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In spite of its star, Esther Williams, Fiesta (1947) is not a typical swimming extravaganza, although Williams does log some pool time. And although there is terrific music and a knockout dance number featuring Cyd Charisse and Ricardo Montalban, it's not really a musical, either. The improbable plot has Williams and Montalban as twins, the offspring of an ex-matador, who expects Montalban to carry on the family profession. But Ricardo longs to write music, and -- incredibly -- it's Esther who ends up in the bullring, while Montalban composes Aaron Copland's El Salon Mexico, retitled Fantasia Mexican.
Hollywood's infatuation with Latin America peaked in the 1940's, helped by the government's "Good Neighbor Policy," which encouraged economic and cultural exchange. Some studios, like RKO, even set up studios or production units in Mexico to make Spanish-language films. MGM added the Latin touch by shooting on location, and by recruiting Hispanic stars. Ricardo Montalban was fluent in English, had done theater in New York, and made films in his native Mexico, when he was signed to a contract by MGM. Fiesta was his American feature film debut. Montalban's love interest in the film was another up-and-comer, Cyd Charisse. She'd been playing small roles, and been a featured dancer in such musical extravaganzas as Ziegfeld Follies (1946) and Till The Clouds Roll By (1946). Montalban was not a trained dancer, but he partnered passably, and smoldered admirably. Their dance in Fiesta was so sizzling that they shared another the following year in The Kissing Bandit (1948), this time with Ann Miller as Charisse's rival for Montalban's terpsichorean favors.
The company shot on location for three months in the village of Puebla, Mexico, staying in the town's sole hotel. After shooting wrapped for the day, the actors and some crewmembers relaxed over drinks. One evening, the cocktail hour stretched out to several, and by the time they were ready for dinner, the dining room had closed. Esther Williams' husband, Ben Gage, was furious. He got into a fracas with hotel staff, which ended with Gage and the makeup man being hauled off to jail, and Williams going along. The studio got Gage off, but according to Cyd Charisse, the makeup man took the rap and was jailed for a while. Charisse also suffered a bout of amoebic dysentery, and she, Williams and co-star John Carroll were nearly gored by a bull.
Screenwriter Lester Cole shared a credit for the script of Fiesta. It would be one of his last. Cole's career ended abruptly the year this film was released when he was cited for contempt of Congress as one of the "Hollywood 10" who challenged the House Un-American Activities' right to ask questions about political affiliation. Cole spent a year in prison, and was blacklisted in the film industry.
The impressive musical sequences and Technicolor photography in Fiesta more than make up for its preposterous story. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Johnny Green's scoring. Montalban never became a major star, but he and Charisse both went on to successful careers at MGM. And Esther Williams, who was billed above the title for the first time in Fiesta, still stands alone as the movies' only aquatic superstar.
Director: Richard Thorpe
Producer: Jack Cummings
Screenplay: George Bruce, Lester Cole
Editor: Blanche Sewell
Cinematography: Sidney Wagner, Charles Rosher, Wilfred M. Cline
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, William Ferrari
Music: Johnny Green; Fantasia Mexican based on Aaron Copland's El Salon Mexico; songs by Luis martin Serrano, Angel Ortiz de Villajos, Bolanos Recio & Leocadio Martinez Durango, and Los Bocheros
Principal Cast: Esther Williams (Maria Morales), Ricardo Montalban (Mario Morales), Akim Tamiroff (Chato Vasquez), John Carroll (Jose "Pepe" Ortega), Mary Astor (Senora Morales), Cyd Charisse (Conchita), Fortunio Bonanova (Antonio Morales)
C-103m. Closed captioning.
By Margarita Landazuri