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Movie Musical Monday, March 12th: ‘The Kid From Spain’

March 12, 2012

Good morning, and Happy Movie Musical Monday!

Today’s movie (musical) is the Samuel Goldwyn 1932 picture, The Kid from Spain.  (The reasoning for the parenthesis around “musical” in that first sentence will be explained as we go along.)

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This film is a vehicle for its star Eddie Cantor, and truly little else.  Cantor was a vaudeville song and dance man, who like many performers of his time would cross over to radio and movies that usually showcased these talents either in fast-paced comedic schtick, or with the insertion of a production number whenever there was a slight lag in action.  As well as being a performer, Cantor was a song-writer (here’s one of his) and did a lot of charity and humanitarian work, including helping to establish the March of Dimes.  This was Cantor’s third film with Samuel Goldwyn Productions, and was at the time a very marketable (read: PROFITABLE) property–as were the dance sequences of Busby Berkeley, whose work (also featured in Cantor’s previous two films with SGP) this movie uses only scarcely but well.

Kid was directed by Leo McCarey, who is in a word: awesome.

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A self-made man, McCarey contributed much to the films of this era and to film history by writing, co-writing, producing, or directing some very key properties.  He also knew how to handle and cast actors.  He helped Cary Grant develop and hone the persona that would keep Grant working (and terribly dashing) for almost his entire film career.  It’s even said that Grant pulled a lot of his on-screen mannerisms and general joie de vie from McCarey himself.  Think about that.  McCarey was the guy who thought to put Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy together on film.  He was the guy who co-wrote the story (not script), directed, and produced the 1939 hit Love Affair–which he would later remake into the even-bigger 1957 hit, An Affair to Remember, starring his man/creation, Mr. Grant.  McCarey also stood up for his artistic integrity, going off salary at Paramount to make his dream project, Make Way For Tomorrow (which is also known as The-Most-Beautiful-And-Shattering-Film-You’ve-Probably-Never-Seen).  Despite positive critical notices, a poor box office showing for Tomorrow cost McCarey his job at the studio.  However, that same year he would direct The Awful Truth, the screwball comedy starring Mr. Grant where all of that aforementioned character/film persona work would happen, for which McCarey would earn an Academy Award nomination.  Oh wait–and he WON.  Life goes on in spite of itself.

WHAT IS THIS MOVIE (MUSICAL) ABOUT?

Racism.

KIDDING!

Actually, it’s just about ethnic stereotyping.

KIDDING AGAIN!

Well, pretty much.

But forget all that for the moment and check out the opening number staged by Mr. Berkeley, which has no actual impact on the plot whatsoever:

What did you think of that?  Were you in shock and awe over all of the cleavage?  Did your jaw drop to hear all those obviously veiled remarks about what fun it is to be a naughty co-ed girl?  And how is it possible that a black-and-white film could be so suggestive?  Well, I’ll remind you: this film was made in 1932, two years before Joseph Breen showed up and ruined everything in the name of decency and Jesus.  Yes, this movie is considered Pre-Code, and that’s why the Goldwyn Girls–a stock of chorus girls used in several of the SG musicals–can have pillow fights with each other while wearing lace and adjusting their bras, laughing about the “homework” they do with the boys.

(Incidentally, if any of those chorus girls looked familiar you’re haven’t gone crazy: Paulette Goddard, Betty Grable, and Jane Wyman, future stars of American cinema, all served time on their way to the top as Goldwyn Girls.  And they’re all in that number.)

Immediately after the song finishes, the matron of the girls dormitory discovers Eddie (Cantor) in one of the girls’ beds.  She takes him to her office to explain, and soon one of the most nonsensical running jokes in all-of-cinema-as-I’ve-encountered is established: every time Eddie hears a whistle, he jumps up and down, hitting people while yelling at them.  Never mind why (Eddie doesn’t know), he just does.  The matron is unconvinced that a graduating senior who worked his way through college would risk being expelled by sneaking into the girls dormitory (even if he was drunk), and calls for the boys’ dean to visit her office in order to get to the bottom of this.  The dean in turn calls down Ricardo, Eddie’s best friend and roommate to help sort this, and it comes out that Ricardo put Eddie there while he was passed out.  Ricardo is expelled on the spot, despite Eddie’s protestation.  Suddenly, a whistle blows somewhere, bringing on one of Eddie’s attacks.  He yells at and hits the dean, and suddenly finds himself expelled, too.

As the two friends pack up their dorm room, Ricardo speaks of going home to Mexico.  At this point in the film, you may not have known that Ricardo was from Mexico if you were watching it in the early 21st Century.  But in 1932, there would have been some key clues to announce this fact to you almost immediately:

  1. His name is Ricardo.
  2. He has dark, thick, black hair.
  3. He has a mustache.

Boy, do I feel like an idiot!  After writing out that list, I don’t know why the fact that this character is clearly Latin didn’t just jump off the screen and start raping my face with its total obviousness!  I must have been distracted by the actor playing this role, Robert Young–who on top of being a father who knew best, is also: not Latino at all.  But again, this movie was made in crazy, Pre-Code 1932, where compensations had to be made for the lack of Latin actors in Hollywood.  People today, though, are conditioned out of this understanding.  This is because nowadays there are enough actors of Latin descent in the industry that when roles are written to be Hispanic, actors who fit the bill get those parts.  Right?

Whoops.

But I digress:  Not-totally-Latin-at-all Robert Young is planning on heading back to Mexico, where his best and only (clearly: not Latin) girl is.  Her name’s Anita, and he loves her a lot.  Before the friends part, Eddie takes Ricky to the bank in the dean’s “borrowed” car.  That’s right: he took it without permission!  But he’s planning on returning it before it’s missed–because those are just the kind of shenanigans that this Eddie guy gets into.  What a kook!

But OH NO HERE COMES A PLOT POINT: Before Ricky and Eddie drive up to the bank, another car rides up, and drops off some shady men with voices that smoke cigarettes.  One tar-covered voice tells the driver to wait and keep the motor running.  Clearly: we have a bank robbery in place. (Don’t ask me why that was easier for me to spot that Robert Young’s ethnically-telegraphing mustache, but it was.) But a cop comes along, tells that car to move, and our heroes drive right into THAT VERY SPOT.  Ricky gets out (probably to exchange his dollars to pesos) and Eddie is waiting for him when OH MY GOSH the bank robbers get into the car and tell him to drive.  Uh-oh!  Luckily for Eddie, these criminals overlook his attempts at alerting the police and/or escaping, and tell him they’re sending him over the border to ensure he doesn’t spill the beans about the robbery.  They even take him across America by train, all the way down to around where that barbed wire fence is now, to watch him get across.

You may think: “But that doesn’t make sense!  Why didn’t they just kill him?”  But that’s just your (and my) 21st Century mentality trying to rationalize things.  Let that go.  And remember: in (musical) comedies, things don’t have to make sense.  Their irreverence is part of their charm (usually).

After a light vaudevillian banter with the guard at customs, Eddie gets across the border by wearing a sombrero and borrowing a child.  He didn’t have time to grow a mustache, so he had to use other things to appear Mexican. And who’s the first person he runs into?  Ricky!  The two greet each other, and Eddie quickly explains what happened with the robbers, and that now there is a detective after him, who thinks he may be an accessory to the robbery since he was driving a stolen car. (Asteya, people.) The detective spots the two talking and confronts them.  Ricky identifies Eddie as none other than Spaniard Don Sebastian II, son of the great matador Don Sebastian.  The detective laughs, seeing clearly through Eddie Cantor’s outrageous Spanish accent (he must actually be visiting this movie from our own time to see through such a clever-early-20th-century-ruse) and says he’s looking forward to seeing Don Sebastian II in action on Sunday, when a big bull fight will happen.  He says he expects to see Eddie in the ring, and takes off.  Ricky and Eddie then drive out to crash a party.

As I mentioned before, Ricky loves a girl named Anita.  But there’s a problem: Anita’s father wants her to marry Pancho (he’s Hispanic, so obviously this is his name), a rich man who is also the greatest matador in all of Mexico.  Only the best for his Anita!  When Anita’s father catches her and Ricky cuddling in the garden, he breaks it up, and tells Ricky: “Pancho is a great Mexican!  You do not learn to be a great Mexican in the states.” (In this context that’s like saying you can’t learn how to be a great American in China, because they don’t play American football there, and it’s that the sort of thing we value culturally above all.) He tells Ricky it’s nothing personal, but that seriously, dude: it’s not going to happen.  Ricky’s love has made him blind to this sort of deterrent, though.  So after running into Eddie at the border-office, he heads right back to the lion’s mouth, gets let into the party with Eddie posing as Don Sebastian II, son of Anita’s Dad’s deceased best friend, and finally we get to hear another song.  And it only took us 28 minutes to get here.

While Eddie is getting acquainted with Anita’s father, who regales him with stories of Eddie’s father-who-never-was, Ricky makes his move.  He creeps to Anita’s balcony and in front of basically everybody asks her to run away with him in secret.  But since he literally does this in front of the whole party (for reals), he gets caught by Pancho.  They exchange a few blows, but Pancho over-powers Ricky, and they call the police to have him arrested for assault.  Eddie again tries to come to Ricky’s rescue, but then Uh-oh: someone blows a whistle and (you guessed it) he gets arrested, too.

After a short stint in jail, Anita’s father shows up and gains the release of Eddie (who he still thinks is his dead-bestie’s son), and Eddie uses the opportunity to steal Anita away from her father’s home so she can get ready to run away with Ricky when he gets out. But he accidentally steals away Anita’s blonde, sex-starved friend Rosalie, played by Lyda Roberti, whose accent was a lot of things other than Spanish, but probably got a pass from the studio because at least she didn’t sound like a total and complete American like almost everyone else in this film.  After they’ve driven away, Eddie becomes worried because it seems like Rosalie–who he’s mistaken for Anita–is making advances.  What’s worse is that he likes it.  But it all works out.

That is: it all works out for a moment.  Suddenly, Pedro (one of Rosalie’s stalker boyfriends who is a bandit and also clearly Hispanic) appears and abducts Eddie.  Another bandit named Jose (yet another Hispanic) is left in charge of killing him (because Mexican bandits have more sense than American bank robbers), but Eddie escapes and runs back to Ricky’s hacienda.

After some business about the B-storyline regarding the upcoming bull fighting, the pair go to another big party.  Eddie narrowly escapes getting beaten up by Pedro and Pancho by hiding under a table.  But Uh-oh: the two of them sit down at THAT VERY TABLE!  How can he get out from under without them recognizing him?  What could he possibly do, in a 1930’s musical, to disguise himself?  Oh: I know!  No one would recognize him if he PUT ON BLACKFACE.  

I wish I could tell you this is the only movie (musical) with a blackface number in it.  But if I did, I would be lying to you.

  • Here’s Bing Crosby and cast in Holiday Inn.
  • And here’s Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms.
  • And here’s Judy Garland in Everybody Sing.
  •  And here’s Judy Garland in Babes on Broadway <–The whole finale of this movie is kind of insane, but we’ll save that discussion for another time.

I told you there’d be racism.  Lucky again for us that we live in the future and this sort of representation of African Americans no longer exists in our society.*

*(I’m not even going to undercut that last statement with an external link like I did before about Hispanics being fairly represented and having equal opportunity in casting.  Because really: what’s the point?)

Anyway, the next day is the bull fight, yaddayaddayadda, and the movie ends just how any movie (musical) comedy would.  You can fill in that gap(s).

IS THIS MOVIE A MOVIE MUSICAL?

Good question.  This movie is about 95 minutes long, and only has four songs in it.  Only two of those actually comment on or advance the plot in any way, shape, or form.  So the movie walks a fine line between being a musical (where you would normally expect a score to advance the story through outbursts of song from dialogue), and being a film with music.  If this movie is a musical, then by that definition,so is Duck Soup (which incidentally was also directed by McCarey, with the same song writing team from this film).  I don’t know if that’s accurate or fair.  However, if you move toward the other extreme, saying perhaps that there isn’t enough of the organic dialogue-into-song element, and that the characters need to be actually taking action as they sing instead of just commenting on the plot, then the film of Cabaret isn’t really a musical after all.  And I don’t think I can cope with that as a reality.

So maybe this is a movie musical, but just not a very good one.  And also: there’s racism.

HIDDEN GEM SONGS:

To be honest, my favorite song in this movie is “What a Perfect Combination,” which could be a nice uptempo, lyric-driven, comedic song.  If sung without any shoe polish or burnt cork on your face and hands, I think it would be well received.

That’s all for now.  Have a wonderful, racist-and-ethnically-prejudiced free day, and Happy Movie Musical Monday!

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