Hollywood’s Latin American Fiesta

FLying Down to Rio (1933) and Down Argentine Way (1940)

Betty Grable and Dolores del Rio

From clockwise: Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond in ‘Flying Down to Rio’; Don Ameche, and Betty Grable in ‘Down Argentine Way’.

In the 1930s and 40s, the USA in general, and Hollywood in particular, went gaga for all things south of the border. In 1933, Roosevelt launched the ‘Good Neighbor’ policy, in which he sought to improve the image of the US among Latin American countries. Since it proved somewhat difficult to reassure Latin American governments of his non-interventionist direction, having suffered repeated, heavy-handed military interventions from the US in the past, Roosevelt’s Inter-American Office persuaded Hollywood’s major production companies to demonstrate this new-found love for everything Latin American through cinema.

So, over the next decade or so, a flurry of films was produced, using the power of song, dance, and Betty Grable’s legs, to demonstrate friendship towards countries like Brazil and Argentina, and to show US audiences the positive side to Latin America. Looking at these films nowadays, it can be slightly cringe-inducing to see Carmen Miranda pop up as the token ‘Latina’, complete with fruit-basket headdress, because, Latin America is ‘exotic’ you know, or to listen to a Hollywood star mangling the Spanish language, because obviously, darling, we can’t have some unknown from Argentina taking on a leading role. It doesn’t seem to concern anyone exactly which bit of Latin America the film is about; hence Mexican Dolores Del Rio assumes a Brazilian role, while Brazilian Carmen Miranda is the showpiece of ‘Argentine’ culture.

Still, there is a clear attempt to minimise the differences between Americans, US and Latin, at least within the upper echelons of society, and boy, are these film fun. Both Flying Down to Rio and Down Argentine Way have extraordinary and unforgettable dance sequences, the kind to make you sigh and think, ‘they don’t make ‘em like that anymore’. Both are also films in which stars were born: the stellar pairing of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio; Betty Grable in Down Argentine Way.

 

Flying Down to Rio (1933)

 

  • Language: English, Portuguese
  • Running Time: 89 mins
  • Director: Thornton Freeland
  • Starring: Dolores del Rio, Gene Raymond, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire
  • Genre: Musical Comedy
  • Rating: 4 stars
https://feralchats.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/flyingdowntoriopic-106.jpg

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dance the carioca – and begin a Hollywood sensation.

Dashing ladies’ man, Roger Bond (Gene Raymond), a band leader, is forever getting himself into trouble by seducing the female guests at the exclusive hotels he plays at. His musicians, among them Fred (Fred Astaire) and Honey (Ginger Rogers) are becoming increasingly frustrated that they keep getting fired, and when Roger gives into temptation once again, falling into the arms of Brazilian socialite Belinha de Rezende (Dolores del Rio), it seems like the last straw. But Roger manages to get them a gig for the opening of the Hotel Atlantico in Rio de Janeiro, which happens to be owned by Belinha’s father. Cue dance sequences to the Carioca, a desert island romance, a love triangle, and a whole troupe of dancing girls on the wings of small aeroplanes.

Frivolous and frothy it may be, but it’s no wonder this film propelled Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to stardom. Though they are in supporting roles here, it is their performances that shine, combining the energetic dances and sizzling chemistry which would see them top the box office. The chemistry between Del Rio and Raymond is less believable and their scenes seem a little flat in comparison, though that may say more about Astaire and Rogers’ brilliance than anything else. If you just allow the story to wash over you, with its incredulous and occasionally cringe-worthy moments, then the film as a whole is an incredibly enjoyable musical tour de force. The airborne dance finale is simply astounding, and the film is worth watching for that alone. How much it did for Brazilian-US foreign relations is debatable, but it has all the glamour and charm of old-school Hollywood, and it will at least make you fall in love with the carioca.

 

Down Argentine Way (1940)

 

  • Language: English, Spanish
  • Running Time: 89 mins
  • Director: Irving Cummings
  • Starring: Betty Grable, Don Ameche, Carmen Miranda
  • Genre: Musical Comedy
  • Rating: 3 stars
File:Carmen Miranda in Down Argentine Way, 1940.jpg

Carmen Miranda performing in Down Argentine Way

While Flying Down to Rio, coming before the real push for a ‘friendly’ cinematic intervention, is fairly restrained in its showcasing of Brazil, Down Argentine Way represents the full force of Hollywood’s Latin American charm offensive. Opening with the vibrant Carmen Miranda, dressed in more frills and sparkly baubles than a Christmas tree, the ‘exoticism’ of this film is immediately apparent.

The story centres on Ricardo Quintana (Don Ameche), a rich Argentine who breeds and sells thoroughbred horses. On a business trip to New York, he meets and falls in love with Glenda Crawford (Betty Grable), also a wealthy horse-owner. However, after discovering that she is the daughter of his father’s arch enemy, he backs out of a deal to sell her a horse, and hotfoots it back to Argentina. In the company of her aunt, Glenda follows him. She finds him again while out with a ‘guide’ of somewhat dubious morals, at a Carmen Miranda show. As love blossoms, the pair must contend with Don Quintana’s hatred of the Crawford family, while attempting to get a prize racehorse back on the track.

The film made stars of both Carmen Miranda and Betty Grable within the US, and it could not be accused of subtlety in its Argentine theme. Both Grable and Miranda are luminous, though Miranda has desperately little screen time, and is not given the scope to do anything more than sing and sashay about the stage. The tokenistic elements of Latin America within this film extend to the portrayal of the ‘locals’, who are mainly bumbling and foolish. The Quintanas are almost totally westernized (and played by US American actors), with references made to Don Quintana’s schooling in Paris. They also speak only English, while the other locals speak in Spanish, at least at times. Again, it is the music and dance sequences which really make this film. The acting and the story are a little thin. The absolute highlight is a cameo performance by the Nicholas Brothers, who perform a joyous and stunning tap dance routine. At the level of costumes, music, and theatrical razzle dazzle, the film is a success. It is a burst of Technicolor light in Hollywood’s golden age; a nuanced, intercultural story, it is not.

3 Comments

  1. I can’t tell you how much I love these kind of posts you do – a combination of three of my favorite things: history, movies and travel! I had no idea about Roosevelt’s efforts to improve the image of the US in this manner.
    Margo recently posted..Travel, Children and Light ChasingMy Profile

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    • Thank you so much! I love writing these kinds of posts 🙂 I’ve just discovered this particular quirk of US foreign policy because I’m currently studying Latin American cinema – I don’t think it’s very well known at all!

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  2. It’s amazing to look back at these films through eyes opened to the need for cultural authenticity and respect. But, like you, I still love, love, love the costumes, dancing, and music. 🙂
    Krista recently posted..Rain, Cider Apples, and Apple Crisp for BreakfastMy Profile

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