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Tag Archives: Blanche Sewell

Fiesta (June 12, 1947)

And introducing Ricardo Montalban.

When I sat down to watch Fiesta, those words in the credits floored me. I can’t conceive of what it was like to grow up in a world without Ricardo Montalban. His suave, white-suit-wearing Mr. Roarke, from Fantasy Island (1977-1984), is a mysterious character who was burned into my mind at a young age. Ditto for his insane and weirdly brilliant role as the villain of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Or his dapper and hilarious bad guy, Vincent Ludwig, in The Naked Gun (1988). Or his work as the pitchman for Maxwell House Decaf.

Maybe it was just the movies and TV shows that I watched, but Montalban seemed ubiquitous.

By the ’80s, he always appeared to be having fun with his “Latin lover” image, but he was never parodying himself. His smooth charm was undeniable, no matter what kind of ridiculous lines were coming out of his mouth. (Like claiming that decaffeinated coffee was “good to the last drop.”)

Richard Thorpe’s Fiesta wasn’t the first film to star Montalban. He’d already appeared in more than a dozen films in his native Mexico. But it was his first Hollywood film, and it was his introduction to American audiences. It was also an opportunity for Esther Williams to perform in a dramatic role that was very different from the roles that had made her famous in MGM’s “aquatic musicals.”

Williams and Montalban play twins, Maria and Mario Morales. Their father, Antonio Morales (Fortunio Bonanova), a former matador, always wanted a son to carry on his work in the ring. After confirming that he is indeed not going to have just a daughter, but rather twins, Morales proclaims his son “The future greatest matador in the whole world!”

Of course, things don’t work out the way Señor Morales expects. His son Mario is a gifted musician and composer who would much rather make music than wear the traje de luces (“suit of lights”) and fight bulls (even though he’s good at it). His daughter Maria, of course, is the one with the real desire to be a torero, but her gender makes such a thing unthinkable.

Mario is torn between his father’s plans for him and the interest that conductor Maximino Contreras (Hugo Haas) shows in his music. Eventually, Mario flees the ring when he finds out his father lied to him about a visit Señor Contreras made to their house. He does so out of anger, but his action is viewed as cowardice by the spectators. Naturally, Maria comes up with a plan to don the traje de luces and impersonate her brother in the ring.

Fiesta has the kind of shopworn plot and lifeless dialogue that one can suffer through if they’re merely the framework for a musical packed with great songs and exciting dance numbers. But while Fiesta is often classified as a musical, it’s not a really a musical. It’s a turgid, woodenly acted drama whose only high points are a handful of dance sequences.

If you like dancing, then Montalban’s numbers with Cyd Charisse (playing a character named Conchita) are worth seeing. (I especially liked the number they stomped out to “La Bamba,” the traditional Mexican song that Ritchie Valens later made famous.) The scene in which Mario hears one of his compositions played on the radio by Señor Contreras’s orchestra and listens in rapture before sitting down at the piano in the cantina to play along would be at home in a musical, but it’s an organic moment. There are no scenes in Fiesta in which the characters just break into song.

In short, it’s pretty lifeless, especially when compared with other Technicolor extravaganzas from MGM. Most of the cast isn’t very interesting to watch. The great silent star Mary Astor is wasted in a thankless role as Señora Morales. Montalban is enjoyable to watch, but Williams is terribly miscast. It’s not that she doesn’t look “Mexican” (you can see plenty of women who look like Esther Williams if you watch Spanish-language television). It’s that she looks nothing like Montalban, yet the audience is asked to believe that she is a convincing double for him when she dons the traje de luces and enters the ring. Her own stunt double is also a completely unconvincing facsimile of Williams during the bullfighting sequences. His muscular buttocks, lack of breasts, crotch bulge, muscular neck, and big ears are pretty difficult to confuse with Williams’s slightly different attributes.

I like Esther Williams a lot. She’s beautiful and appealing, not to mention a hell of a swimmer. But this was just the wrong role for her. Also, her “romantic” scenes with Jose “Pepe” Ortega (John Carroll) are dead on arrival.

Although the film begins with a statement of sincere thanks to the Mexican people, the production was a troubled one. The cinematographer, Sidney Wagner, and another crew member both died of cholera after eating contaminated street food. Esther Williams’s husband, Ben Gage, and makeup artist George Lane were both expelled from Mexico after a fight with a hotel employee. And a stuntman died of an infection he contracted after being gored in the groin by a bull.

The largest problem the production ran into had to do with bullfighting, which director Thorpe chose to depict in a sanitized fashion. For example, the first time we see Mario’s moves in the ring, he skirmishes with an uninjured bull who charges at him over and over as he dances around the ring and flourishes his cape, avoiding several near misses. Eventually the bull gets too tired to continue, and the fight is over.

During the bullfights in Fiesta, only the bullfighter’s life seems to be in danger. It is presented as a dangerous sport. In reality, the outcome of a bullfight is rarely in question, and it is less a sport than an artistic, ritualized slaughter in which the torero is judged according to his grace and style, not whether or not he kills the bull. (According to this article, which was published last year in The Guardian, only 52 matadors have been killed in the ring since the year 1700. There are myriad injuries, of course, which range from minor to spectacular. If you have a strong stomach, click here.) In Fiesta there are no banderilleros jamming spikes into the bull’s back, bleeding it out and tiring it. There is no taunting of the bull or clownish antics on the part of the other toreadors in the ring, like grabbing the bull’s tail and skiing through the dirt as the bull circles. And, most important of all, there is no killing of the bull with a single sword thrust — the estocada.

Bullfighting is inextricable from the national identity of most Spanish-speaking countries. The people of Mexico were already angry that their own toreadors could not star in the film, so the depiction of bullfighting as a bloodless spectacle added insult to injury. When Thorpe had finished shooting Fiesta, his unit manager Walter Strohm convinced him that the bulls used in the film should all be killed to assuage the anger of the Mexican people. Thorpe acquiesced, even though the bulls had cost $1,000 each, which is nearly $10,000 in today’s dollars.

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It Happened in Brooklyn (March 13, 1947)

It Happened in Brooklyn
It Happened in Brooklyn (1947)
Directed by Richard Whorf
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I used to be bummed out that I grew up after the era of listening booths in record stores.

After seeing Richard Whorf’s It Happened in Brooklyn, I’ve realized that as far as regrets go, that’s small potatoes. If this film is to be believed, there was once a music store in Bay Ridge where you could pick out any piece of sheet music and hand it to Frank Sinatra, the in-house “song demonstrator,” and listen to Ol’ Blue Eyes tickle the ivories while he performed it for you. Sure, you had to contend with a teeming crowd of sighing bobby-soxers, but that’s a small price to pay.

When It Happened in Brooklyn begins, Private Danny Miller (Sinatra) has been in the service for four years. World War II is drawing to a close, and he can’t wait to get home to his one true love, Brooklyn.

Danny loves Brooklyn so much that he carries a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge in his wallet. When a pretty Army nurse (Gloria Grahame) from Brooklyn refuses to believe that Danny is really from Brooklyn because he’s so restrained and cool, he pulls out the picture of the bridge and says, “Sure, that’s my pinup girl. Ain’t she a beauty?”

When Danny returns home, a traffic cop asks him why he’s so happy to be in Brooklyn when he could be across the river in New York. Danny looks incredulous and exclaims, “New York? That’s a place to look at Brooklyn from!”

Faced with the post-war housing shortage, Danny moves in with Nick Lombardi (Jimmy Durante), the janitor at New Utrecht High School, Danny’s alma mater. Nick is a kindly old geezer who idolizes the fictional teacher Mr. Chips, and doesn’t understand why all the kids in the school make fun of him.

Danny also befriends a pretty music teacher named Anne Fielding (Kathryn Grayson) and, in a remarkable example of art imitating life, teaches a British drip named Jamie Shellgrove (Peter Lawford) how to be cool.

For an MGM musical, It Happened in Brooklyn is fairly restrained. Unlike Sinatra’s previous film, the Technicolor extravaganza Anchors Aweigh (1945), which also co-starred Grayson, It Happened in Brooklyn is filmed in black and white, clocks in at under two hours, and doesn’t feature any huge production numbers.

Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante

Despite this, It Happened in Brooklyn is still a blast, especially if you’re a Sinatra fan. It’s packed with great songs by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, including “The Brooklyn Bridge,” “Whose Baby Are You?,” “It’s the Same Old Dream,” “The Song’s Gotta Come From the Heart,” and the classic “Time After Time.” I especially enjoyed Sinatra and Durante’s humorous performance of “I Believe” with a teenaged actor named Bobby Long, who does a great tap number. Does anyone know anything about Long? Why didn’t he ever appear in another movie? Did he have an abrasive personality? Horrible skin? Did he sleep with a producer’s wife after wooing her with his sensuous tap-dancing?

Along with all the great pop numbers, there’s a little “class” squeezed in, too. The classically trained Grayson gets to belt out a couple of operatic numbers — one from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and one from Delibes’s Lakmé — and her student Leo Kardos (Billy Roy) performs a piano concert in hopes of getting a scholarship. (Kardos’s playing was actually done by André Previn, who had just joined the music department of MGM at the age of 17.)

It Happened in Brooklyn is clichéd and occasionally silly, and it doesn’t offer the over-the-top razzle-dazzle of Anchors Aweigh, but it’s still a whole lot of fun.

Easy to Wed (July 25, 1946)

Easy to Wed is a remake of Jack Conway’s 1936 comedy Libeled Lady, which starred Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy. No actors of that caliber appear in Edward Buzzell’s update, which is a lightweight affair from start to finish.

I haven’t seen Libeled Lady, but it was nominated for an Oscar for best picture, and is generally well-regarded in the pantheon of screwball comedies. Easy to Wed is generally regarded as a crummy piece of fluff, and that’s exactly what it is. Like the last MGM Technicolor extravaganza I saw, Ziegfeld Follies (1946), this movie is too long, is jam-packed with everything but a compelling plot and interesting characters, and its humor is mostly of the “painfully unfunny” variety.

The plot can be synopsized on the back of a cocktail napkin. Warren Haggerty (Keenan Wynn), the publisher of the Morning Star, is all set to marry his girl, Gladys Benton (Lucille Ball), but he and his paper are being sued for $2 million by J.B. Allenbury (Cecil Kellaway) after a story they published insinuated that Allenbury’s daughter, Connie (Esther Williams), is a nymphomaniac who goes after married men. The soundest plan Haggerty can come up with is to finagle his star reporter, Bill Chandler (Van Johnson), into a compromising position with Connie so they can produce photographic evidence that she is, indeed, a nympho who goes after married men. The only hitch is that Chandler is single, so Haggerty needs to hand off Gladys to him for a sham marriage for the duration of his assignment. Ridiculous? Sure.

At the time of the film’s release, one of its biggest draws was its leading man, Van Johnson. His appeal mystifies me. There’s nothing wrong with him, but I find his blandness overwhelming.

It’s not that I don’t like movies he’s been in — Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), in which he plays a heroic bomber pilot, was one of my favorite World War II movies made during the war — but I’d never go out of my way to see a movie just because he was in it, which makes me different from approximately every single woman living in America in the 1940s. I mean, check out that poster above. “Van! … Van! … Van!” What?

Intellectually, I can understand his appeal for the distaff post-war zeitgeist. The metal plate in his head may have kept him out of the war, but he was in enough war movies to give the impression of a returning hero. And unlike the haunted, shell-shocked, sweaty protagonists of countless noirs, Johnson projects nothing but good-natured cheer. He’s the young man you want your daughter to marry, or the even-tempered buddy you introduce to your sister.

The main selling point of Easy to Wed for me was Esther Williams. There are none of her signature water ballet numbers, but she does spend a lot of time in the water. (Her first kiss with Johnson even takes place underwater.) She is beautiful and sexy, and emerges from the water many times in the picture, sleek and dripping, her makeup still perfect. But she’s beautiful on land, too, and looks great in Technicolor, whether she’s playing a board game by the fire or fully decked-out, singing and dancing in one of the film’s several passable musical numbers.

Besides Williams, the only thing I really liked about Easy to Wed was the crazily outfitted Ethel Smith, who performs a wild musical number at the organ. It’s a scene that borders on the surreal, and I loved it.