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DVD SAVANT

Week-End in Havana
20th Century Fox Marquee Musicals


Week-End in Havana
Fox
1941 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 80 min. / Street Date February 21, 2006 / 19.98
Starring Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda, John Payne, Cesar Romero, Cobina Wright, Sheldon Leonard, Leonid Kinskey, Chris-Pin Martin, Billy Gilbert
Cinematography Ernest Palmer
Art Direction Richard Day, Joseph C. Wright
Film Editor Allen McNeil
Original Music Mack Gordon
Written by Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware
Produced by William LeBaron, Darryl F. Zanuck
Directed by Walter Lang

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The inimitable Carmen Miranda gets second billing only to Fox's top diva Alice Faye in this bright, funny and completely unpretentious musical delight. Fox in general has gotten short shrift in the musical field, always taking a back seat to MGM, but Darryl Zanuck's studio had talent resources that America loved just as well. While MGM was pouring money into big-time musical fare with Judy Garland, Fox racked up box office as good or better with its stars Alice Faye and Betty Grable.

Beautifully remastered and with an optional 2-channel stereo mix, Week-End in Havana is quite a treat.

Synopsis:

The McCracken steamship line is in trouble, with a cruise ship run aground off Florida. The big boss'es potential son-in-law Jay Williams (John Payne) is dispatched to get waivers from the passengers, all of whom cooperate save for one distraught New York hosiery salesgirl on a jaunt, Nan Spencer (Alice Faye). Nan forces Jay to accompany her for an all-expenses paid compensation vacation in Havana, where she expects to find romance. Unfortunately, Jay is already promised to his boss'es daughter Terry McKracken (Cobina Wright, Jr), a rather jealous woman. The unlikely duo run into more trouble in the hotels and casinos of Havana, where gigolo Monte Blanca (Cesar Romero) mistakes Nan for a millionairess. He's trying to get out of debt with a gambler, Boris (Sheldon Leonard), and has to romance Nan without his steady girl (and steady paycheck) finding out: Rosita Rivas, the club headliner and showgirl royale (Carmen Miranda).

Bright music, good jokes, and attractive stars bathed in solid, artificial, candy-colored Technicolor - Week-End in Havana has it all. Alice Faye, one of the stars seemingly born to be filmed in color, was at the height of her popularity, and Carmen Miranda made her third socko appearance in a Fox musical. This is the height of John Payne's first screen incarnation as a handsome fashion accessory for Fox's female stars, ten years before his gritty film noir pictures.

The picture is an almost perfect musical confection with a silly farcical plot just lively enough to motivate a lot of mistaken notions. Faye's feisty shopgirl squawks loudly enough to win a lavish fantasy vacation - we're supposed to believe that a steamship company would atone for ruined pleasure cruise by setting Alice up in a suite suitable for a sultan and decking her out in high fashions ... exactly the kind of high-flung nonsense that's needed. Payne is the Clark Kent-like leading man who stays clueless until the eleventh hour, by which time he's fulfilled his appointed role by ditching his snotty fiancée and taking Alice for his own.

That leading pair is amusing enough, but Week-End in Havana makes excellent use of Carmen Miranda and Cesar Romero as comedic foils. Carmen is utterly charming -- once one gets past the fruit baskets, we see that she's a great dancer, singer and original personality. She obviously had a terrific bilingual talent, as her clever malapropisms and twisted grammar are delivered with machine-gun precision and style. She does one novelty vocal with incredibly fast patter-singing in Portuguese. And it isn't random gibberish -- a lot of it makes sense in the other language.

Romero is so genuinely charming and self-effacing that he completely disarms any reservation about Latin lounge lizard stereotypes. The closest we get to sex in this film is close footwork on the dance floor, and Romero is no slouch when it comes to dancing. He mocks his own smiling persona with a character who cannot keep away from the gambling table. At one point John Payne actually hires Romero to keep 'romancing' (= dancing, smiling, being congenial) Alice, until he realizes he loves her himself. There's the expected stack of embarrassing coincidences, tell-tale evidence and silly jealousies. Romero is supposed to be the Valentino type, but he's completely cowed by the domineering Carmen.

None of the music seems particularly familiar today but it's all rather good - the Latin rhythms of the time have aged extremely well. Tropical Magic is Alice Faye's big song, and she sings it in her confirmed method, leaning up against a pillar in glossy closeup.

The supporting cast is just functionary. Leonid Kinskey of Casablanca is busybody bellboy at the swank Havana hotel and not half as cute as the script seems to think he is. Sheldon Leonard is the slick gambler who keeps threatening Romero with bodily harm. Billy Gilbert plays a local who runs a no-tell roadhouse rendezvous joint. Chris-Pin Martin, the stagecoach driver in John Ford's Stagecoach, gets high billing on the posters but appears to have been almost entirely cut out of the picture - I saw him in just a couple of shots. Cobina Wright Jr. is a pain in the neck as the nervy fiancée and doesn't make much of an impression beyond that. Look quick and you'll see Hugh Beaumont (Leave it to Beaver) as the skipper of a flying boat.


Fox's Marquee Musicals disc of Week-End in Havana looks splendid on DVD; the Technicolor pops off the screen and all the glitzy costumes and ultra-bright scenery looks terrific. Purists sometimes thought that Fox musicals didn't use color in as sophisticated way as MGM, but we're not complaining. According to outside sources, second-unit director James Havens spent weeks in Havana filming beautiful location footage in Technicolor.

Film historian Jeanine Basinger provides a gabby but ultimately satisfactory commentary that will allow fans to learn more about the film. It's more than gushing over the stars and the fancy furniture; she gets into missing scenes and places some of the period peculiarities in perspective, like the fact that the film uses telegrams to keep the plot moving whenever things threaten to slow down.

The disc also comes with a selection of trailers for this film and others in the Marquee Musicals promotion. A lot of Savant readers have been asking for these Fox musicals and I hope they keep coming; I'll really be looking forward to the delirious, almost psychedelic The Gang's All Here. That's Savant, just another of those rare straight guys that enjoy old musical entertainment, and isn't afraid to say so.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Week-End in Havana rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with Jeanine Basinger, trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 3, 2006





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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