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Some musicals are more equal than other musicals, a pithy quote said by nobody important. First National's 1935 extravaganza In Caliente is more of a footnote to the great Warners Busby Berkeley tradition than a classic in its own right, but it has a couple of interesting qualities plus a major Berkeley number that can stand proudly with his best work.
It starts out rather tamely ...
The story is not exactly high-caliber writing. Nervy, fast talking New York publisher and critic Larry MacArthur (Pat O'Brien, in nervy, fast-talking mode) has gone crazy over Clara Thorne (Glenda Farrell) a no-good blonde who makes her living by slamming prospective mates with Breach of Promise Suits. To save Larry from himself, his business partner and nosy pal Harold Brandon (Edward Everett Horton) gets him loaded with booze until he passes out, "pours him into an airplane" (the script's words) and spirits him off to "Caliente" in Mexico. Harold's plan backfires when Larry falls head over heels for the irresistible Rita Gomez (Dolores Del Rio), who dances under the name La Españita. Although Larry doesn't realize it, he once gave Rita a withering review back in the big apple, so she plots her revenge by seducing him, and then "laughing in his face." Aiding Rita is her conniving Uncle Gomez (Leo Carrillo, who proceeds to wheedle large sums from Harold. Just as Larry is convincing Rita that he's not a bad guy, Clara shows up to ruin his amorous plans.
That's about it for a story that mostly shows the characters exiting and entering the Caliente nightclub-ballroom, an enormous and impressive set. At least half of the comedy involves Edward Everett Horton's Harold interacting with the other characters in the nervous manner familiar from his Astaire movies at RKO. Harold trades linguistic non-sequiturs with the funny Mexican Mariachi Chris-Pin Martin: "English not so good looking!", while the love-struck Larry has some fine moments ordering flowers from European Herman Bing, an expert at hilarious pronunciations -- his classic here is tangling with the word "rhododendron'. Surprisingly, the beloved scene-stealer Leo Carrillo doesn't make a good impression in this show -- the script just isn't very strong.
Somewhat outgunned on the Warners lot by the more versatile Joan Blondell, Glenda Farrell wasn't getting as many good parts by 1935, and her gold digger Clara is in dire need of a few of the snappy dialogue lines she floored audiences with just a couple of years before. The Production Code's freeze-out on openly suggestive banter may have had something to do with this. If In Caliente doesn't succeed as a romantic comedy, it's not Farrell's doing but the filmmakers' inability to find a proper slot for the big star Dolores Del Rio, who at RKO had been the equivalent of a sex goddess in erotic Pre-Code delights like Bird of Paradise. Ms. Del Rio looks great in close-ups but can't sing and wasn't the most versatile of dancers. Couple her with the equally impaired Pat O'Brien, and In Caliente needs a lot of outside musical help.
That comes in the form of Busby Berkeley, who a couple of years before would have organized the film as a singing and dancing kaleidoscope. Warners appreciated Berkeley's work but didn't want to shell out for his lavish moviemaking ideas, so the choreographer-director limits his input for In Caliente to staging some big-scale but conventional musical numbers. Only one is a real keeper. A large group of dark-haired dancers do some basic moves for an early number, amid the general performances in the nightclub. We note that in some of these scenes, a mariachi or marimba band is playing, but the music heard is from a conventional orchestra. Were some of the numbers filmed before the music was recorded? The title tune "In Caliente" is part of an elaborate but silly operetta. The song "Muchacha" features embarrassingly insipid lyrics packed with New York-style puns:
It's supposed to be La Españita's big number, but she barely registers among the riot of bandits on horseback; most of the singing is handled by phony Mexicano Phil Regan.
... but wait, there's something special here.
Plunked down in the middle of this puzzle is a real gem, one of the most popular of the Warners-First National songs of the '30s, and ironically not one from the Warren/Dubin songbook. With music by Allie Wrubel and lyrics by Mort Dixon, the catchy, melodic and seductive The Lady in Red became known to every school-kid through its reiteration in scores of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Bugs Bunny even sings it in one cartoon, I'm told. Busby Berkeley apparently put all his effort into this one number, which proceeds through several episodes. First we see a dozen or so hostesses sing the entire song as they individually light candles in the darkened nightclub. Then a long line of smiling Mexican bartenders does the same, as they shake mixed drinks. All this is a build-up to the dazzling entrance of Wini Shaw, the 'lady in red' herself. Famous as the star of Busby Berkeley's most grandiose musical number, The Lullaby of Broadway from Gold Diggers of 1935, Ms. Shaw is a swoon-worthy beauty with an inimitable singing style -- and a pair of lips that tremble as she sings!
All Berkeley need do is to make his cameras glide with Shaw as she walks and sings. The dancing comes via Sally and Tony DeMarco, an exhibition team that puts on a great show to an instrumental arrangement of the song, gliding and sometimes tapping on the wide tile dance floor. Berkeley covers this beautifully. Along with Horton, DeMarco returned for Berkeley's wartime Fox musical The Gang's All Here.
In the middle of the song comes an unexpected comedy sting. Wini Shaw eventually ends up dancing with Edward Everett Horton, but before she does, one of the slinky dancers peels off from the chorus line and sits next to the actor. When we finally see her face we find out that it's a young Judy Canova, the hillbilly star of pictures like Carolina Cannonball and Lay that Rifle Down. Hardly PC-friendly today, Canova's riotous yodeling, yahoo humor and purposely grating singing voice served her through a long career. In Caliente is her first feature film appearance, and she's clearly used as comedy relief. The part would be insulting if it weren't part of her adopted stage character. This 'chorus girl' proceeds to warble a twangy backwoods take of "the lady in red" at Horton as he tries to squirm away:
Unless you subscribe to the Hillbilly Defense Fund or are a member of the Yokel Anti-Defamation League, you'll fall out of your seat. Even the other actors in the film are clearly knocked out by Judy, who has mastered the ability to blink her eyes sequentially, like a semaphore signal.
If the message isn't coming across, The Lady in Red is reason enough to lie in wait for In Caliente, or actively pursue it.
The title "In Caliente" surprises anybody who knows Spanish, because it sounds like an incorrect direct translation of "In Heat", as one might refer to a dog. Some web searching turns up the truth. In 1929, to take advantage of prohibition, Mexican and American investors (some say that film money was involved) opened Agua Caliente, a Tijuana horseracing track to complement the Agua Caliente hotel and casino finished the year before. Movie people flocked South of the border, where they could drink and carouse openly. In Caliente takes place here and the exteriors were filmed on the resort's attractive grounds. While not directly advertising Agua Caliente -- the place is only referred to as "Caliente" -- the chances are that much of the audience for the movie knew what the movie was referring to. The cameras pan across the resort's grounds as if filming a moving postcard.
Besides information at a Wiki entry, some great photos are viewable at Robert Eisenstadt's fascinating page on Agua Caliente -- actually a page for collecting & trading casino gambling chips. Agua Caliente was an inspiration for casinos built twenty years later in Las Vegas.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of In Caliente is a Remastered Edition with a silvery image and a beefy soundtrack. Collectors will not complain. The case and the disc are adorned with bright green original artwork. An original trailer is included, that plays part of the "Lady in Red" number and in bold text letters proclaims the dancing chorus girls to be "hot tamales."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
In Caliente rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.