Sunday, January 18, 2009

That Night in Rio

That Night in Rio posterRio de Janeiro has long been famous for the boisterous festival that is Carnival. So what better opening scene for Irving Cummings’ musical comedy That Night in Rio than a performance of tiny waists, rotating hips, and shaking chests to the beat of "Chica Chica Boom Chic" sung by the samba queen herself, Carmen Miranda. Here we meet two of our protagonists, American Larry Martin (Don Ameche), impersonator and stage performer, and the beloved Carmen Miranda, putting on a fantastic number for the posh clientele at a theatre in Rio de Janeiro. Offstage we realize that the two stars are romantically entangled in a fierce love affair; fierce as in the shoe-throwing mood swings and rapid-fire Portuguese of Carmen who is convinced of Larry’s unfaithfulness, and Larry’s witty, American-drawl banter, able to win her over again and again. Back in the theatre, the distinguished Baron Manuel Duarte and his lovely wife Cecilia (Alice Faye) arrive and the crowd immediately grows silent. Coincidentally, it is now time for Larry to take the stage and perform his flawless impersonation of the Baron as a playboy, which the Baron finds amusing and Cecilia reluctantly accepts as the truth. This impersonation is truly flawless as both the characters of Larry and Baron Duarte are played by Don Ameche, and therein lies the key to the story.

After the show, the Baron attempts to hit on Carmen Miranda (who outright refuses his offers), while Cecilia and Larry share a romantic moment in the lounge singing a spontaneous melody about "a midnight serenade, when they met that night down in Rio." Of course, as a shrewd audience, we now feel that the outcome of this love rectangle is purely predictable; however, That Night in Rio should not be written off as your classic romantic comedy just yet. The plot thickens the next day when Baron Duarte realizes that his stocks have plummeted from a refused airline contract and he must get twenty million dollars in the next 48 hours before the news is released. While Manuel flies to Buenos Aires to strike a deal, his financial sidekicks Penna (S. Z. Sakall) and Salles (Curt Bois) cook up a plan to stall the investment banker Machado (J. Carrol Naish) into thinking all is well: they hire Larry to impersonate Manuel for the night of the Ambassador’s ball. Larry first goes with Penna and Salles to the stock exchange and finds that there are a few things he needs to learn, such as a simple, friendly wave to the floor actually means that you want to buy shares! At the ball, Larry plays the part perfectly, unaware that Cecilia is in on the plan as she enjoys the evening with a man who genuinely wants to spend time with her, rather than her playboy husband. The plan is almost foiled when Manuel returns early from Buenos Aires during the party, but he joins right in with the ploy. Here we see trick photography of the two men in the same room (both played by Don Ameche), along with rapid dialogue and deceptive decoys in order to evade Machado. Larry is finally cornered by Machado who insists upon speaking in French, which Larry does not speak but succeeds by answering in unintelligible mutterings. The night ends with the Baron pretending to be Larry (unbeknownst to Cecilia) as he tries to find out how faithful his wife is. He becomes furious after Cecilia declares her love until he realizes that with her womanly instinct she knew it was him again all along. The next day the Baron realizes that he cares deeply for his wife, but still wants to teach her a lesson by getting everyone to make her believe he actually arrived that morning and not the night before, throwing the Baroness into absolute dismay at what she thinks she’s done.

Meanwhile, the Baron receives news that he wasn’t granted the loan from Buenos Aires. Suddenly Machado marches into the Baron’s office and presents him with a cheque to buy the airline company. Here the Baron, Penna, and Salles realize that Larry had actually saved the day when he confidently bought up stocks and then unknowingly agreed to sell the airline to Machado when they had "conversed" in French.

Back at the Baron’s house, the tables turn yet again in the game of love when Cecilia reprimands Larry for taking advantage of her the night before and, after Larry claims innocence, she realizes that it had been the Baron all along. To get the final hand, she hires Larry again to pretend to kiss her and make the Baron jealous. Larry, sensing only ill-fortune for himself in this predicament, manages to tell the Baron of the plan before it comes to fruition, saying "She wants to start all over again and live happily ever after, like they do in the movies." The final switch comes with the Baron seizing the opportunity to literally sweep his wife off her feet and carry her upstairs, with her kicking and screaming all the while as she thinks that he is still Larry. The movie finishes with both smiling couples, Cecilia and the Baron, Larry and Carmen, singing along together in the lounge of the theatre, proving that happy endings are possible.

And yet, the happy ending of this film reflects its focus on the upper-class elite, from both Europe and Brazil, living in Rio. The movie was released in 1941, capitalizing on WWII soldiers’ need for exotic fantasy, even to the point of Larry being pictured on the movie poster in army attire, an outfit which he wears only once in the movie while he is onstage. The film also followed on the heels of the US "Good Neighbour" policy which was introduced by President Roosevelt to encourage economic growth and cultural exchanges between the Americas. This coincidence is reflected in the opening number as Larry sings, "My friends I extend felicitations, to our South American relations. May we never leave behind us all the common ties that bind us." The desire for cross-cultural ties is even hidden in the basic fabric of the film as both couples comprise an American and a Brazilian. Any affairs that we may initially have thought possible characters of the same nationality are quickly aborted as the couples realize their true feelings. Such a film attempts, through means of upper-class fantasy, to forge strong bonds, whether they be cultural on the surface or underlyingly economic, between the US and Brazil, as well as to showcase Rio de Janeiro, with the help of Brazilian superstar Carmen Miranda, as an alluring vacation destination to escape daily worries and keep your hips knocking from side to side long after the credits have rolled.

YouTube Link: the film's opening (subtitles in Portuguese), with "Chica Chica Chica Boom Chic."

See also: Copacabana, Week-End in Havana, The Gang's All Here, Carmen Miranda.

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