Monday, January 19, 2009

Down Mexico Way

Down Mexico Way posterDown Mexico Way is one of an abundant collection of early Western films starring Gene Autry, a clean-shaven singing cowboy who, despite the gentlemanly demeanor he maintains throughout most of the film, is tough enough to jump from a cliff into a moving car and take out three men in a fistfight. The film begins with a rousing musical number sung by guests attending a barbeque at our hero's ranch. They are celebrating the selection of their town as the site of the newest John Wayne movie and the promise of riches from its so-called producers, who are selling stocks in the venture. Unfortunately, the men's over-confident speeches and occasional slip-ups fail to raise suspicion amongst the humble townsfolk as they invest their hard-earned savings, and as the duo motor away it is revealed that they are merely conmen ordered by their bosses Gerard and Gibson to flee with the cash to San Ramon, Mexico.

Thanks to a telegraph accidentally dropped by the conmen, Gene Autry and his trusty sidekick Frog are alerted to the scam and resolve to chase the crooks to Mexico. They enlist Pancho as their guide, a ranch hand who by embodying the entire gamut of Mexican stereotypes provides constant comedic effect. Due to his terminal laziness and lack of skill, Pancho botches the car maintenance and it breaks down, forcing them to take the train to San Ramon. This happy accident enables their encounter with the glamorous Maria Elena Alvarado, a Mexican woman whom Gerard and Gibson cast as the star for their next film in order to scam her rich father into financing it.

The trio dedicate themselves to rooting out the crooks in San Ramon. In the meantime, a love affair blossoms between the eyelash batting Maria Elena and the serenading Autry, culminating one night when San Ramon is in the throes of a spirited fiesta. The next day he kidnaps her on horseback from the film set, getting on the wrong side of the law, but securing her allegiance in convincing her father to demand that Gerard and Gibson invest their own money in the film. The producers agree, but not having the money to invest, plan a hold up of a bank car coming from Mexico City with the Alvarado money. The trio uncover the plan, apprehend the henchmen with guns blazing, and Autry heroically chases down Gerard and Gibson on their way to the Sonora Airport with the loot. The film closes with resounding praise for Autry in San Ramon as he receives a cheque to reimburse the people of his town.

Swept up in congratulatory fervor for the hero, one might anticipate a happily-ever-after scenario for Maria Elena and Autry, but instead they part in wistful farewells and tenuous promises to meet at the next fiesta. Mexico is portrayed as intoxicatingly beautiful on fiesta night, bizarrely resembling Venice during Carnival complete with costumed merrymakers and gondola rides, but the romance is fleeting and Autry is compelled to leave both Mexico and Maria Elena, notably touted as one of the “beautiful sights” or “points of interest” of Mexico in the style of a tourist guide. Mexico is a place to be visited, to achieve a certain goal and promptly leave.

Other than looking for romance “down Mexico way,” Autry is a vigilante who aims to avenge his swindled countrymen, and he assumes his authority to do so even in a foreign nation. He becomes wanted by the Mexican police for kidnapping Maria Elena, but when they catch up with him, he states that Gerard and Gibson are in fact the crooks and proceeds to give orders to them. Down Mexico Way was released on 15 October 1941, just less than two months before the Pearl Harbor attacks that launched the United States into the Second World War, at a time when the ethics of interventionism were being intensely debated. It is significant that from this context arises a hero who resolutely acts on his sense of individual responsibility, regardless of borders and the fact that he himself was not swindled.

Nevertheless, the most overt political aspect of the film is that it posits a chummy relationship between the United States and Mexico, embodied in the characters of Frog and Pancho. Throughout the film they sustain a dialogue that compares their cultures, including annual festivities, types of food, and courtship practices, and as both play the buffoon this process of mutual discovery is filled with hilarity and surprise. As a national caricature, Pancho is presented as good-natured, but with a host of negative qualities such as boastfulness, laziness, and irresponsibility. Nevertheless, we are constantly reminded that he is a reformed individual: he left Mexico as a notorious criminal and by the end joins the Mexican police force. The filmmakers suggest that Mexico can leave behind its corrupt history, become an American ally, and deserves to be understood be Americans. As the conmen hit the road early in the film, the dimwitted one assumes a dreamy look and sighs, “Ahhh, Mexico. . . Beautiful señoritas, romantic moonlight, coral sand, ukuleles. . .,” eliciting a frown from his partner. This scene pokes fun at a popular imagination that fantasizes about Mexico while knowing very little about it.

See Also: South of the Border, Mexicali Rose.

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