Week-end in Havana (1941) * 3/4
Directed by Walter Lang. Written by Karl Tunberg & Daeell Ware. Photography, Ernest Palmer. Editing, Gene Fowler Jr., Allen McNeil. Art direction, Richard Day, Jospeh C. Wright. Music, Mack Gordon, James W. Monaco, Harry Warren. Cast: Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda, John Payne, Cesar Romero, Cobina Wright, George Barbier, Sheldon Leonard, Leonid Kinsky, et al. Producers, William LeBaron, Darryl F. Zanuck. Some location filming in Cuba. Released in October 1941. A 20th Century Fox film. Technicolor. 81 minutes.
Walter Lang, at the height of his career worked for 20th Century Fox, where his most notable films were movies with Shirley Temple (The Little Princess (1939); Susannah of the Mounties (1939); The Blue Bird (1940)) followed by several bright, lively musicals. Among the latter: Tin Pan Alley, Moon Over Miami, Coney Island, Greenwich Village, State Fair, Mother Wore Tights, With a Song in My Heart, Call Me Madam, There's No Business Like Show Business, The King and I, Can-Can. In-between he made some very good comedies: On the Riviera (Danny Kaye), Cheaper by the Dozen, The Desk Set (Tracy and Hepburn), But Not for Me (Gable, Carroll Baker, Lilli Palmer)
I make this list of highlights for the benefit of old-timers, and to show that Walter Lang was a Somebody. Today he is no household name. He is not on the roster of "auteurs," but then that's common with many purveyors of lighter fare such as musicals. Still, his career was more than merely honorable.
On the other hand Weekend in Havana is strictly one of his lesser efforts. No doubt it is bearable and quite un-irritating, but the pickings are slim.
John Payne is something like a director of a big shipping company. He and the owner's daughter are about to be married in a few days. But come the news that one of the outfit's cruise ships has landed (?) on a reef in Florida waters, as we later learn because of the captain's philandering instead of minding the ship. Payne is rushed to Florida to pacify the passengers with promises of another, free cruise later on. They all but one sign waivers so that the shipping company will not get sued. The exception is Alice Faye, a salesgirl of hosiery at Macy's. She scrimped and saved for years to afford this vacation. She will not wait for a future trip. Adamantly, she refuses to collaborate. So Payne is ordered to fly her to Havana, put her in the best hotel, take her to the best restaurants and clubs, keep her happy and entertained. His wedding will have to wait.
Amiable Payne (flat, with no screen presence) does what he can but it is not a success. At a club Carmen Miranda does her kinetic singing numbers. These include "Tropical Magic." She is good, funny and amuses us a bit with her colorful bad English. A twist surfaces when Miranda's manager and lover Cesar Romero, a shady type in a tight spot, in the belief that Faye is a millionaire, sees in her the solution to his big problem. He owes money to the club's owner Sheldon Leonard who, in unspecified ways, is also an underworld boss. Romero must pay or else.
The big sum in question is all of $750. I wonder how this would translate in 2002 dollars.The movie also dates in other ways. There's not a smidgen of reality in it. From locals to tourists no one even hints at World War II which was then raging in Europe. Note the film's October 1941 release date. Pearl Harbor was only days away.
This studio-Cuba, location photography in Havana notwithstanding, is all-white, all chic and populated by happy people, locals as well as tourists. The mood is blissfully peaceful and gay (in the old sense.) In reality the corrupt Fulgencio Batista was at the time the dictator of this island nation that was awash in problems. (The American Mafia's huge investment is well-drawn later in the "Godfather" films.)
OK, you'll say, this is a musical fantasy, not a historical movie. But it is also a typical example of Hollywood's formulaic, escapist productions.
In a mildly gigolo-ish way Romero courts Faye who knows nothing of gambling yet makes a killing at the roulette table --only to lose it.
Complications ensue. Wall-flowerish, pallid Payne somehow reconnects with Faye. After a minor car accident the two are stranded at some distance from HavanaŠand have to spend the night at the roadside. The highway to Havana has no traffic. The "night" scene is well lit by extraordinarily strong moonlight (read: studio klieg-lights.) By dawn the two are in love and hitch a ride to the big city.
Back in Havana, artificial misunderstandings and new complications and misunderstandings follow, including having Payne's fiancee show up. Not to worry. All ends well.
Shot in none-too-subtle, vivid Technicolor, the picture is dumb, illogical but innocuous and marginally watchable. Alice Faye breaks into song now and then with the typical artificiality of musicals, in which you invariably sense that someone is about to break into song. In those years as well as later ones, this was telegraphed the way on today's TV you guess that a commercial is coming.
As a warbler and a performer Faye is not at her best. But Carmen Miranda, whose private life and career were sad affairs, does add her usual patented, energetic cheerfulness.
Cesar Romero, of Cuban parentage but born in New York City, is always good to watch. His role, as well as all those the rest of the cast's, lacks dimension even by light-movie standards. Still, it is the most attention-getting.
In his habitual fake, exaggerated Hispanic accent Romero is by far the most colorful character. And he gets to speak an malapropism worthy of Sam Goldwyn (whose studio did not produce this movie): "I am an American. I was born in Brooklyn as a child."