Hidden Classics: Irving Cummings’ DOWN ARGENTINE WAY (1940)

I sat transfixed as stunning Technicolor hues jumped out at me. The people. Those beautiful, talented people the likes of which come along once in millennia. In picture after picture, they delight and enchant. The songs are catchy and lively. The smile on my face never wavered. I did not care then that the plot is razor thin. I did not care that the people on screen are not true to the characters they depict. I did not care that this was pure fantasy made to entertain. Moreover, I do not care now.

Irving Cummings’ Down Argentine Way (1940) is my pick for this year’s Hidden Classics Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Not only is this a movie I have watched many times, it is also historically significant, the type of movie many ‘serious’ cinephiles discount for its lack of messaging. However, I am here to praise its timeless entertainment value and to try to explain why it should be seen.

Down Argentine Way tells the story of an heiress who wants to see a man about a horse. The heiress is Glenda Crawford (Betty Grable) and the man is Don Diego Quintana (Henry Stephenson). Complicating matters is the fact that Glenda is the daughter of Don Diego’s archenemy and she and Don Diego’s son Ricardo (Don Ameche) are sweet on each other from the moment they meet. Don Diego tells his son he forbids selling a Crawford any of his prized horses, but the young Quintana cannot seem to shake Glenda or her aunt Binnie (Charlotte Greenwood) who run in the same racing circles.

Part of the fun of watching Down Argentine Way is the romance. Formulaic as it may be religiously following the girl meets boy, girl dumps boy, girl and boy reunite in glorious Technicolor plot, one cannot help but fall for it. The rest of the story is often incidental. And so…as Ricardo and Glenda are acquainted, they devise a plan to race Don Diego’s favorite horse, Furioso. Having lost a horse during a race, Don Diego has tuned Furioso into a jumper, but Furioso’s heart is in racing as Quintana’s horse trainer Casiano (J. Carroll Naish) has proven. Casiano has secretly been racing Furioso through town making extra money on the sure bet. Glenda convinces Ricardo to enter Furioso in a race against his father’s wishes. When Don Diego finds out he too is furioso, but the horse’s performance is a matter of pride. Seeing Furioso’s talent Don Diego changes his tune and eventually accepts Ricardo’s relationship with Glenda Crawford. All ends well in Argentina as the town gathers to celebrate Furioso’s win.

Grable and Ameche

Down Argentine Way is a musical remake of David Butler’s Kentucky (1938), the idea of Darryl F. Zanuck VP of Production at 20th Century Fox at the time. Zanuck wanted a Latin American-themed musical as a vehicle for Alice Faye. When Faye called out sick, probably due to exhaustion, Zanuck called up Betty Grable whose movie career was at a standstill.

By 1940, Betty Grable had appeared in over 30 pictures. She had done a series of college musicals, a stint as one of the original Goldwyn Girls alongside the likes of Lucille Ball, Paulette Goddard and Ann Sothern, and had performed the comedic number “Let’s Knock Knees” with Edward Everett Horton in The Gay Divorcee (1934). Grable was in Cole Porter’s Du Barry Was a Lady on Broadway with Bert Lahr and Ethel Merman in 1939 when Darryl Zanuck called her back to Fox to replace Alice Faye in Down Argentine Way, her first starring role and the movie that made her a superstar.

Although it is not her best picture, Grable’s talents are on full display in Down Argentine Way. That is, her wonderful presence, the naturalness with which she carried the unique combination of glamour queen and girl next door. She plays an heiress in this movie, but never has an air of superiority. The sense that she did not take herself too seriously comes across on screen in all of her movies. One simply has to like her.

Betty Grable donning a Carmen Miranda-like costume for Down Argentine Way by Everett

In 1943 Betty Grable was the number one box office draw, the first adult woman to reach that milestone (Shirley Temple was the first female number one). Between 1943 and 1950 Betty was the highest paid celebrity in Hollywood and among the top ten box office stars for a decade. By watching one of her movies, it is easy to see why audiences fell in love with her. Putting her famous legs aside, Betty Grable reached popularity to such a degree that George Jessel thought every Oscar statuette should be inscribed “Betty Grable helped pay for this.” Mitzi Gaynor went on to say, “Betty was the bread & butter of the studio. Without her, we’d have all been out of a job.”

Down Argentine Way and Betty Grable are great examples of Darryl Zanuck’s star making abilities, as Michael Troyan highlighted with me. Mr. Troyan is the author of Twentieth Century Fox: A Century of Entertainment, a studio Darryl Zanuck guided to success. Zanuck made stars of Shirley Temple, Alice Faye, Sonja Henie, Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Gene Tierney among others. That is true also of the stars of Down Argentine Way, which was part of the effort to revive Twentieth Century Fox. Down Argentine Way also stands as a great example of Hollywood’s efforts to promote the country’s ‘Good Neighbor Policy’ established in 1933 by President Roosevelt, but put into action in Hollywood as World War II loomed because a decline in European markets was expected. The Good Neighbor Policy held as its primary goal mutually friendly relations between the U.S. and Latin American nations. Enter Brazilian Bombshell Carmen Miranda.

Carmen Miranda and her band

Carmen Miranda made her American film debut in Down Argentine Way. She plays herself with her real-life band as a popular entertainer at nightclubs the main characters frequent. Miranda helped advance the popularity of Latin American music in Hollywood movies. She became so popular so fast that her prints were immortalized in cement at Grauman’s forecourt only a year and a half after this film debut. That is remarkable. Between 1941 and 1953, Carmen made 14 movies in Hollywood while also maintaining a busy nightclub schedule. In fact, she was working in a nightclub act while making Down Argentine Way. Her performances were shot in New York, while the rest of the cast worked primarily on the Fox lot in Hollywood. Miranda followed Down Argentine Way with similar fare, Week-End in Havana (1941) and That Night in Rio (1941) both with Alice Faye. One could say that these Fox musicals did not take full advantage of Miranda’s talents, but no one can deny they were certainly enough to popularize her internationally. She is great to watch, even when the script calls for her to botch the English language, she does so with flare and wonderful timing. That’s not the case in Down Argentine Way, however. Here Miranda’s nightclub performances are cut and paste into the movie, as Fox was prone to do in many of their revue type musicals. My only complaint is we do not see enough of Ms. Miranda in this vehicle.

The amazing Nicholas Brothers also appear in Down Argentine Way in scenes interpolated into the story, similar to Miranda. The Brothers play an act at a nightclub and perform what is my favorite of their routines, a captivatingly energetic dance duet to the movie’s title song, “Down Argentine Way.” You have not lived if you have not watched the Nicholas Brothers. They never disappoint throughout the succession of dance routines in six musical at 2oth Century Fox starting with Down Argentine Way.

The Nicholas Brothers: Harold sings and Fayard plays the maracas to open their routine in Down Argentine Way

With his good looks, an impressive baritone voice and trademark pencil thin moustache, Don Ameche was one of the great male stars of musical comedies at Fox in the 1930s and 1940s. Ameche had a great career on radio before venturing toward Hollywood and the movies in 1933. MGM rejected his screen test, but he was scooped up by 20th Century Fox after his appearance in Richard Boleslawski’s Clive of India (1935) with Ronald Colman and Loretta Young. Ameche would become the ideal romantic lead in films like Down Argentine Way working with all of Fox’s great leading female talent. He was great in Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938) with Alice Faye and had his greatest success in the popularity department with The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939). He did such a good job in that movie that many moviegoers believed that it had been he, Don Ameche, who invented the telephone. “Ameche” became common slang for “telephone” – as in, ‘You’re wanted on the Ameche.”

Don Ameche’s career is fascinating for its length, variety and success, which he enjoyed in several mediums including radio and Broadway. Ameche won an Oscar at the age of seventy-eighthis turn in Ron Howard’s Cocoon (1985). For our purposes, it is all about Down Argentine Way, the first of two movies Ameche made with Betty Grable. The other is Walter Lang’s Moon Over Miami (1941). Don Ameche and Grable have great chemistry and, for me, comparable singing talent. Impressive in this movie is Ameche’s accent, although perhaps not Argentinian, it is consistent. He even sings in Spanish here during the first instance when the title song is heard.

Ameche and Grable

Rounding out the main characters in Down Argentine Way are Henry Stephenson, Charlotte Greenwood, Leonard Kinskey and J. Carrol Naish. Best known for playing Sascha the loveable Russian bartendere in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942), Leonard Kinskey plays Tito Acuna here, a gigolo hired by Binnie Crawford to escort her around Argentina. Kinsky is not quite right in this role initially intended for Cesar Romero who left the project due to health issues, but partnered with Charlotte Greenwood, the two make for an enjoyable odd couple. You also get the opportunity for a few of Charlotte Greenwood’s famous kicks in the lavish musical compilation that ends the picture. Before Grable and Ameche embrace by moonlight, that is.

Although there has been much said about J. Carrol Naish’s performance as Casiano for not staying true to Argentine culture, I like him as the colorful horse breeder. Then again, when does Naish ever not deliver? That said, Argentines felt strongly enough about the character and cultural depictions in this movie to have it banned in their country. There are a lot of Mexican touches where there should not be is one example, not to mention the absence of Argentinian actors. That must be acknowledged, but as we all know, if we decide to be one hundred percent correct then there are many classics we cannot watch. Henry Stephenson’s portrayal of Don Diego is fine. I believe him him as Ameche’s father even though his accent is inconsistent.

The unlikely pair of Aunt Binnie and her gigolo played by Charlotte Greenwood and Leonid Kinskey

Meanwhile in the United States…Down Argentine Way was released in October 1940. It became 20th Century Fox’s number one musical hit of the year. And for good reason. If Americans then or Americans today want perfect escapist fare this is it. Even the costumes may you sigh. In this case it is no other than Travis Banton who must have had a blast designing the extradinarily colorful ensembles throughout.

Down Argentine Way was not without artistic acclaim. The movie garnered Academy Award nominations for Art Direction (Color) and Cinematography (Color) as well as for Harry Warren and Mack Gordon’s title song. The look of this is signature Fox musical richness.

Producer Darryl F. Zanuck put this entire thing together as he did many times to popular acclaim. He had a gift for launching musicals in particular, a genre which many including Gene Kelly and Betty Grable, thought was the most difficult to produce. Zanuck made composer Alfred Newman head of Fox’s Music Departments, which all but guaranteed excellence. Many, like music historian Michael Feinstein, consider Fox’s music department, orchestra, team of composers, lyricists, etc. the best in Hollywood. (Troyan) Given that these musicals played such a big part in introducing me to American standards, I would have to agree. Down Argentine Way is a great example of why so many envied the Fox musical. It is rich and irresistibly entertaining.

Be sure to visit the year’s Hidden Classics Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association.

When I finished watching Down Argentine Way again in preparation for this entry, I commented to friends that this movie and other movies like it – Fox musicals in particular – transport me. They move me to pieces. I am filled with wonder, the wonder of that child in that apartment in Washington Heights. New to this country, that child bought the Technicolor, the music, the beautiful people, all of it, hook line and sinker. I was welcomed into a new world by the Betty Grables of the world. I stepped in then and have never stepped out.

Thank you to author Michael Troyan for the historical insight. I just love the behind-the-scenes stories of how our favorite movies were made. It is not surprising that his current Twitter image is Don Ameche.

2 thoughts

  1. I love how you love this movie! It is sooooooo much fun. I admit to being a big Betty Grable supporter – especially when she is filmed in that super saturated Fox color. A beautiful tribute to the reason we all cherish our favorite films.

  2. What a wonderful review! Betty Grable and Don Ameche are great in this – I love Ameche – and for obvious reasons I also would like to have seen more of Carmen Miranda. Leonard Kinskey’s character is also a highlight for me.

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