There are so many wonderful things for fans of classic cinema to celebrate in November, and I’ve been spending my time appreciating as many as I can this month! From amazing birthdays like those of Vivien Leigh, Veronica Lake, Joel McCrea, and more to the ever-present theme of November to fans of the dark side of movies, #Noirvember! However, as much as I adore celebrating all of these incredible moments as a lover of Old Hollywood, I also enjoy it when I find the opportunity to cover something new, and that’s just what Beth of Spellbound by Movies helped me do when she asked me to participate in The Luso World Cinema Blogathon. It’s at this moment that you might be asking the same question that I did when I first heard her offer: “What does Luso mean?” In the literal sense, when discussing the term “Lusophone”, the word refers to anyone who speaks Portuguese. This doesn’t confine us to the country of Portugal either, as classic movie stars from all walks of life celebrated and descended from Portuguese heritage, like Mary Astor, Lena Horne, as well as the effervescent Carmen Miranda. It was the latter Latin songstress and actress who caught my attention, as I instantly realized that I’d never really given Carmen Miranda a proper write-up on my blog before, so I decided to choose a film from her lineup that appeared to spotlight her and use it as my contribution for The Luso World Cinema Blogathon. However, as soon as I began watching and researching this eclectic and historic film, I realized how much more this motion picture meant to Lusophone history as well as Latin American and cinematic history as a whole.
The plot itself is fairly simple; it revolves around the Quintanas, namely Ricardo (Don Ameche) and his father Don Diego (Henry Stephenson), two horse breeders who have been creating champions for decades. Don Diego is extremely stubborn and set in his ways in many things. Not only has he refused to breed racehorses for twenty years after losing his prized horse on the track, he’s also maintained a grudge against the Crawford family because he claims that the patriarch, his former friend and business partner, swindled him on a deal. Don Diego’s son adopts his father’s hatred of the Crawfords despite not knowing the circumstances of their feud, but things get complicated when the lovely Crawford daughter Glenda (Betty Grable) falls in love with the Quintana’s prized jumping horse, Carmelita. It’s love at first sight for her and Ricardo as well as they sing and dance to Carmen Miranda’s songs (as she appears as herself), but as soon as Ricardo hears that Glenda is a Crawford, the romance and his promise to her to purchase the horse is off.
After Ricardo first lies and states that his father promised Carmelita to someone else, Glenda walks away from the deal without too much heartbreak, but when he turns around and sells the horse to the first woman he sees for the same price that Glenda offered, she hoards a rightful grudge against her crush. It takes a long time for the blonde beauty to warm up to the Latin lothario again. In an attempt to forget about him, she sells off most of her collection of twelve horses and goes out on the town with a tour guide (Leonid Kinskey) who suspiciously resembles and acts like a gigolo. We see many more delightful performances from Latin America and beyond as Glenda and Ricardo find their way back to each other again, and as the two become inseparable, Glenda takes an interest in another one of the Quintana’s champion horses, Furioso. For all his life, Furioso has been trained as a jumping horse, winning every possible blue ribbon in Argentina. However, as soon as Glenda finds out that Furioso is a descendant of Don Diego’s beloved racehorse, she believes that he could become even greater and that he isn’t being utilized for his true talent. As she begins training a jumping horse to race, however, she threatens not only Furioso’s chances at winning either sport, but also her relationship with the Quintanas.
I initially dismissed Down Argentine Way (1940) as one of many films made in a similar style in the early days of Hollywood’s golden age, but it turns out that this film was a pioneer in more ways than one. Down Argentine Way (1940) was the first of Hollywood’s “Good Neighbor” pictures, referring to the Good Neighbor policy put in place by President Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraging Hollywood and America at large to be more inclusive of Latin Americans and to shine a positive light on their culture in order to promote peaceful relations. I was previously aware of this policy and its effect on classic film, but I had no idea that this film was the first of what would be many Latin infused pictures to come during the entire decade. In addition to that, Carmen Miranda was considered the muse and the shining example of the Good Neighbor policy in action, and Down Argentine Way (1940) was Carmen’s first American as well as her first Technicolor feature. It’s absolutely sublime to hear her sing a wide variety of Portuguese songs in vivid color and splendor. Still, I find it unfortunate and disappointing that studio executives deemed her unable to handle an acting role or any dialogue at all, which led her to portray herself in this film and appear only to sing her songs. Luckily, this treatment didn’t last forever, as I still consider her vivacious and funny supporting role in A Date with Judy (1948) to be my personal favorite of her work.
Carmen wasn’t the only outstanding performer in Down Argentine Way (1940) either, as we also see the Nicholas Brothers shining in an incredible dance routine that rivals even the iconic finale of Stormy Weather (1943). While that number is merely a fantastic part of a larger production, the Nicholas Brothers’ scene in Down Argentine Way (1940) displays the duo front and center in color, making this movie one not to be missed by any fans of theirs. Of course I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the captivating Betty Grable in the movie that skyrocketed her to fame. I don’t exaggerate when I say that my eyes gravitated towards Grable every single second she was onscreen, due not only to her exceptional beauty, but also because of her delightful songs and dances and most importantly because of how beautifully she’s captured onscreen by cinematographer Leon Shamroy. It’s no wonder that Shamroy was nominated for an Oscar for his camera work, as this is one of the most stunning Technicolor features ever brought to movie screens. I truly think Shamroy has become my favorite cinematographer, and it’s largely due to movies like this and The Black Swan (1942) which feature his unmistakable touch. As for Don Ameche and Henry Stephenson, who receives quite a lot of screen time compared to most of his supporting roles, I enjoyed watching them in this film, but found it a joke that they were both supposed to be playing Latin Americans. If I revisit this picture, which I don’t doubt I will, I’m sure I’ll be closing my eyes and wishing that Ricardo was being played by Ricardo Montalbán. Overall, Down Argentine Way (1940) is still a wonderful celebration of Portuguese and Latin culture that makes a fun viewing and is really more than meets the eye.