Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Film Review: Week-End in Havana

"Week-End in Havana" *** (out of ****)

"Week-End in Havana" (1941) is one of your typical 20th Century Fox musicals from the 1940s. It has a lavish production design, exotic locations, elegant costumes, pleasant songs and lots of familiar faces.

The film stars one of Fox's biggest draws, Alice Faye as Nan Spencer, a Macy's department store worker, who goes on a cruise which is cut short after the captain leaves his post and the ship is stuck on a reef.

This becomes a PR nightmare for the cruise company. They need to send a representative down to the ship to make sure all of the passengers sign a waiver, stating the company was not at fault, thus no lawsuits. So, the head of the company, Walter McCracken (George Barbier) sends his top man, Jay Williams (John Payne).

However this becomes a problem for Jay. He is engaged to McCracken's daughter, Terry (Cobina Wright). Their big day is coming up and if Jay leaves now, they will have to post-pone the wedding. Mr. McCracken though doesn't care. Better to save the image of the company. His daughter's wedding can wait. Needless to say, Terry is not happy about this. Reluctantly Jay goes.

Jay manages to get nearly every passenger to sign a waive, except for one. Unless this is the first movie you've ever seen you should be able to guess who the hold-out is. Nan Spencer refuses to sign. She says it is the ship's fault. The captain should have been paying attention. In order to clear matters up, Jay agrees to fly Nan down to Havana at the company's expense. Her only stipulation. She won't sign the waiver until the vacation is over. Prolonging Jay's stay.

Although I don't really have any proof, part of me is forced to believe "Week-End in Havana" could not have existed unless "Down Argentine Way" (1940) had been made first. "Down Argentine Way" (which I have reviewed) was a big success for Fox. It was the first major box-office success for Betty Grable, making her a star. But, Grable was a replacement for Alice Faye. Was this Fox's way to make it up to her?

Both movies center on locations movie audiences would find exotic. Argentina and Cuba. Movies at this point had to be set somewhere outside of Europe. Even though America may not have been involved in the war at this time, people weren't dumb. They knew war was going on. You couldn't have a movie show Europe has a happy, carefree place with people singing and dancing. Hollywood had to look elsewhere.

Other connections include both films were written by the same team; Karl Tunberg and Darrell Ware. They also wrote the somewhat disappointing "Orchestra Wives" (1942) and "Tall, Dark and Handsome" (1941) which won them an Oscar nomination for their screenplay. Ware also wrote the Fox comedy "He Married His Wife" (1940, which I have also reviewed). And the music was by the same team; Harry Warren and Mack Gordon. Warren might be better known for his scores for Warner Brothers musicals starring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell.

Alice Faye, like Betty Grable, was meant to have a "girl-next-door" appeal. Even though both ladies were beautiful I never felt their characters really used their beauty as a "weapon". They didn't entice men. "Week-End in Havana" is no exception. Faye's character works in a department store, complains how the accident ruined her plans as she has to save a long time to get enough money for the trip.

Yet, there is something "ugly" underneath the character. Is she a gold-digger? We get the impression she has come to Havana in the hopes of finding a rich man. A decade before this movie these kind of stories were common. They usually involved chorus girls looking for sugar daddies. Faye even starred in one of them, "Sally, Irene and Mary" (1938, which I have also reviewed). They were meant to show Hollywood was aware of the Depression. Audiences would be able to relate to down on their luck characters. In "Week-End in Havana" it isn't front and center but one character does confront Nan about it.

This is not to say Nan is not likable. The success of the movie depends on her being likable. We are following her vacation after all. We must relate to her on some level. We must see ourselves in her. Working class girl, first time in Havana, rubbing elbows with rich people, taking her somewhat out of her element. Much like some audience members watching the movie.

Recently I wrote about John Payne when I reviewed another 20th Century Fox musical, "Sun Valley Serenade" (1941). Payne was, I suppose, a good looking guy. "Week-End in Havana" takes the "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) approach when dealing with Payne's looks. If you remember in "Baby" Cary Grant was meant to looking "geeky" by wearing glasses. So does Payne. Payne also is presented as a man incapable of having fun. All business and no pleasure. He also doesn't know how to romance a woman. In short, he is everything Nan is against. The idea is to take all of the sexual chemistry out of their relationship. To make them incompatible.

But there is an "ugliness" to Payne's character too. I don't want to reveal too much and spoil the movie for you but I will say, he doesn't act like a man who is engaged. This struck me as odd for a 1940s movie. Yes, Terry is off-screen for a majority of the movie, but we know of her existence.

The remaining cast consist of Cesar Romero and Carmen Miranda. Both play an exaggerated stereotype of the fiery Latin. Romero had a career of playing the handsome playboy types in many Fox movies. Watch "Wintertime" (1943, which I have reviewed), "He Married His Wife" and the Betty Grable musical "That Lady in Ermine" (1948, which I have reviewed). This time he is Monte Blanca, a womanizer with a gambling problem. He is also an agent. His client is Rosita Rivas (Miranda) whom he also dates.

I would imagine certain younger, more politically correct audiences may find Carmen Mirdanda a bit too cliche. Too much of a stereotype. Maybe even to the point of being offensive. I don't. But, on some level I can see their point. She wasn't a great actresses and as far as I know, no one has ever accused her of being one. She was however an entertaining personality. She doesn't sing any of her better known songs like "South American Way" or "Tico-Tico" but she does have some interesting musical numbers.

You'll also notice character actors like Sheldon Leonard, as a casino manager, Leonid Kinskey as a hotel Bellhop and Billy Gilbert as a hotel manager. If none of those names sound familiar to you, trust me, when you see their faces you'll know who they are.

The film was directed by Walter Lang, who was behind several musicals. He directed the Betty Grable movie "Moon Over Miami" (1941), "There's No Business Like Show Business" (1954) and "Can-Can" (1960), one of his last films. He wasn't a great director but he moves things along nicely here. During some of the Carmen Miranda numbers I got the feeling he thought he's Busby Berkley.

There is definitely an audience for this movie. Film buffs, Alice Faye fans and people old enough to remember when this movie first came out. If you like this movie check out some other Alice Faye musicals like "The Gang's All Here" (1943, which I have reviewed), "Alexander's Ragtime Band", "Hello Frisco, Hello" (1943) where she sings the great WW2 song, "You'll Never Know" and "In Old Chicago" (1937).

"Week-End in Havana" may not be as much fun as "Down Argentine Way" but it has its own charms and a cast just as good.