#463) Down Argentine Way (1940)
OR “The Unofficial Story”
Directed by Irving Cummings
Written by Darrell Ware and Karl Tunberg
Class of 2014
The Plot: While in New York with his prized horse, Argentinian playboy Ricardo Quintano (Don Ameche) hits it off with debutante Glenda Crawford (Betty Grable), not knowing that her father had betrayed Ricardo’s father (Henry Stephenson) years earlier. When Ricardo travels back to Argentina, Glenda follows along with her Aunt Binnie (Charlotte Greenwood). There are musical highlights from Carmen Miranda (in her American film debut) and the Nicholas Brothers, but very little of actual Argentine culture and customs.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a rundown of Betty Grable, citing this film as the one that “established [Grable] as the pinup queen”. The only part of the movie that gets a superlative is the Nicholas Brohters’ “unparalleled” dance number. An essay by Library of Congress sound technician Carla Arton makes a compelling case for the film’s significance.
But Does It Really?: This is definitely a movie where the cons outweigh the pros. Yes, the film represents the kind of vibrant, Latin-infused “Good Neighbor” musicals that Hollywood was making at the time, but the stereotypes and misappropriation throughout really taint any modern viewing. The aforementioned Arton essay makes the “Good Neighbor” case, as well as one for its star Betty Grable who, while mostly forgotten today, was a major movie star/sex symbol of wartime America. Thanks to Arton’s essay, “Down Argentine Way” gets a pass for NFR inclusion.
Everybody Gets One: The child of what we would now call a “stage mom”, Betty Grable was a regular beauty pageant contestant, and at age 12 she and her mother set off to Hollywood. Grable bounced around from studio to studio throughout the 1930s, finally landing at Fox in 1940. Fox studio head/producer Daryll F. Zanuck was so impressed by Grable’s stage performance in “DuBarry Was a Lady”, he cast her as the lead in “Down Argentine Way” after first choice (and established star) Alice Faye backed out due to appendicitis.
Wow, That’s Dated: BROWNFACE WARNING: Don Ameche plays Ricardo with a stereotypical accent and either really bad makeup or a really good tan. This film also portrays South America as one big country where everyone speaks in ignorant broken English. Even in 1940, Latin American film distributors openly criticized the film and its offensive depictions of Argentina, to the point that Argentina banned any screenings of the film.
Title Track: The Oscar-nominated title song serves as a leitmotif throughout the film; practically everyone sings it at some point, complete with clicking noise.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Down Argentine Way” received three Oscar nominations, and lost all of them. Cinematography and Art Direction went to British import “The Thief of Bagdad”, while Best Song went to a little ditty called “When You Wish Upon a Star“.
- Betty Grable wasn’t the only actor filling in for this movie’s first choice. Don Ameche stepped in for Desi Arnaz (already under contract with RKO), and Leonid Kinskey replaced Cesar Romero (another illness related cancellation; what was in the water back then?).
- Speaking of Ameche, none of the credited cast members are actually from Argentina or South America in general. (Carmen Miranda comes closest: she was raised in Brazil, but born in Portugal). J. Carrol Naish is Irish, Henry Stephenson is British, Leonid Kinskey is Russian, and on and on and on.
- The only performance that’s salvaging my viewing is Charlotte Greenwood as Aunt Binnie. Greenwood’s deadpan delivery of her various one-liners is a consistent delight. She even gets to do some of the high kicks she was known for in her vaudeville days! Greenwood is best remembered for playing another wise-cracking aunt in an NFR musical: Aunt Eller in “Oklahoma!“
- As a general rule, can we stop making fun of non-English speakers’ difficulty with American English syntax? It’s so friggin’ complicated, why do movies always focus on that?
- The Nicholas Brothers’ dance routine has nothing to do with either this movie or Argentina in general, but it is one of this movie’s few saving graces. I even applauded at the end of their number. Side note: Fayard and Harold Nicholas’ home movies made the NFR some years back, and I cannot for the life of me find the footage online. Any leads?
- Carmen Miranda was the hottest new star in New York when “Down Argentine Way” was in production. Fox signed her to a contract, but due to her nightclub commitments, Miranda could not leave New York to film in L.A. Her numbers (lifted directly from her nightclub act) were filmed in New York and interspersed throughout the film.
- Oh, and if Miranda’s song “Mamãe Yo Quero” sounds familiar, you’re thinking of either Tom and Jerry or “Magical Maestro“.
- Sometimes the subtitle I give a movie for their blog post comes to me during my viewing. I was all set to call this post “Seeing a Man About a Horse”, but then this movie beat me to the punch(line). Well played, movie. Well played.
- The movie’s second half focuses more on the horse racing and “Romeo and Juliet” plots, and that’s when “Down Argentine Way” lost me. I don’t care about the love story or the countless stereotypes, I was enjoying the musical numbers; and if you’re not going to make everyone sing and dance then what’s the point? Despite its historical significance, “Down Argentine Way” is more flawed than fun.
- “Down Argentine Way” was a hit, and propelled Betty Grable from supporting player to one of the decade’s biggest movie stars. Frank Powolny’s 1943 photo of Grable in a one piece bathing suit became the most requested photo by GIs during WWII. Incidentally, the reason her back is turned in this famous photo is because she was visibly pregnant with her daughter Victoria.
- Irving Cummings, Don Ameche, and Carmen Miranda would all reunite for 1941’s “That Night in Rio”, along with Alice Faye, who apparently was feeling better. “Rio” is also notable for giving Miranda her trademark fruit hat.
- “Down Argentine Way” and “That Night in Rio” are just two of the countless “Good Neighbor” films Hollywood studios were making throughout the ’40s. You are probably most familiar with one of Disney’s offerings: “The Three Caballeros”.
- Weirdly enough, another Carmen Miranda musical – 1943’s “The Gang’s All Here” – was also added to the NFR in 2014, making Miranda one of the few performers to be inducted twice in the same year.