Appellate Judge James A. Stewart finally has found the way to a woman's heart: read sugar crop statistics to her.
"How would you like to spend a weekend in Havana?"
That may not sound like an inviting proposal today, but back in 1941, when future revolutionary Fidel Castro still might have been sidetracked by a baseball contract, Havana was the hot vacation spot depicted in Week-End in Havana through travel posters and stock footage of luxury hotels, beaches, horse racing, and nightlife.
Even then, it wasn't a fun proposal for Jay Williams (John Payne, Miracle on 34th Street) and Nan Spencer (Alice Faye, Tin Pan Alley, Down Argentine Way). Jay's a vice president of the McCracken steamship line, which has just had one of its ships run aground off the Florida coast. He's sent down to get waivers from all of the passengers. Trouble is, Nan's going to lose her dream vacation, because she'll have to go to work before she can re-book. Worse yet, Nan was on deck with a fella when the ship ran aground, so she knows the captain didn't come out of his cabin to see what was the matter.
"I've saved for years. I've gone without lunches, just so I could have this cruise…Do you think you can pay me back for all the fun I'm not going to have with a check?" Nan asks. She will, however, sign the waiver after her vacation—if she's had a good time.
"That we can't guarantee," Jay protests. "All we can do is expose you to having a good time." A brochure writer, he's not.
So it's off for a weekend in Havana for Nan, with an anxious Jay in tow. Trouble is, his idea of a good time is a driving tour of sugar plantations, with him reading Nan the guidebook. Worse yet, if Jay doesn't get the waiver and return home for his wedding, he'll have trouble with fiancée Terry (Cobina Wright Jr., Footlight Serenade), whose father is, you guessed it, McCracken himself.
Jay sees salvation when Monte Blanca (Cesar Romero, Ocean's Eleven (1960), Batman) takes Nan for a wealthy tourist and begins courting her to wriggle his way out of his gambling debts. Of course, that only brings Jay trouble from Rosita (Carmen Miranda, Down Argentine Way), who's jealous of Nan—until she sees Jay as a potential new "manager" to handle her affairs, both financial and personal.
The two leading ladies, Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda, are first-billed—with good reason. While the leading men come across as jellyfish, the women here are strong-willed. It's easy to imagine that Faye's look of boredom as she listens to Payne reading sugar crop statistics, or her looks of displeasure as things go wrong, could fuel Payne's frenzy and send things spinning farcically out of control. Miranda, of course, plays her standard role as the entertainer with the "tutti-frutti hat," with the movie centered around her colorful song-and-dance numbers. She gets dialogue full of malapropisms ("It was a verbal contract, but I tear it up"), but you definitely get her drift. Even if the mangling wordplay isn't always up to Gracie Allen standards, she remains charming as she intimidates Payne and Romero.
When this movie was made, Alice Faye was, as her official site notes, "America's No. 1 female song plugger," with 23 of her movie songs making the Hit Parade on radio. If you've ever hummed along to "Alexander's Ragtime Band," you've got Alice Faye to thank for that, because she pumped new life into that old standard. Just a few years later, she carved out a new image for herself as a sitcom mom, playing opposite husband Phil Harris (Jack Benny's bandleader) in The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show on NBC radio through 1954.
Like Faye, the woman once known as Maria do Carma Miranda da Cunha was known for song and dance as well as her broad comedy style. When Week-End in Havana was made, Miranda had already established herself as the top singer in Brazil, where she had lived since she was a girl, and as a Broadway star, debuting in 1939's The Streets of Paris with Abbott and Costello. In song and dance numbers, Miranda proved the ideal Technicolor musical star during the World War II era, with her colorful costumes and some colorful samba moves in dance numbers. If you remember her mainly for her hats, you might be interested in knowing that her official Web site says she once was a hatmaker.
The men in the farce basically get clobbered by the strong leading ladies. Payne went on to play tough-guy roles, but here he's a spineless jellyfish dodging three fiery, angry women. Like Clayton Forrester in 1953's The War of the Worlds, he wears glasses, transforming into a supposedly more confident man when they're broken. Payne may have been a boxer once, but here he seems outmatched throughout by his female verbal sparring partners. Romero, though stuck with a stereotyped "Latin lover" role, shines with a sense of comic timing reminiscent of Bob Hope as the seemingly suave but ultimately cowardly Monte.
The movie itself is a dazzling Technicolor display throughout, showing off the colorful sets and costumes in nearly every scene, not just the dance numbers. It has held up well, with even the montage stock footage coming across as fresh and looking like new. The ending, with Miranda backed up by a dance troupe of dozens, shows that the colors haven't faded a bit. The movie sounds good, too, with softer, romantic numbers from Faye coming across as well as the bold, loud Miranda set pieces.
The commentary by Jeanine Basinger fills in the background on the actors and points out all the clichés, of which there are many. She also points out bit players, including Sheldon Leonard, who went on to become a big name in the credits (he was the executive producer of I Spy, among other behind-the-scenes roles). There's a stills gallery, but black-and-white publicity photos for a Technicolor musical didn't impress me much.
While the judgment at right factors in a cliché-laden storyline, the musical performances by Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda, the real draws here, make Week-End in Havana enticing and enjoyable. If you're up for a musical, you'll enjoy this pre-MTV merging of sight and sound.
Not guilty. It still would have been nice if some team had tapped Castro and turned his energies to sport, but his legendary baseball tryout was just that—a legend, according to Snopes.com.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Film Historian Jeanine Basinger
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