Good neighbor policy? Wartime exigencies inspired an intra-hemisphere cultural exchange, with the movies seizing on the new popularity of Latin music. Republic’s contribution gives us the great songs of Ady Barroso and a full soundtrack of his compositions — in a featherweight musical romance, of course.
1944 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 91 min. / Street Date December 6, 2016 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.98
Starring Tito Guízar, Virginia Bruce, Edward Everett Horton, Robert Livingston, Veloz and Yolanda, Fortunio Bonanova, Richard Lane, Frank Puglia, Aurora Miranda, Billy Daniel, Dan Seymour, Roy Rogers.
Cinematography Jack A. Marta
Film Editor Fred Allen
Songs Ary Barroso, Hoagy Carmichael
Written by Frank Gill Jr., Laura Kerr, Richard English
Produced by Robert North
Directed by Joseph Santley
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The wartime ‘Good Neighbor Policy’ was a P.R. blitz intended to steer South America toward the U.S. and away from the Axis. Was there some rule that every studio had to make some token effort for it? RKO sent Orson Welles to Brazil, Disney created José Carioca, Fox launched Carmen Miranda in Technicolor and MGM co-opted Xavier Cugat.
Republic’s 1944 Brazil follows the Fox blueprint, with a storyline barely more than a trifle, a second-string non-performing star in Virginia Bruce, a first-string comic lead in Edward Everett Horton, and a scattering of musical talent, only some of it from South of the equator. The headliner is Tito Guízar, a Mexican opera singer who relocated to the U.S. and popularized Latin ballads of all kinds. Although he sang featured spots in a big picture or two, he never took off as an actor.
As with most musicals of this sort, the story could have been written by Peter Piffle. At the invite of friend-admirer diplomat Rod Walker (Robert Livingston), author Nicky Henderson (Virginia Bruce) arrives in Rio with the intention of capturing the spirit of the entirety of Brazil for a new book… in a two-week visit. The Brazilian press snubs Nicky because they consider her popular book “Why Marry a Latin?” an insult to the nation. But the local songwriter Miguel Soares (Tito Guízar) falls in love with Nicky at first sight. He pretends to be a tour guide to get close to her, and eventually passes himself of as his own twin brother, so as to assume his songwriter identity again, and woo her with music (the details aren’t rewarding). But Miguel’s cousin Everett St. John Everett (Edward Everett Horton) is on his case: Miguel owes a New York producer (Richard Lane) a big song. Miguel would rather chase Nicky. He lies to Everett, claiming that he’s only wooing Nicky so as to return her insult to Brazil. But he’s really deeply in love. As it turns out, a little melody Nicky hears in her head is the inspiration that can lead Miguel to compose a great new winning song for the big Carnival celebration.
Brazil does have a few things going for it, but not in the script department. Even Edward Everett Horton is pressed to make his comedy scenes function, when he’s stalling the New York producer with silly verbal nonsense. One painful gag has Everett claim that songwriter Miguel has two heads, and Tito Guízar plays Ray Milland-Rosey Grier to prove it. We all love Virginia Bruce from the fun comedy The Invisible Woman). Here she’s appropriately glamorous and charming, and tosses off her comedy lines in fine style. But all her Nicky does is react to the come-ons of a guy pretending to be twins, listen to him sing, and then fall out of love just long enough to set up a last-scene reunion. Ms. Bruce can act but Guízar, although a nice-enough seeming guy, comes off as false and overbearing. He can neither sell a line nor compensate with a fresh personality.
To his credit, Guízar’s Portuguese diction and accent sounds fine, enough to presume that he’s bilingual. But I can’t see how Brazil could have been popular down in Rio — I don’t see a single genuine brasileiro with a large speaking part. We do have solid supporting input from Spanish- born Fortunio Bonanova and Sicilian- born Frank Puglia but the rest are bit parts. Western star Robert Livingston gets the thankless role but performs it honorably. As Bob Livingston he performed a full 29 Three Mesquiteers series entries, and had even played The Lone Ranger in a Republic serial. To his credit, Livingston takes his Portuguese dialogue seriously – he clearly put some work into it.
The show’s saving grace is its music — all but one tune is from the songbook of the great Ary Borroso, whose idyllic “Aquarela do Brasil” is the most famous and recognizable samba. Most people know it now as a symbol of paradise in Terry Gilliam’s 1985 Brazil, but the place to really hear it is in Busby Berkeley’s near-psychedelic Fox musical The Gang’s All Here, sung by Aloysio de Oliveira.
The musical numbers are all okay, without posing competition for MGM or Fox. The orchestrations are fine and some of Billy Daniel’s choreography is okay as well. The camerawork & dancing in the one group dance number is not all that well coordinated, which dulls that down a bit. First up are Veloz & Yolanda (Jean Veloz & Yolanda Casazza), a popular exhibition dancing team best known for providing a romantic break for Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright in Pride of the Yankees. They dance to an impressive orchestration of the title tune, mixing graceful ballroom moves with the exaggerated samba expected by American audiences. Aside: although a camp icon, Carmen Miranda is a terrific performer and expert comedienne. Seeing her imitated/lampooned by Mickey Rooney in a comic MGM musical surely trashed her image, making her just a clown.
Carmen Miranda’s younger sister Aurora Miranda performs the film’s best dancing, paired with Billy Daniel in a large group number. She made some other film appearances as well, the best being Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady, where she both sings and acts. Aurora’s most famous dancing and singing appearance in Disney’s animation-live action wonderment The Three Caballeros. Next to the music itself, I’d say that Aurora Miranda is the film’s highlight.
The low point is Republic star Roy Rogers, an appearance explained as a special guest of Carnival. Rogers sings a Good Neighbor- themed Hoagy Carmichael tune, “Hands Across the Border.” The ‘king of the cowboys’ gets his own credit card, with his name written twice as big as anybody else’s. This is no more troublesome than MGM’s habit of shoehorning proprietary talent into their shows, but just the same the movie can’t escape its studio’s sagebrush origins. Nobody had to worry about marketing during the war — practically every release did well — but we still wonder who exactly this movie was aimed at. I can’t see Brazilians being enamored with it. Disney’s animated musical phantasmagorias injected Donald Duck into the proceedings, yet displayed an awe for Latin American music and exoticism.
That leaves Tito Guízar’s mellow voicing of serenade to Nicky, and his performance of the billboarded song “Rio de Janeiro” at the finish. Guízar popularized Latin music on the radio and in concert, even at Carnegie Hall, but he didn’t crack the movies.
Composer Ary Borroso’s credit (“Songs by”), along with his English and Portuguese lyricists, is given small-sized type among the technical staff at the end of the movie. I suppose that Brazilian release prints of the film had different credits; at least, I hope they did. Otherwise Brazil might have gone over to the Nazis.
Brazil is a sizeable production for the relatively small but technically adept Republic Studio. P.R.C. could make cut-rate musicals down on Poverty Row, mainly because Edgar Ulmer loved them, and knew how to film them on a budget. Even his Detour interweaves music with great skill. Ah, but Republic had musical experience as well — don’t forget all those singing cowboy movies. And the studio sent a camera crew to Rio, coming back with various travelogue images. When looking for things to praise, critics singled out the film’s views of the real Carnaval, and images taken of Rio’s giant Cristo Redentor statue, then only 13 years old. The location footage intercuts nicely with studio work back in North Hollywood, where Republic packed a soundstage with hundreds of extras.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Brazil suggests that Republic’s film library could be the best cared-for in the industry – as with most every Olive release from that vault, the film materials are in impeccable shape. Jack Marta was not a name cinematographer for several decades — his work includes pix by Bert I. Gordon — but after filming some of the best Republic pictures (Ride the Man Down, Fair Wind to Java) he moved up to the big time in the 1960s.
The B&W Brazil can’t compete with color musicals from the big studios but it does have a glossy sheen, and the big scenes at the finish are quite accomplished. Ary Barroso’s music given the Hollywood treatment and the recording is excellent. The film is forgotten now but in 1944 it was nominated for Best Sound (winner: Wilson), Best Original Song Rio de Janeiro (winner “Swinging on a Star,” from Going My Way) and best Scoring (winner: Cover Girl).
Olive has no extras — but we do appreciate the English subtitles. Lovers of off-the-track musicals will want this disc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Brazil Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good – minus
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 9, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson