Panama Hattie had been a big hit on Broadway for songwriter Cole Porter and music theatre legend Ethel Merman. In addition, it had made Betty Hutton a star with a showy supporting role and helped bring her understudy, chorus girl June Allyson, to Hollywood. Freed got MGM to shell out $130,000 for the film rights, but with Merman considered too big a presence for the screen, Hutton on the way to film stardom at Paramount and a troupe of musically inclined leading ladies already under contract, the only member of the Broadway ca For Merman's role, Freed cast Ann Sothern, a triple threat whose failure to make it into Hollywood's top ranks has long mystified her fans. She had been brought to MGM after Jean Harlow's death to take over the role of Maisie Ravier, traveling showgirl, in a series of low-budget comedies often better received than the studio's more prestigious films. And with her musical talents, she was a natural for the studio's big musical productions, though she never seemed to get into the right ones.
Panama Hattie was a mess from the beginning. George Murphy and Shirley Temple were originally cast as the socialite who wins Sothern's heart and his kid sister, then abruptly replaced by Dan Dailey (before he became a star at 20th Century-Fox) and Jackie Horner. Most of the score was scrapped, with Sothern only getting to sing "What Say Let's Be Buddies" and "Make It Another Old Fashioned Please." She learned a new song, "(Did I Get Stinkin') At the Savoy," only to see it handed to co-star Virginia O'Brien. Most of the love story was cut (Dailey didn't even get to sing or dance) to make room for raucous comedy featuring Rags Ragland, Red Skelton and Ben Blue. And director Norman Z. McLeod not only couldn¿t get along with Sothern, but also kept the whole thing moving at a snail's pace. It was hardly a surprise when the $800,000 film's preview was a disaster.
What would have been defeat at any other studio, however, was just the signal to get back to work at MGM. Freed got studio head Louis B. Mayer to give him another $300,000 to fix the film. Then, while discussing changes with Sothern on the set of her next film, Maisie Gets Her Man (1942), he was struck by how well director Roy Del Ruth was handling the picture. So, he assigned him to shoot re-takes. He also decided to add some new musical numbers, with his protégé, Broadway wunderkind Vincente Minnelli, directing them. And to add icing to the cake, he fit in two numbers for recently signed singer Lena Horne.
Horne had scored a hit singing at the Cotton Club, then had crossed the color barrier to topline at Café Society in New York. Despite her talent, however, studio executives were concerned that films featuring a black woman as anything other than a domestic would be banned in the South and rejected by film audiences elsewhere. With Panama Hattie, her first film at MGM, Freed would establish the way she would appear in most of the studio's films. Rather than play a role, she was billed as herself, only appearing for a few musical numbers that could easily be cut out of the film before showings in the south. The studio even developed a special makeup ("Light Egyptian," which is still in use today) to lighten her skin so as not to make her presence too shocking to racist audience members. But at the same time, they broke boundaries by clearly presenting her as a very sexy, young black woman, an image rarely seen outside of all-black independent features.
Freed juiced up the score with two more Porter songs. Sothern got to sing "I've Still Got My Health" from the original score. One of Horne's specialties was "Just One of Those Things" from Jubilee, a musical MGM had bought but never filmed. Then the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor prompted a new grand finale. With patriotic fervor in the air, songwriters Burton Lane and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg wrote "The Son of a Gun Who Picks on Uncle Sam," which Minnelli used as an excuse to bring out the entire cast.
The new, improved Panama Hattie opened 11 months after its first preview. Critics weren't all that impressed, with the New York scribes quick to complain about changes in the original show, but audiences loved it, bringing MGM a $3 million profit. Purists would have to wait for a 1954 television special, starring Merman and Art Carney, to find a version closer to the Broadway production.
Producer: Arthur Freed
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Screenplay: Jack McGowan, Wilkie Mahoney
Based on the musical by Herbert Fields, B.G. DeSylva and Cole Porter
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: George E. Stoll
Principal Cast: Ann Sothern (Hattie Maloney), Dan Dailey (Dick Bulliet), Red Skelton (Red), Marsha Hunt (Leila Tree), Virginia O'Brien (Flo Foster), Rags Ragland (Rags), Alan Mowbray (Jay Jerkins), Ben Blue (Rowdy), Lena Horne (Herself), Joe Yule (Waiter).
by Frank Miller