Saturday, December 26, 2015

Film Review: Holiday in Mexico

"Holiday in Mexico"  *** (out of ****)

Fall in love the South American way with the MGM musical "Holiday in Mexico" (1946).

"Holiday in Mexico", with its all-star cast, is really centered around the young singing sensation, Jane Powell. It is a kind of "the difficulties of being a child" story. The kind of movie another young scarlet, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney would have appeared in. Powell plays Christine Evans, daughter of the American ambassador in Mexico, Jeffrey Evans (Walter Pidgeon).

Christine is 16 years old and at this point in her life feels she is old enough to be considered a woman. She is not a little girl anymore. She believes she runs the household and orders the servants around. Not in a mean, nasty way but, as an adult. She feels it is her obligation to keep the house in order and when time demands it, since Christine always goes on and on about how busy she is, she helps her father with his diplomatic work.

"Holiday in Mexico" is as much about the bonds between parents and children, especially fathers and daughters, as it is about the confusion of young love and misguided feelings. And it is all done to a fun and exciting musical score.

The movie, released after World War II, is another movie in a long line of musicals, such as "Down Argentine Way" (1940) and "Week-End in Havana" (1941) that tried to capitalize on the "Good Neighbor" policy enacted by President Franklin Roosevelt during the war years. Prior to the war it was not uncommon for movies to take place in Europe. Movies would feature rich socialites traveling to London or Paris on weekend getaways, searching for love. But, once the war started, even before America's involvement, movies could no longer do that. You couldn't make a movie about rich people, leading a carefree lifestyle, traveling to Paris or any other European country and not address the war going on. Americans knew there was a "conflict in Europe" brewing. So, Hollywood decided to change locations and focus on Latin America, where World War II was out of sight.

"Holiday in Mexico" unfortunately wants to do too many things at once and doesn't devote enough time to each storyline. By the end of the movie I wasn't satisfied. It doesn't have the Hollywood ending you'd expect. A kind of everyone kisses and makes-up ending. You really aren't sure what has been resolved.

"Holiday in Mexico" has a romantic love story in it revolving around Jeffrey Evans. Years ago, while in Budapest (that's in Hungary), he met a beautiful singer who called herself Countess Toni Karpathy (Ilona Massey, who really was Hungarian). For Jeffrey it was love at first sight. For reasons never explained in the movie, Jeffrey must leave Hungary and so ends the Countess and Jeffrey's love affair.

Years later, in an attempt to show she is a big girl, Christine arranges to throw a party and invites Xavier Cugat and his orchestra, which features a Hungarian singer named Toni Karpathy. Here is a second chance at love for Jeffrey and Toni. Will they be able to rekindle their romance?

This is actually the most interesting of the story-lines being told in "Holiday in Mexico" but sadly it is not given enough screen time as the movie most also juggles scenes between Christine and Stanley (Roddy McDowall), who is the same age as Christine and is convinced he is in love with her. But, you see, Christine is a "woman" and does not have time for a boy like Stanley. So, Stanley's advances go unnoticed.

The sequences involving these too provide the movie which comedic material as Stanley goes out of his way to show Christine he is in love with her only for her to ignore him. Does Christine love Stanley? Is she too busy to recognize her feelings? Will these two crazy kids get together in the end?

Finally there is the theme of how confusing growing up can be. Christine becomes jealous when she notices her father and Toni spending time together. Now, instead of Christine and Jeffrey having lunch together, as they always do, now Jeffrey has lunch with Toni. To Christine this means her father no longer has time for her, doesn't need her attended to his affairs and doesn't love her anymore. Toni has replaced Christine.

What is Christine supposed to do? How can she feel like a woman when there is no man for her to take care of? Besides inviting Xavier Cugat to the party to entertain Christine also invited the famous pianist Jose Iturbi. When Mr. Iturbi pays Christine several compliments, he believes she is a wonderful singer and very mature for her age, she mistakes it as advances being made at her and believes Mr. Iturbi is in love with her and she in love with him. Mr. Iturbi will then replace Christine's father as the man who needs her in his life. This of course infuriates Stanley.

"Holiday in Mexico", directed by George Sidney and written by Isobel Lennart, tells these stories with a lot of fun and enthusiasm. The movie has no time to become serious. There is too much music, romance and gaiety in the air.

However you could argue "Holiday in Mexico" is smartly written and is able to convey some important messages. At its best the life lessons learned in "Holiday in Mexico" are of the Andy Hardy (a series of movies starring Mickey Rooney) variety and are not profound. Still, one may be tempted to say a movie released after the war about teenagers becoming mature and adults may have been able to resonate with audiences. Don't forget a lot of young men, teenagers themselves, were either drafted or enlisted in the war. As the old cliche goes, they left has children but came back men. Mom and dad would have to adjust to that shift.

The lighthearted nature of "Holiday in Mexico" may have also been the result of the war. Americans read about the war for years. Some grew restless, especially parents with children fighting abroad. When would the war end? Countless people knew someone who lost a child. When the war was over people wanted to distract themselves and one way people distract themselves is through entertainment. So, why not watch a carefree movie musical where the biggest problem is trying to fall in love? Like the song tells us, "forget your troubles, c'mon get happy".

That will account for why we have a smorgasbord of talent involved in the movie. Jose Iturbi, like the great Oscar Levant, was not only a talented musician but also a personality, although I must admit, Mr. Iturbi was not near as entertaining a personality as Mr. Levant. Though Mr. Iturbi does have some nice comedic moments as does the band leader Xavier Cugat along with his chihuahua.

Roddy McDowell may only be known to moderns audiences for his role in "Planet of the Apes" (1968) however he was a child star who reached fame in the 1940s appearing opposite Elizabeth Taylor in "Lassie Come Home" (1943) and in the Academy Award winner "How Green Was My Valley (1941) also with Walter Pidgeon. In "Holiday in Mexico" Mr. McDowell turns in a good comedic performance. I wish there was more for him to do and greater resolution for his character.

I would say it is Walter Pidgeon who has the most difficult task. Mr. Pidgeon was a leading man in Hollywood though here he is playing a father. The majority of his scenes are with Ms. Powell. In these scenes he is presented as a wise older man. A skilled diplomat not the screen lover audiences may identify with a leading man. Still, Mr. Pidgeon turns in a good performance and I would argue has his best moments when he is acting opposite Ms. Massey.

The soundtrack consist of Jose Iturbi performing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as some boogie woogie (!), Xavier Cugat singing "And That's That", Ms. Powell singing "I Think of You" and "Ava Maria" and Ilona Massey singing the traditional Hungarian folk tune "Csak Egy Szep Lany" (translated in English as The Only Beautiful Girl. This song was the inspiration for an American song, Golden Earrings).

My own memories of "Holiday in Mexico" go back to my childhood when my grandmother first showed me the movie. I have never hidden the fact my family comes from Hungary (my name kind of gives it away). My grandmother, who was the movie buff in our family, loved to tell me which movie stars were Hungarian and so we watched "Holiday in Mexico" because of Ilona Massey. I can not tell you how exciting it was to watch a Hollywood movie and hear a famous actress sing and speak in Hungarian. And "we" weren't the bad guys. No vampires, Hungary was not shown to be a depressing communist country, as it would be presented in American movies during the Cold War (see "Assignment: Paris" (1952) with Dana Andrews). This time no one insulted "us" or implied "we" were evil.

Despite some of its flaws "Holiday in Mexico" represents a kind of old-fashion, innocent Hollywood entertainment we do get anymore. Maybe because audiences believe they are "too sophisticated" for it or maybe because artist are incapable of coming up with these ideas. Everyone wants to be "edgy" and cynical. In the process "we", society, have lost our innocence. "Holiday in Mexico" is a nice reminder of what Hollywood once gave audiences. It is a good time; funny and sweet with some good songs, plus they speak Hungarian (!).