Larry Martin looks exactly like Baron Duarte--and no wonder, since they are both played by Don Ameche. He finds himself entwined with both a fiery Brazilian samba goddess (Carmen Miranda) and a discontented countess (Alice Faye) with plenty of time for dazzling Technicolor musical interludes. Regardless of the political benefits resulting from the World War II “Good Neighbor Policy,” it had a splendid effect on 1940s musicals. Movies were filled with jubilant Latin numbers and the infusion of samba, rhumba and conga beats blended with the infectious rhythms of the jitterbug era still swing. That Night in Rio is remarkable for both Carmen Miranda’s singular samba tunes and Alice Faye throaty contralto voice. Faye's blonde curls and lush curves amticipate Marilyn Monroe’s and her songs are extremely sensual adding to the erotic confusion and some double entendre dialogue unusual for strictly censored Hollywood films of the Production Code Era.
The “Good Neighbor Policy,” promoted relations with Latin American trading partners as European and Asian markets were lost during WWII. The Roosevelt administration set up the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American affairs, which had a motion picture division monitoring references to Latin America in the movies. This meant that you might hear people speaking Spanish or Portugese in the movies (instead of accented English) and that Latin music and random references to a character’s Mexican vacation might appear without apparent motivation. In Weekend in Havana, the one Carmen Miranda film newly available on DVD, there is some pointless newreel footage of Cuban sugar cane fields. Stars could “sing, dance and flirt” with, although usually not marry, Hispanic characters (Rodríguez).
Carmen Miranda's stardom was a direct result of this Good Neighbor Policy. Feminist critics may delight in deconstructing Carmen Miranda’s "ethnic otherness" as regards Hollywood leading ladies, debate whether she was allowed to choose romance with Latino or Anglo men, or if she felt confined in her typecasting as a samba queen, but one thing is clear. Her exuberance is contagious. She looks happy, and she makes you happy! In That Night in Rio, she both speaks dialogue and sings in untranslated Portugese, and if the accented English is exaggerated a bit, she was a comedienne, after all, not Bette Davis. She is not ridiculed for her sexual assertiveness and her desirability leaps off the screen. If Don Ameche seems like an undeserving suitor, imagine her with Ben Affleck or Brad Pitt. She'd snap them like toothpicks!
Carmen Miranda was known as The Brazilian Bombshell. She was born in Portugal in 1909, and came to Brazil as a child. She left school at 15 and was discovered singing tangos at a party. Her RCA Victor demo became a hit record. A night-club entertainer, radio star, and Brazil’s biggest movie star in the 1930s, she was already famous throughout Latin American when producer Lee Shubert came to Rio specifically to see her act, and hired her to do a specialty number in the Broadway show, Streets of Paris. She insisted that her Brazilian orchestra, the Bando da Lua accompany her, in part because she knew she would need an authentic sound to compliment her act, but also because one of the musicians, Aloysio de Oliveira, was her long term boyfriend, although they never married. In the first number in That Night in Rio, you can see him playing percussion sitting on the left of the screen. Her song in Streets of Paris, “South American Way,” was a big hit, and she was asked to repeat it in a Betty Grable musical, Down Argentine Way, which co-starred Don Ameche.
Miranda took her self-appointed role as good will ambassador to the United States very seriously, and she considered it a duty to bring Brazilian music and culture to the United States. She was shocked to discover, when she returned to Brazil after her first movie, that, upper crust Brazilians considered her too Americanized, and her representation of South American culture insulting. Stung by a roasting in the press and a come-back performance that was received in icy silence, she signed a long term Hollywood contract with 20th Century Fox and would rarely return home.
Part of her countrymen’s disapproval was, because like Elvis Presley, Carmen Miranda gave a white face to black music. The samba that she loved, and the samba musicians she befriended were part of the Brazilian underclass. She adopted the costume of the Afro-Brazilian women who sell food on the streets of the province of Bahia. The towering headdress, the bangles, the frilly blouse, and the intoxicating samba rhythm were interpreted simply as “Brazilian” by North Americans, unaware of the nuances of her image. She pretended not to speak English well, and was a participant in the development of her image—one that some Brazilian fans interpreted as a sell out. In many of her films, her sexuality was played for laughs, and, as the heroine’s best friend, she would sacrifice her love for the Anglo hero. But in this film, she gets a happily ever after, too, with an “American.” Her persona is still fresh and not played for the same sort of laughter that would happen later, when her image became ripe for parody, with Bob Hope, Mickey Rooney and even Bugs Bunny dressing in drag and mimicking her.
At 20th Century Fox Miranda made a number of joyfully exuberant musicals, Aside from That Night in Rio, the best are Weekend in Havana, Springtime in the Rockies and The Gang’s All Here. She was Fox’s biggest moneymaker and the highest paid woman in the US in 1945. While Fox producer Darryl Zanuck bullied her co-star Alice Faye, he was captivated by Miranda. If he did not do what she wanted, she threatened to lose her comical on-screen accent. But, her influence was not such that she ever managed to break out of the stereotypical role in which she had cast herself. The Gang’s All Here is her most famous movie today, with its extravagant Busby Berkeley choreographed musical numbers, including one, “The Lady in the Tutti Fruitti Hat,” in which chorus girls wave giant bananas and Carmen’s turban grows to enormous size, dwarfing her. Although there are some great set pieces in the film, it is hampered by the wartime shortage of talented leading men, and there are a lot of dull patches, promoting largely forgotten radio stars, like Phil Baker, who were not really cut out for the screen.
By the end of the 1940s, after being featured in two MGM musicals, A Date with Judy and Nancy Goes to Rio, meant to showcase their teen stars like Jane Powell and Elizabeth Taylor, Miranda's movie career evaporated. She broke up with her long term boyfriend, and entered into a disastrous marriage to an abusive man, whom she would not divorce because of her religion. After a nervous breakdown and recuperation in Brazil, she briefly returned to performing. She suffered a heart attack on tv, during The Jimmy Durante Show and later that night died at the age of 46 in 1953. She only made 14 American films, a surprizingly small number, considering her image is still so recognizable.
Her castmates in That Night in Rio are Fox stalwarts Don Ameche and Alice Faye, a popular pair who starred in 6 films together.
Alice Faye was a favorite of scrapbook keepers.
Dominic Felix Amici was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1908. His father was born in Italy and there were 8 children, of which Dominic was the 2nd. After finishing law school, his college drama experience led him to the stage. He met his wife in church choir; they married in 1932 and had five children, and stayed married until the end of their lives. During the 1930s he became a famous radio star. He appeared on many programs and was the host of The Chase and Sandborn Hour starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Ameche’s “success is due to the caramel content of his butterscotch baritone.” (Madden). 20th Century Fox signed him in 1936, and he appeared in popular films like In Old Chicago and Alexander’s Ragtime Band, both with Alice Faye and Tyrone Power. He played the title role in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, which briefly led to slangy references to the telephone as “the Ameche.” The Ernst Lubitch directed Heaven Can Wait is considered to be his best performance. I first knew him as the tv host of 1960s circus show called International Showtime. At the height of the “nostalgia era” for vintage films in the 1970s, he and Alice Faye toured in a revival of the musical Good News. At the end of his life he made several memorable comeback performances including Trading Places and Cocoon (1985) for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Miranda and Ameche
Alice Faye is another popular player of the era not much revived today. David Shipman describes her as “blonde, cuddly, shapely and kind—almost bovine…she was no great shakes as an actress, but hers is the supreme example of an amiable temperament caught by the camera.” She was born Alice Jeanne Leppert in the Hell’s Kitchen section of NYC in 1915 and left school at 14 to become a chorus girl. While hoofing in George White’s Scandals, the star of the show, Rudy Vallee, heard her sing and gave her a weekly song on his radio show, as well as a spot touring with the band. 20th Century Fox filmed the show in 1934, and when Vallee’s co-star walked off the set, the studio gave her the lead (over the objections of George White) but with the endorsement of Vallee, whose wife named her co-respondent in her divorce from Vallee that year. In the 1930s, she was a more Jean Harlow-esque blonde, but as the decade progressed, her rough edges softened. She battled studio head Darryl Zanuck, (she called the studio, not 20th Century Fox, but Penitentiary Fox) and he brought in Betty Grable as a threat to her career. But by then, after her marriage to singer Phil Harris in 1941 (now mostly remembered as the voice of Baloo the bear in Disney’s Jungle Book) she began losing interest in her career and retired from the screen in 1945. She had four children with Harris, and they stayed married until his death in 1995, she died in 1998.
Faye and husband Phil Harris
Stars were not often photographed with their infants for the fan magazines.
Fox musicals had a particular style, in part because of their snappy Technicolor. “The Fox colour processing was strikingly bold and gay, the tones vivid, the images razor sharp. The fiery furnace reds, pigeon blues and peppermint greens, the yellows and oranges that seemingly burst from the screen, belonged to a deliberately hallucinatory color scheme that heightened the fantastical effect of their big musical numbers (Kobal). There is no better example that the opening number here, where a deliberately stagebound tropical night gives way to chorines waving sparklers and Carmen Miranda shimmers out from behind them in a sinuous silver ensemble.
The costumes for the film were designed by former Paramount designer, Travis Banton, who had done Marlene Dietrich’s slinky ensembles in the 1930s. He was spending a brief two years at Fox because his alcoholism had worsened to the extent that no studio wanted to sign him for an extended contract. He was assigned to do Alice Faye’s wardrobe, but she did not particularly like his designs. David Chierichetti writes of her One Night in Rio wardrobe, “He gave her a voluptuous evening gown of draped gold lame and masses of jewels. It was one of his most beautiful creations, and suited her figure perfectly, but was not Faye’s image of herself.” According to W. Robert Lavine, she had been lobbying for more flashy decoration on her dresses, of the kind Banton had provided for Dietrich earlier. “Banton coldly informed Faye that Dietrich could carry off any amount of decoration with her innate chic, but that such clothes on Faye would make her look like a ‘carnival hooch.’” Banton was instructed by the front office to treat one of the studio’s most important stars with a little more respect. Interestingly there is no mention made of Miranda’s clothes in the films he designed at Fox, and one wonders how much input she had into her own sartorial screen image.
This example of 1940s art direction showcases both typical design of the decade, and the wartime shortages that sometimes made sets more surrealistic than they would have been otherwise.
Carmen Miranda became an instant success in the movies. Her fruit and flower laden turbans, sky high platforms, brief tops (which could not show cleavage or bellybuttons, according to the Production Code) and swirly skirts were imitated and parodied everywhere. And, toned down somewhat turbans and platform shoes became a 1940s fashion uniform. Film history treasures many unique personalities, none more so than the incomparable Brazilian bombshell. If she never got to play a character, instead of a caricature, that has created her immortality.
“Carmen Miranda carried her country in her luggage and taught people who had no idea of our existence to adore our music and our rhythm. Brazil will always have an unpayable debt to Carmen Miranda.” --Heitor Villa-Lobos
Don't forget moviediva jr's review of That Night in Rio