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Down Argentine Way, the 1940 musical that launched Betty Grable's career, may be low on plot, but it's high on style: Grable plays rich girl Glenda Crawford, who falls for a suave Argentinean played by Don Ameche, only to be rebuffed because of a long-standing feud between their fathers. There are numerous misunderstandings, some kissing and making up, and a mildly exciting horse race. But the real draw is the almost criminally likable Grable, who thrives in the midst of her splashy Technicolor surroundings. Decked out in a series of Travis Banton outfits that would be atrocious in real life but that pop on-screen -- Exhibit A is a ruffled coral and metallic gold rumba ensemble -- Grable looks ready to take on not just South America, but the world.
But Grable didn't find her way into those outlandish ruffles overnight. By the time she made Down Argentine Way, the St. Louis-born performer had already appeared in some 50 feature films and shorts, sometimes as an anonymous chorus girl, other times -- as in the 1934 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicle The Gay Divorcee -- as more of a featured performer. Her career had begun in the early '30s: She was a Goldwyn Girl, until Samuel Goldwyn discovered she'd been appearing, under the name Frances Dean, in racy shorts, some directed by disgraced actor Fatty Arbuckle. She was picked up by 20th Century Fox and continued to work in Hollywood, but even though some larger speaking roles came her way -- in the 1936 Pigskin Parade, for example, which also featured a very young Judy Garland -- her career seemed stalled out. Fox head Darryl Zanuck was determined to turn her into a dramatic actress, casting her in A Yank in the R.A.F., released in 1941. But when Down Argentine Way, which Grable had made the year before, ended up generating massive profits -- it was conceived as a novelty to court moviegoers in Latin America, since the onset of war had destroyed the European market for Hollywood films -- Zanuck recognized that there was money to be made in letting Grable dance and sing. She would play only one other dramatic role, opposite Victor Mature in the 1941 noir I Wake Up Screaming. But she would also, of course, become an icon.
Grable wasn't even Zanuck's first choice for Down Argentine Way. Alice Faye, a favorite of Zanuck's, was the original star, before she became tired of Zanuck's tyrannical demands and announced she was retiring to spend more time with her husband (musician Phil Harris) and two daughters. Grable stepped into the role, but it seems she was able to protect herself from Zanuck's tyranny. According to Grable biographer Spero Pastos, Zanuck would show up on the lot in jodhpurs and riding boots, snapping a riding crop whenever he needed to make a point. He was notorious for bullying actresses into sharing his bed. Pastos quotes a former Fox employee: "Every afternoon, Zanuck had to have his virility assured. But neither Alice Faye nor Betty Grable ever slept with Darryl Zanuck."
As inexcusable as Zanuck's behavior may have been, you can't blame a guy for trying, especially when you see how vibrant and adorable Grable is in Down Argentine Way. There's something eager-to-please about her singing and dancing -- she doesn't have the laid-back, smart-alecky cool of, say, Ginger Rogers. And her timing sometimes shows a bit of awkward tentativeness. But who cares? Grable's appeal in Down Argentine Way -- even beyond those stunning legs, which would later be insured by Lloyd's of London for $1 million -- radiates from a place that has nothing to do with strict acting chops. She's a persistently warm, accessible presence; there's something kind and forthright about her. Just a few years later, on the basis of a cheeky publicity still shot by photographer Frank Powolny, she would become the pinup of choice for thousands of American servicemen. Thanks to Grable's various physical attributes, the picture is sexy all right -- but the mischievous, fun-loving gleam in Grable's eyes is what really makes it.
Grable didn't have to carry Down Argentine Way on her own: The picture also marks the film debut of Carmen Miranda, already known as "the Brazilian Bombshell" -- her musical numbers in the movie are a gaudy delight -- and the Nicholas Brothers serve up a characteristically joyous, effervescent routine. But Grable's charisma trumps it all. As Desi Arnaz, Sr., who was originally set to star opposite Grable in the film (he dropped out for personal reasons), said, "She was gorgeous. What a figure, and what legs! Her skin was magnificent, and so smooth -- she looked like a peach all over. It was impossible to sit next to her and not want to know her a little better."
Even snooty New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, reviewing Down Argentine Way upon its release, found Grable irresistible. At one point he makes a rather cowardly crack about what he sees as her lack of ability: "We see plenty of [Grable] -- singing, dancing and wearing clothes of surprising magnificence. We even see her trying to act, which is something less of a pleasure." But then, after referencing the money-grubbing nature of the picture's reason for existing in the first place, he backtracks on his view of its star: "But, hold -- what sort of good neighbor would make a remark like that! Pardon us, Miss Grable. Consider it unmade." That half-hearted apology was the least Crowther could do, but you can easily imagine her response to it: She'd probably just toss those flaxen curls and laugh.
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck, Harry Joe Brown
Director: Irving Cummings
Screenplay: Rian James (story), Ralph Spence (story), Darrell Ware (screenplay), Karl Tunberg (screenplay)
Cinematography: Ray Rennahan, Leon Shamroy
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Film Editing: Barbara McLean
Cast: Don Ameche (Ricardo Quintana), Betty Grable (Glenda Crawford, aka Glenda Cunningham), Carmen Miranda (Carmen Miranda), Charlotte Greenwood (Binnie Crawford), J. Carrol Naish (Casiano), Henry Stephenson (Don Diego Quintana), Katharine Aldridge (Helen Carson), Leonid Kinskey (Tito Acuna), Chris-Pin Martin (Esteban), Robert Conway (Jimmy Blake).
by Stephanie Zacharek
(Stephanie is the chief movie critic for Movieline - www.movieline.com)
Pin-Up: The Tragedy of Betty Grable, by Spero Pastos, Putnam Publishing Group, 1986.
Betty Grable: Behind the Pinup, A&E Biography Series.