Moon Over Miami (1941)
Starring Betty Grable, Carole Landis, Robert Cummings, Don Ameche, Jack Haley and Charlotte Greenwood. Directed by Walter Lang. From 20th Century-Fox.
The Latimer sisters, Kay (Grable) and Barbara (Landis) work at Texas Tommy’s, a burger stand in the Lone Star State, with their Aunt Susan (Greenwood). The three are eagerly awaiting an inheritance that will free them from the servitude of working life. It finally comes and the Latimers are thrilled; until they realize that fees and taxes have dwindled their legacy down to $4,287.96; not enough for their retirements and so Plan B kicks in. The three will head down to Miami and Kay will marry a man with money.
The girls set up shop at the Flamingo, Kay posing as a rich girl traveling with her secretary and her maid, Barbara and Susan respectively. They arrive at the hotel in the middle of a days-long party being hosted by wealthy playboy Jeffrey Bolton (Cummings). One of the hotel’s waiters, Jack (Haley), brings around the champagne Jeff is distributing and this gives Kay an in. She calls Jeff to complain about the swill and when Jeff comes to apologize he is smitten. Kay joins the party on Jeff’s arm after receiving a warning from Jack to watch out for “chiselers”; those who pretend to have money but don’t.
At the party, Kay sings and dances and meets dashing, carefree Phil McNeil (Ameche) who gets Jack’s thumbs-up. Old friends Jeff and Phil take turns dating Kay and competing for her affections. Eventually, Kay has the unexpected problem of having to pick between two wealthy potential husbands. The Latimer girls’ ruse though is running out of steam and money but they are kept afloat with reluctant help from Susan and Jack, who have become engaged. In order to allow Kay to concentrate on one guy at a time, Barbara is recruited to take one off her hands and she begins to fall for Jeff. Jeff begins to see Barbara as a wonderful girl owing to her encouragement of his shedding the playboy lifestyle and working for a living.
Kay and Phil fall in love and as they begin to plan their lives together Phil comes clean; he’s broke. Kay will have to carry them for five years. Kay confesses she is poor, too, and this scuttles their plans. Phil vows to help Kay find the rich husband she came to Miami for despite his love for her. Jeff and Kay become engaged and the whole gang heads to the Bolton estate on an island off the coast. There, under the Miami moonlight, charades erode and things begin to change for everybody.
Many, many moons ago I decided to tape off TV all the classic films I could and one of them was this beauty from Fox in 1941. And it was many more moons until I finally bought it on DVD. On one of the trips my wife and I took for our anniversary back to my hometown and the hotel in which we got engaged, I went down to my old favourite record store, Encore Records, and there I found Moon Over Miami in a nice edition that featured a stack of lobby cards.
I count this film as one of my Top 25 favourite movies and what makes it so may not be obvious. I love it first of all for it’s lovely depiction of Miami in the early 1940’s. Fox and other studios were making such “travelogue” pictures at the time, movie musicals that were set in an exotic place and who’s plots had much to do with their settings. Robert Cummings had made another of my faves, One Night in the Tropics, for Universal in 1940 and his co-star in that film, Allan Jones, would later make Moonlight in Havana for the same studio. Don Ameche and Betty Grable had starred in Down Argentine Way for Fox in 1940, considered the first of the studio’s “Good Neighbour Policy” films; movies made to encourage tourism to and good relations with Latin America. A follow-up came the next year when Alice Faye joined Ameche for That Night in Rio and Faye and her co-star in that film, Carmen Miranda, would join my man Cesar Romero that same year for Fox’s Week-End in Havana, directed by Moon Over Miami‘s director Walter Lang. All these films followed the same formula; lots of singing and dancing and plenty of romance in exotic locales photographed – by 2nd Units, at least – in glorious Technicolor. They are all delightful trips we the viewers can take without ever leaving the couch.
I have much affection for Florida and for this alone I would love this film. But I came to revisit it time and again for the engaging comedic chemistry between Cummings and Ameche. The two establish the specifics of their characters well and are given many funny lines to deliver which they do with good comedic timing, style and panache. Added to this is the appearance of Carole Landis. This is where my relationship with Carole began and when I looked her up one day years later and discovered her tragic life, I wrote an article on her that has become one of the most-read at my site. So, I love Moon Over Miami despite being quite indifferent to the charms of Miss Grable. This film is really about two guys and Miami for me.
Based on a play, Moon Over Miami was directed by Tennessee-born Walter Lang. The prolific Lang had directed Carole Lombard in Love Before Breakfast (1936) and Shirley Temple in The Little Princess in 1939. He would go on to direct other colourful musicals like State Fair (1945), The King and I (1956) and Can-Can (1960). He would wrap his career somewhat ignominiously with Snow White and the Three Stooges (1961). Lang had nothing to do with Woody Woodpecker; that’s just me getting him mixed up with Walter Lantz.
One thing I love about watching the credits on a classic film is spotting the glorious, old school Christian names of some people. Only in the 40s could you see – as you do on this film – names like Brown Holmes, Booth McCracken, Peverell Marley and Wiard Ihnen. Screenwriter Holmes, incidentally, scripted the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon with Ricardo Cortez.
Betty Grable, of course, is a legendary pin-up girl, actress, dancer, model and singer. For 10 consecutive years, she was ranked in the Top 10 of box office stars, a feat matched by only Doris Day, Julia Roberts and Barbra Streisand. The number one pin-up of World War 2, she was also Fox’s biggest star of the Forties. Married to both Jackie Coogan and Harry James, Grable gets points from me because that is her real name. I’ve often thought that particularly her last name had a great sound and that some agent did a good job with that. But she was born Elizabeth Grable in St. Lou and died from lung cancer in 1973. She was only 56.
My man Robert Cummings shows up in some of my favourite films, spanning decades. Born in Joplin, Bob cleverly connived his way into the business. When Englishmen were the fashion on Broadway, Cummings became Blade Stanhope Conway and Bob performed on stage using that name. When the trend changed from Britons to cowboys, Cummings changed his stage name to Bryce Hutchens and he again scored stage work thus christened. Eventually he shed the noms de guerre and went to work in Hollywood eventually gaining traction at Universal.
He was cast alongside Allan Jones in One Night in the Tropics before making our film for Fox. He later showed up in Kings Row and Saboteur (both ’42), an excellent noir called The Chase in ’46 before things cooled off for Bob Cummings only to be ignited again with a great performance in the stunning Dial “M” for Murder in 1954 with Ray Milland and Grace Kelly and directed by Hitchcock. Soon after he turned to televisoin where he starred in the popular The Bob Cummings Show (or Love That Bob), a show that co-starred Ann B. Davis, Rosemary DeCamp, Dwayne Hickman and Joi Lansing. He would return to films – and to another of my favourites – when he made Beach Party for American-International. He wrapped his film career in Gordon Douglas’ remake of Stagecoach (1966) and an intriguing film I stumbled on once on the 8:00 Movie, Five Golden Dragons, an international production shot in Hong Kong and at Shaw Brothers studios.
Cummings, an avid flyer and owner of airplanes, was a proponent of natural foods and healthy living, even publishing a book on the subject. Bob had myriad legal troubles through the years and was also a methamphetamine user. Cummings had complained to his friends Rosemary Clooney and José Ferrer that he had little energy. The Ferrers recommended he see Max Jacobson, known as “Dr. Feelgood”, who began administering injections to Cummings. Jacobson insisted his doses contained nothing but good, old fashioned “vitamins, sheep sperm and monkey gonads”, but they in fact contained substantial doses of methamphetamine. Bob became addicted – eventually injecting himself – and the resulting mood swings caused him to lose jobs and prompted an unsuccessful intervention by Bob’s friend Art Linkletter. Cummings’ career ground to a halt and two marriages were sacrificed to his addiction. When locally accessible sources dried up, Cummings found his own drug connections in the Bahamas. He eventually suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and moved into a home for destitute actors. Robert Cummings died of kidney failure in 1990. He was 80.
Don Ameche, who’s father was born in Italy, became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood during the 1940’s. After a career in radio, Ameche featured in many movie musicals like Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938) and The Three Musketeers (he played D’Artagnan) the following year. After our film he stayed prolific in films and also returned to radio to star in the popular show The Bickersons with Frances Langford. Ameche had reached such a pinnacle in 1943 that it was reported that the only person at Fox to have earned more than him that year was the president of the studio, Spyros Skouras. I first saw Don Ameche as an old man playing Ralph Bellamy’s brother in the hilarious Trading Places (1983). His next film was Cocoon (1985) for which Don won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Ameche also had connections to gridiron football. Along with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Don co-owned the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference. And I was today years old when I learned that Don’s cousin was the winner of the 1954 Heisman Trophy, Alan Ameche. Now, I have heard Alan Ameche’s name spoken a hundred times by Daniel Stern in his portrayal of “Shrevie” in my second-favourite film, Diner (1982). In that film, Steve Guttenberg’s character is giving his betrothed a football quiz. One of the answers is “Alan Ameche”, which Shrevie blurts out as one of the few answers he knows.
As I said, this film was my introduction to Carole Landis. She does really well here as the second female lead to Betty but I’m afraid she doesn’t photograph well here. She looks far too pale and the hairdresser got her hair – and Betty’s actually – dead wrong. This may be Carole’s most visible film role but she is sadly misrepresented; she was far prettier than she looks in Moon Over Miami. For the full story of Carole Landis, see my article here.
I love this film primarily for its production and set design, its 2nd Unit location shooting and the well-defined characters. Particularly Jeff and Phil, the good-humoured competition between whom is well fleshed out by Cummings and Ameche. Add to this a good script, loaded with comical lines for the two male leads to deliver.
Every stick of furniture in Bungalow C of the Flamingo Hotel, where the Latimer gals are staying is gorgeous. The decor is to die; dig the back of the front door, that big, curved couch, those beds and the glass brick in the bathroom. Imagine sleeping in those beds, your head guarded on each side by those curved arms. The exterior shots of Florida, circa 1941 are equally stunning. Just being able to see – in glorious Technicolor – the Sunshine State at that time is wonderful; the beach, the buildings and a few nice cars thrown in.
Script-wise, the film does well juxtaposing “just folks” with “society”. The girls come from a Texas hamburger stand and they understand and can appreciate good, old fashioned fixin’s like “gashouse eggs” and can plainly see that many of these young people are a shiftless bunch of drips. Barbara does well calling Jeff on his own drifting and living off money that his father worked hard to make. Jeff makes the decision to roll up his sleeves but Phil is compelled to go to work. But – after willingly admitting his poverty to Kay – he is ready to take a job; although it’s not exactly factory work. Selling refrigerators in Brazil does have an adventurous ring to it. This is all to say that the two rich playboys are still pretty close to regular joes who seem ready to earn their own way.
As for the comedy, there are some genuinely hilarious moments in Moon Over Miami. The majority of them come courtesy of Don Ameche. Now, in no way is Don Ameche my favourite actor – even of the era – but his performance as Phil is one of my favourite of all-time. He’s a playboy who’s genuine and honest and seems down-to-earth. All he wants is a good time and who can fault him? Cummings is great as his bud – it gives you the impression that Ameche and he may have been friends in the real world. For starters, I love how Phil asks Jack straight out “what’s the idea with all this thumb stroke?” when he sees Jack giving Kay the yay or nay on the people she’s meeting.
And when Phil first meets Kay he doesn’t bother trying to impress her; instead he runs her through the mill. He gallantly offers her a seat; “I was using my chair for my feet but you can use it”. Then he comments on her looks; “y’know, you’re not very pretty. No, it’s not a beautiful face by a long ways”. Then he turns bashful and has trouble speaking his mind; “I’ve been noticing your figure. Mmmmm, that’s practically perfect”. But just so she won’t get a swelled head he adds “but it has no poetry. It’s like the sculpture on radiator caps”. When she starts to run hot, he gives her a grin, winning her over. “I think you’re wonderful”, he concedes. Then Jeff comes over and the two trade barbs. Phil brings it home by getting up and saying to Kay “c’mon. You know how to dance?”. This after seeing her do a big number with the Condos Brothers. That’s good comedic writing, skillfully delivered.
When the Latimer girls double date with the lads, the two playboys are in fine form; you know you’d love to hang out with them yourself. When Kay playfully asks what they want, Jeff comes up with “we want you, the juice of the grape and a good hot dance band” but they both settle for chips and dip for the time being. When Kay announces she’s bringing along her “secretary”, Barbara, the boys bristle, because now one of them has to be separated from Kay. But when Barbara proves a knock-out, Phil throws Jeff nicely under the bus; “I hope you’re ashamed, putting up such a holler against taking her along”.
Don Ameche buys the whole picture, though, when he crashes Jeff’s island where the lovebirds have gone to plan their wedding. Knowing his presence will rattle both Jeff and Kay, he comes in both guns blazing, spraying smiles and good cheer all over the joint. “Well, I finally made it. You been worried about me?” Phil takes charge of the place, declaring himself Jeff’s best man and feigning astonishment that there was any question about the appointment. Phil has been in the driver’s seat but when a honeymoon is planned without his input, Phil is not happy. Everyone thinks Honolulu is a fine idea but “I’m against it!” Phil blurts out, indignant that a decision has been made by someone other than him. My family and I have always found this hilarious and “I’m against it!” has become an inside joke often used between my wife, kids and I. I say I’m watching Moon Over Miami and one of my kids will invariably say “I’m against it!”.
Moon Over Miami is the gem of these travelogue/Good Neighbour pictures from Fox in the early 40s. The others seem to rely too much on more lavish dance numbers and have casts that fail to check all the boxes that this ensemble does. This film has gorgeous 2nd Unit photography, wonderful sets, really pleasant songs and the perfect pairing of leads – and I’m talking about Ameche and Cummings. I may be the only guy to enjoy a Betty Grable musical for everything but Betty. And she’s great, too; this all means that there is lots to recommend Moon Over Miami, a film that satisfies in many different ways.