radiating a thousand kilowatts of male virility. Ameche would frequently be cast as the swarthy male of foreign extraction, the amiable womanizer and/or heel, brought to heel by the love of a good woman. Yet, he was equally at home in dramas. Indeed, his performance in Fox’s The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) was so potent and beloved it led to his last name being used as slang for the telephone, as in “you’re wanted on the Ameche.” A fallow period in the late sixties was followed by a return to form in the mid-1980’s with movies like Trading Places (1983) and Cocoon (1985), the latter winning him his only Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. Critical praise for his work on Broadway also came late in life, the New York Times reviewing his performance in David Mamet and Shel Silverstein’s Things Change, as “...the kind of great comic aplomb that wins actors awards for other than sentimental reasons.”
While Don Ameche would round out his body of work, steadily tapping into these wellsprings on stage, screen and television, his reputation today has somewhat faded from public view. This is, indeed, a tragedy – one magnified when observing the actor in his prime in Down Argentine Way. Apart from cutting a dashing figure in Technicolor, Ameche is in very fine voice and an exceptional raconteur. He is a joyous presence, anesthetizing Grable’s pert and plucky brittleness. But his greatest asset remains his ability to convey oodles of bright and breezy genuineness that never equates to silliness or bungling as the hammy foreigner. While Ameche’s Italian/Scottish good looks frequently paved the way for his being cast as the exotic male with the perpetually dark and flashing eyes, his all-American congeniality and exceptional mastery of several languages made him intercontinentally sexy to female costars and legions of adoring fans. Time has been unkind to his legacy though and we are poorer still for the absence of his best work on home video today. Down Argentine Way allows for a brief porthole into his extraordinary diversity as a performer. The role is never a strain, but Ameche acquits himself rather nicely of being the rakish Mister with love in his heart and occasionally daggers in his eyes; juicy, delicious and utterly captivating.
Down Argentine Way marks two debuts: Betty Grable’s in Technicolor, and, Carmen Miranda’s first screen appearance. Despite the rest of the plot intrinsically built around Grable’s grand amour with Ameche’s heir to a stud farm, immediately following the main titles, the picture opens with the ebullient Miranda bedecked in beads, baubles and an extravagantly bizarre gold-lamé and fiery red ensemble, sashaying about in her platform shoes with exposed midriff, cooing ‘South American Way’ with the Bando de Lua. In later productions, Miranda’s exceptionally firm midsection would either be fully sheathed or merely masked in a rather stiff, flesh-colored camisole, thanks mostly to Joseph Breen’s strenuous objections as the head of Hollywood’s governing board of censorship. After Miranda’s brief and joyous song, director, Irving Cummings cuts to a travelogue montage of Argentina looking positively radiant in Technicolor. We regress to the Fox lot, a mockup of a ship preparing to depart for New York where horse breeder, Don Diego Quintana sincerely hopes his champion race horses will fetch a handsome price at auction. Diego is not making the trip himself, rather, sending his son, Ricardo in his stead.
At first, the showing at the Tuxedo Club goes well. Alas, the fabulous horse flesh – Carmelita – is admired by Glenda Crawford. Earlier, Don Diego had forewarned his son: no horse should be sold to the Crawford estate, barring an old dispute that was never settled by Willis Crawford (Edward Fielding) – Glenda’s father. Ricardo, of course, agrees to this stipulation, but then falls completely under Glenda’s spell without first knowing her name, their serenade inside the Westchester’s ballroom, transformed into a gargantuan production number, staged by choreographer, Nicholas Castle; the extras wearing some stunning Travis Banton costumes with Grable, unreservedly ravishing in yet another midriff-exposing ball gown – the top half a sequined robin egg blue; the lower, a flair of black velvet. Afterward, Ricardo pitches a little woo, referring to Glenda’s ‘remarkable eyes’ as reminding him of a storm over the pampas – and yes, the line (seemingly hopelessly hokey, actually works when uttered by Ameche in his faux Latin accent). Alas, the deal to buy Carmelita falls through as Ricardo reneges on his offer after discovering Glenda true identity; lying to her about having to honor a previous bill of sale. When Glenda learns this is not the truth she is wounded by the insinuation Ricardo has made love to her merely to finagle his way out of his promise to sell her Carmelita.
Glenda convinces Aunt Binnie to accompany her on a race horse-purchasing expedition to Buenos Aires. More cases of mistaken identity to follow, as Glenda accepts an invitation from a close friend of her father, the Ambassador, Dr. Arturo Padilla (Charles Judels), but winds up going out with the brother of her chauffeur, Tito Acuna (Leonid Kinskey) instead, under the false assumption he is the Ambassador. The couple frequents the more fashionable nightclubs in town, entertained by a spectacular terpsichorean display from The Nicholas Brothers at the Club Rendezvous. More entertainment: two back-to-back numbers performed by Carmen Miranda at another club, El Tigre, and the plot advances. A chance meeting with Ricardo: he makes his most valiant effort to pick up where they left off in New York, professing hot-blooded romance. But this leaves Glenda feeling cheated once more. She slaps his face and storms out of the club – this time, leaving Ricardo bewildered.
Still unaware of the bad blood harbored from so very long ago, Glenda and Binnie journey to Don Diego’s stud farm. The Don is most cordial until Binnie lets her last name slip. Outraged, Don Diego orders her off his property. Meanwhile, Glenda and Ricardo have been getting better acquainted. Indeed, she has all but forgiven him. To narrowly avert another scene, Ricardo passes Glenda off to his father as Senorita Cunningham – an old acquaintance from New York. At a fiesta, Ricardo observes as one of the jumpers from his father’s stable, Furioso wins a local race. It seems, the family’s stable hand, Casiano (J. Carroll Naish) has been training the thoroughbred in secret for quite some time, raking in pure profits on the side. While Ricardo is initially stern, Glenda is elated and quite certain Don Diego will be as thrilled to discover he has a champion racer in his midst. Alas, the Don has already entered Furioso as a jumper; the horse confused by the alternative methods of its training, unable to perform during the competition and coming in dead last; an embarrassment to the family’s honor.
Learning of Glenda’s true identity, Don Diego disowns Ricardo. Undaunted by his reversal of fortune and desperately in love, Ricardo immediately moves into the same hotel as the Crawfords and proposes marriage to Glenda. He also makes plans to race Furioso in the Argentine Handicap at San Isidro Park. The race is fixed by Tito so Furioso will lose. But the horse defies its jockey and wins anyway. Don Diego is immeasurably pleased, but still unable to forgive Glenda her father’s indiscretions. When Glenda produces a letter from her father, explaining how he saved Diego from making a complete fool of himself with a woman unworthy of his love, the Don reconsiders his stalemate on the Crawfords. In the movie’s penultimate celebration, Don Diego and Aunt Binnie strike a bargain to buy several horses, Ricardo and his father are reconciled, and Ricardo and Glenda are brought together in an orchestrated flourish of grand romance, presumably meant to lead them directly to the altar.
In retrospect, Down Argentine Way is a very predictable entertainment. There are no real surprises along the way and the plot – such as it is – is merely in service to the ultra-glossy Technicolor treatment of its subject matter and the songs. These have absolutely nothing to do with the story and are inserted to provide the viewer with one example after the next of Fox’s supremacy as peerless craftsmen of amiable, escapist fluff. Both The Nicholas Brothers and Carmen Miranda are not even represented outside their cameos. Regrettably, in the case of The Nicholas Brothers, their absence elsewhere in this superficially lustrous production was predicated on appeasement: Southern exhibitors absolutely refusing to show pictures featuring black entertainers. Viewed from the vantage of our modern day cynicism, Down Argentine Way is positively antique, though nonetheless enjoyable. Relics do have their place in modern society, you see. After a brief resurrection in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, nostalgia for such overstuffed bonbons has steadily dwindled; I would argue, not because the audience has lost its craving for ‘sweetness and light’, but rather, because contemporary Hollywood has increasingly retired its once ambitious plans to keep movie like Down Argentine Way perpetually in the public spotlight.
As a child of the seventies, I am old enough to recall an era in television when the three major networks were more than willing to show such ancient flowers as Down Argentine Way to fill late night programming Monday through Friday or as filler on a Saturday afternoon after the kiddie cartoons, or early Sunday mornings before their religious and political programming kicked in; to say nothing of the UHF channels to whom the custodianship of these classics became something of their bread and butter, sandwiched between syndicated reruns of recently off-the-air TV shows. Interminably interrupted by commercials, and unceremoniously hacked apart to satisfied time constraints, the classics nevertheless shone beyond these attempts to discount and bastardize their enduring appeal. Today, we have specialty channels dedicated to the proliferation of classic movies. And while my admiration for private networks like Turner Classic Movies, AMC and their like endures, the relative exclusivity, for those able to pay for the privilege, has only served to isolate classic movies from a large portion of the audience who otherwise might partake in enjoying them if they were free.
With old-time audiences either unable and/or unwilling (or both) to stream content via the internet, plus, the home video market steadily drying up ‘new’ releases of classic movies to mainstream retailers, the studios now merely content to slap out their vintage content in whatever quality (or lack thereof) it presently exists via even more exclusively marketed on-line burn-on-demand ‘archives’ (who refuse to ship their product outside the continental U.S. – though there are ways around this ridiculous roadblock), the future of movies like Down Argentine Way grows bleaker with each passing year. The marketing strategy for vintage content has not been aggressive enough; the studios arguing against asset preservation on the grounds it is both time-consuming and costly. My judgment is thus: that improper storage over several generations prior to our present epoch is no excuse for the present-day custodians of this material not to be doing their utmost to resurrect their damaged and decaying legacy; especially with the myriad of digital tools readily at their disposal, capable of erasing a goodly percentage of these ravages of time. Yes indeed: it is all about time and money. For classic movies, the former is running out at an alarming rate. But the result will be a heritage more richly satisfying and enduring than most any entertainment created within the past thirty years.
At the last gasp of Fox Home Video’s now long defunct classics division in the late 1990’s, Down Argentine Way was given a beautiful DVD release under the banner, as one of their ‘marquee musicals’. I shudder to think what their present-day hi-def mastering efforts would make of this exuberant Technicolor transfer; Fox’s recent spate of classics like Tyrone Power’s The Black Swan (1942) suffering from an intense blue and/or teal bias. Fox’s DVD is impeccable, the Technicolor dye transfer positively glowing. Colors are gorgeous and eye-popping. Flesh tones have been accurately reproduced. Grable’s lips are blood red. Night scenes are bathed in a haunted midnight blue afterglow. Carmen Miranda is a rainbow made for Technicolor. Fine details are very crisp throughout, occasionally revealing the heavy make-up applications on co-star, Charlotte Greenwood. Contrast levels are bang on perfect. The soundtrack has been remixed to 5.1 stereo (the original mono, also included). Inherent shortcomings – hiss and pop – have been tempered. Extras include a fantastic audio commentary from resident Fox historian, Sylvia Stoddard. There is also an A&E Biography Special on Betty Grable’s life, plus a stills gallery and theatrical trailers. Bottom line: Down Argentine Way is a classy entertainment, slickly packaged with the express earnestness to warm the heart and set the toes a-tapping. It succeeds on both levels. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)