Though Carmen Miranda had appeared in isolated musical numbers in 1940’s Down Argentine Way (nevermind that she was Brazilian by way of Portugal), it wasn’t until That Night in Rio that 20th Century Fox figured out what to do with her — with a vengeance. Dusting off the 1935 film Folies Bergerè de Paris — which, despite the presence of Maurice Chevalier, suffered from undistinguished songs and Merle Oberon — and moving the locale to Rio, they realized her comedic potential to the fullest. (The story would be made again in 1951 as a Danny Kaye vehicle called On the Riviera — the less said about that, the better.) The move to Rio, of course, was in part the studio participating in the U.S.’ “good neighbor policy” with South America (the big push to keep South American countries from siding with the Nazis). But it also made Miranda’s presence logical. She plays Carmen, the musical partner — and girlfriend — of American Larry Martin (Don Ameche), of whom she is explosively jealous — and not without reason. Part of Martin’s act consists of impersonating a local big businessman — and man about town — Baron Manuel Duarte (also Ameche). Circumstances make it necessary to have Larry impersonate the Baron — even to the point of fooling his wife, Cecilia (Alice Faye) — so the real Baron can sneak out of town and head off a financial disaster.
Yes, it’s that kind of patently silly plot, but it works nicely here thanks to pleasant players, luminous Technicolor, a bright screenplay, and good songs — including Miranda’s signature “I, Yi, Yi, Yi, Yi (I Like You Very Much).” The supporting cast is made up on the Hollywood theory that all accents sound alike — so we get Hungarian S.Z. Sakall, German Curt Bois, Italian Frank Puglia and Spanish Fortunio Bonanova as Brazilians. The whole thing is under the assured — if not particularly inspired — guidance of director Irving Cummings, a seasoned professional who was in his element with highly decorated Technicolor musicals. Look carefully and you’ll see the future queen of Technicolor camp Maria Montez as a young lady that Baron Duarte can recognize by only seeing her from the waist down.
The Asheville Film Society will screen That Night in Rio Tuesday, April 23 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.