They Met in Argentina
Thursday April, 2 2015 at 04:45 PM
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On the surface, They Met in Argentina (1941) seemed like any other Hollywood musical - it had romance provided by Maureen O'Hara and James Ellison, music by famed composers Rodgers and Hart, and Technicolor. More importantly, it was part of Hollywood's deliberate attempt to gain the Latin American market and the United States government's attempt to gain allies. As a second world war began to look more and more inevitable in 1938, Hollywood studios and the US government went into action. For Hollywood, a European and Pacific war would mean a huge financial loss. For the government, it meant that an alliance with Latin American countries (so they would not side with the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan) was more important than ever before. The government created "The Good Neighbor Policy" through the State Department's Division of Cultural Relations and encouraged Hollywood to make films that would focus on Latin America to create interest in those countries with US audiences and show the cultural similarities between the nations. The result were films like Blood and Sand (1941), That Night in Rio (1941), Week-End in Havana (1941) and They Met in Argentina, and the rise in popularity of stars like Carmen Miranda and Desi Arnaz.
The plot of They Met in Argentina was written by the film's producer, Lou Brock. Texas oilman Tim Kelly (Ellison) goes to Argentina to buy some land. When that doesn't work out, he and his friend Duke (Buddy Ebsen) go to Pan-American Day at the racetrack and meet Lolita (O'Hara), the daughter Don Enrique O'Shea (Robert Barrat). Lolita plays hard-to-get and Papa O'Shea hates North Americans, but this doesn't stop Kelly from trying to woo Lolita and buy O'Shea's racehorse named Lucero. There were some musical numbers by Rodgers and Hart stuck in-between the love scenes and dancing by Ebsen and Diosa Costello, choreographed by Frank Veloz.
When Maureen O'Hara was cast in the film in November 1940, she knew it was nothing more than RKO Pictures' answer to the 20th Century-Fox Betty Grable film Down Argentine Way (1940). She wrote in her autobiography, "I knew it was going to be a stinker; terrible script, bad director, preposterous plot, forgettable music." She phoned her agent, Lew Wasserman and pleaded with him to get her out of it, but he told her that she had no choice. If she didn't make the film, RKO would put her on suspension without pay until the film was finished. She stuck out the "typical ten-plus-two weeks shooting schedule, which went by very slowly; we finished in January 1941." During production, director Les Goodwins was hospitalized with pneumonia and Jack Hively took over. The change in direction didn't help to improve the film, and when it was released on April 25, 1941, They Met in Argentina was, in O'Hara's words "a total flop, and I was furious about it." She wasn't the only one. It was a $270,000 loss for the studio. The reviews of the critics were in agreement with O'Hara and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who wrote, "[T]here are two pictures in town in which the title refers to a couple of people meeting somewhere and the better of the two isn't They Met in Argentina." The review pointed out that audiences in Buenos Aires might be happy to see their number one star, Alberto Vila, in a Hollywood film, but might not take kindly to having James Ellison get the girl. Variety agreed that giving Vila a subordinate role wouldn't go down well in South America and even predicted that the film would not be received well due to stereotypical and exaggerated portrayals of the Latin characters, which is exactly what happened. The Argentinian government spoke out about it being released in their country. Overall, the "good neighbor policy" in Hollywood was also a flop in Latin America, with the Ritz-Brothers comedy Argentine Nights (1940) actually causing protest demonstrations when it was released and eventually banned in Buenos Aires in May 1941. By the end of the year, the State Department was actively suggesting appropriate topics to the Hollywood studios. By then, They Met in Argentina was nothing more than a bad memory for Maureen O'Hara; she would soon meet director John Ford and the rest is history.
By Lorraine LoBianco
Block, Geoffrey The Richard Rodgers Reader
Grant, Barry Keith The Hollywood Film Musical
Jewell, Richard B. RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan is Born
The Internet Movie Database
Malone, Aubrey Maureen O'Hara
O'Hara, Maureen, Nicoletti, John 'Tis Herself: An Autobiography
Parkinson, David The Rough Guide to Film Musicals
"They Met in Argentina" The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 5 Jul 41
Schatz, Thomas Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s
Woll, Allen L. The Hollywood Musical Goes to War
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