In the echelons of musical sweethearts, Suzanne Burce's journey from cherub-cheeked Portland cutie to winsome soprano superstar is something of its own starlit daydream. She came to the attention of Universal Studios through the enterprising machinations of her mother, Eileen, who pushed Suzanne at the age of 5 into her first radio appearance on Stars of Tomorrow. By age 12, Sue had become Oregon’s Victory Girl with a fairly breakneck schedule of two weekly radio appearances. Under the pretext of ‘taking a vacation’, Eileen orchestrated her daughter’s big debut on Janet Gaynor’s popular radio program, Hollywood Showcase – a talent competition easily won by Suzanne, directly leading to an audition for both Louis B. Mayer and David O. Selznick. Ironically, Mayer signed the pint-sized powerhouse, then quickly loaned her out to make two B-programmers for United Artists, Song of the Open Road (1944) and Delightfully Dangerous (1945). Though hardly artistic achievements, these pictures made money. Moreover, the girl in them had proved a hit, and Mayer – no fool, and, equally not known for wasting time or talent he could mine to his heart’s content on his own terms – quickly built a homegrown showcase around his latest discovery.
Rechristened Jane Powell, Suzanne’s swift ascendance as one of the studio’s pint-sized chanteuses is nothing short of miraculous. For a while, she held the distinction of never appearing in a movie in which she was not cast as the star, MGM effectively exploiting her in one extravaganza after the next – her status as the new kid on the block quickly transformed into a seasoned veteran of the Hollywood gristmill. Powell’s stardom runs contrary to the path taken by virtually every other starlet who came to Metro during its golden age. Even Judy Garland, arguably the greatest musical asset ever known within these hallowed halls, went through a rather lengthy period of adjustment before becoming one of Metro’s leading ladies. But Powell just was one from the beginning. Despite her formidable talent, modesty prevented Powell from developing the air of a diva. Alas, it also led to isolation, not only from her peers back home, but also the rest of the pack at MGM. For the most part, she worked tirelessly and without complaints, eventually becoming the studio’s number two box office draw after Garland. “I never felt as though I was a part of it,” Powell would later reflect, “…and I couldn’t tell anybody back home what was going on…that I had met Clark Gable, or anybody else, because they would think I was being snobbish. So I would just write letters and say ‘everything’s fine’ and keep to myself.”
Jane Powell’s third movie and her MGM debut, George Sidney's Holiday in Mexico (1946), is a minor curiosity, made mostly in support of Roosevelt’s ‘good neighbor’ policy towards Latin America, but immeasurably fleshed out by Metro's inimitable ultra-glossy production values. Produced at the height of the studio's love affair with the musical as an indigenous and uniquely American art form, in Holiday in Mexico we get to see Powell at her modest beginnings as an actress perhaps, but already fully formed as a singer, supremely accomplished and capable of balancing both the weighty classics and pop standards of their time with equal aplomb. Produced by Joe Pasternak, Holiday in Mexico is a gargantuan undertaking. Powell receives the lion's share of the songs, beginning with The Street Song from The Firefly and capped off by a haunting rendition of Shubert's Ave Maria, accompanied by Jose Iturbi and the MGM studio orchestra. In between these bookends, Powell sweetly trills Les filles de Cadix. She ought to also have performed the invigorating ‘Why So Gloomy?’ at the British Embassy; a number recorded and shot, but ultimately winding up on the cutting room floor (later resurfacing as an outtake in That’s Entertainment! III.
Looking back, it is rather obvious Mayer was taking no chances with Holiday in Mexico; the ensemble chocked full of sure-fire box office talent to draw the public into the theater; for the more mature attendees – Walter Pigeon and Ilona Massey, the latter committing her more robust singing pipes to Csak Egy Szep Lany (or, The Gypsy Lullaby). To satisfy the ‘good neighbor’ slant, there is Xavier Cugat, ebullient and charming as always, warbling Yo Te Amo Mucho - And That's That while coddling his bug-eyed Chihuahua and skirting the dark and flashing glances of an obviously jealous paramour, as well as providing background accompaniment elsewhere in the movie; also, Jose Iturbi, congenial to a fault and showing off his flying fingers on Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto N. 2 in C Minor, and later, a blistering boogie-woogie interpretation of Three Blind Mice; accompanied by his sister, Amparo (who also is briefly glimpsed in the finale). Holiday in Mexico is really more a cavalcade than a movie; Isobel Lennart’s screenplay (cribbing from a story idea by William Kozlenko) merely interested in providing the most threadbare of connective tissues to get us from plot points ‘A’ to ‘B’ with neatly sandwiched dialogue and a few chuckle-worthy bits of comedy between these musical performances. I mean, was it really necessary to stage a ‘flashback’ sequence just to show us how Pigeon’s kindly diplomat and Massey’s hearty chanteuse first met? Probably not. But Holiday in Mexico excels as the sort of superficially polished and mind-bogglingly all-star claptrap MGM had perfected with relish throughout the 1940's and would continue, for a time, to promote with varying degrees of success in the fifties. Moreover, it is a picture whose sole purpose is to entertain without testing the boundaries of innovation. On that score, Holiday in Mexico is decidedly a highly enjoyable confection; sweet and lovely; full of the bounce and sparkle for which Metro, at its zenith, was justly celebrated.
Joseph Pasternak’s infallible formula, blending the light with time-honored tomes in classical music, glammed up and slightly re-orchestrated to appeal to the masses, strikes exactly the right chords – light-headed, but heart-strong. Holiday in Mexico is by far the most extravagant of the pictures built exclusively around Powell’s extraordinary gifts as a singer. Incidentally, the title is something of a curiosity since, in the movie, Pigeon’s American Ambassador Jeffrey Evans and his daughter, Christine (Powell) are neither on holiday nor planning a holiday – at least, to Mexico - but rather permanently reside there, living quite comfortably in their lush and tropical hacienda. I suspect, the ‘holiday’ in the title is moreover meant to sell the picture to audiences with promises of sweet escapism abroad that many, only just begun to recover from the Great Depression, and, those terrible years during WWII would be hard-pressed to afford on their own otherwise. For logistic reasons, none of Holiday in Mexico was actually shot in Mexico, MGM’s reincarnation of the pampas and sombreros on the back lot and sound stages, unapologetically colorful, stately and quite unlike most anything likely to be seen in reality. Ah well, it served a purpose then. Yet, Holiday in Mexico remains charmingly effervescent to a fault. We have Powell’s presence largely to thank for this.
In Jane Powell there is a natural gift to effortlessly invade and disinfect whatever natural cynicism or folly has befallen us in the day. It is a rare ability, one that, ostensibly, has transcended time, and, remains quite impossible to quantify. For there have been other singers before and since Powell’s time possessing such musical range (some would argue, better); and other child-star actresses as beguilingly sweet and as genuine in their performances on screen. And yet, an intangible aura lingers about Powell, something to do with the way she’s been lit by cinematographer extraordinaire, Harry Stradling Sr.; as though through a veil, preventing any further quantification or qualification of its subtext and/or meaning. Yes, Powell can sing her way into our hearts while hitting the high C’s. That much is a given. But she also tends to linger somewhere more deeply in our collective soul, transfixing and elevating mere pop culture into more meaningful – if highly sentimentalized – movie-land art. Powell herself, would recall an experience on a New York street some years later; an elderly woman spontaneously approaching to thank her for her musicals, adding “when I used to watch one of your movies, I just knew it was going to be a good day.” Undeniably, Powell’s screen persona radiates warmth – perhaps, not immediately apparent (as she quite often plays headstrong, even pert and mildly annoying and opinionated teenagers too mature for their own good), though nevertheless, imbued with prepubescent sincerity befitting her age, at least, in these early pictures.
Herein, Powell stars as Christine, daughter of U.S. Ambassador, Jeffrey Evans who is stationed in Mexico. The self-appointed glue that keeps her father's life running like clockwork, Christine is entreated by romantic overtures from the British Ambassador's son, Stanley Owens (Roddy McDowell). Although Christine regards Stanley with minor affection, she doesn't really consider him a beau. Jeffrey dotes on Christine. Moreover, he allows her some latitude with the embassy staff, perhaps overcompensating as the single parent since the death of Christina’s mum. All is fair in love, however, and Jeffrey is delighted to learn an old flame, Countess Karpathy (Ilona Massey) has resurfaced after an absence of some years. The two were passionate sweethearts in their younger years while Jeffrey was stationed in Hungary. Alas, time – and a mysterious mutual breakup (the Hollywood kind that leaves no residual animosities) has kept the pair apart ever since. Now, fate has intervened, or rather – Christine; making the rounds to invite the local gentry to the American Embassy Ball.
Stanley wishes Christine would pay more attention to him and less to the ball. Either way, however, he is more than willing to help her along in her duties. The pair make two pit stops; first, to Casa Cugat, the fashionable nightclub where Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra perform nightly. Christine has no way of knowing the Countess, now singing with Cugie’s band, is actually her father’s former flame. Nor does the Countess let on she has known Jeffrey before. But she does break a cardinal rule – never to sing at private parties – to attend the ball. The other call Stanley and Christine pay is on Jose Iturbi; at present, a very busy man. Iturbi mistakes Chris to be the new singer he is hoping to audition for an upcoming outdoor concert. Chris proves capable of fulfilling all these requirements as his winsome chanteuse. One problem: she has no intention of singing at the concert. After all, it would conflict with her father’s plans to take a much needed father/daughter vacation to Vermont to visit his wife’s mother.
Fate intervenes yet again. So does diplomacy – and youth. Jeffrey and the Countess begin to see quite a lot of each other. Their romantic pas deux is not lost on Christine, who gradually begins to resent the time her father is spending away from her. In the meantime, Christine’s best friend, Yvette Baranga (Helene Stanley), the daughter of the French Ambassador, develops an unrequited bad case of puppy love towards Jeffrey. Evidently, love has turned Jeff’s head too, because not only is he quite oblivious to Yvette’s advances, but he also seems incapable of noticing how Christine has been repeatedly wounded by not being included in at least some of his outings with the Countess. Overcompensating for this parental neglect, Christine throws herself at Iturbi’s head, determined theirs’ should be a May/December love affair. Stanley is understandably distraught to learn Chris has thrown him over for Iturbi. Moreover, he thinks Christine is making a fool of herself. Pointing out the obvious to Jeffrey, Stanley is playfully dismissed for his candor and honesty.
But Jeff isn’t laughing so hard when he discovers the new portrait on Chris’ easel in her bedroom is of Iturbi, painted with the same tender devotion she once committed to capturing his own likeness in charcoals. Jeff confronts Iturbi and, after several moments of miscommunication, is immeasurably relieved to discover Jose is not in love with Christine. She has, in fact, imagined the whole grand amour in her head. To prove how implausible such a love match would be, Jeffrey convinces Iturbi to invite Christine and him to a dinner party at which time Jose will reveal to her he is already a grandfather. Jeffrey and Christine – painted up to artificially look twice her natural age – have barely arrived when Iturbi springs his two granddaughters (Tonia and Teresa Hero) on them. Suddenly realizing the chasm of discrepancy in their ages, Christine is quite unable to go through with dinner. However, upon their return to the embassy, Jeffrey encounters Yvette waiting with her father (Mikhail Rasumny) and mother (Marina Koshetz) in the living room.
Apparently, Yvette has believed the same lie as Christine, informing her parents she is to be engaged to Jeffrey. Alas, the Ambassador makes it clear to Jeffrey the dowry he intends to bestow upon him is small. Realizing his only way out of this difficult situation is to downplay the romance concocted by Yvette, Jeffrey instead suggests only a very large dowry could induce him to consider marriage to the girl. Insulted by the notion Jeffrey would marry Yvette for money alone, the Ambassador storms out of the house, dragging his daughter by the ear and ordering his tearful wife to follow. Jeffrey decides to set the record straight with Christine. But when he goes upstairs he discovers Chris packing, apparently determined to leave Mexico and live with her grandmother, thus betraying her commitments made to Iturbi for the concert. Jeffrey explains that “everyone plays the fool now and then” and that whatever Chris’ decision – stay or run – he will support it as only a loving father could.
Jeffrey outlines the rewards of choosing to stay and face the awkwardness she has created; getting to know the Countess better and, very likely, as a new mother; maturing in her own outlook on love with Stanley – a boy of her years who really is a solid potential love match – singing at the concert because as any woman of integrity knows, one must always honor commitments, and finally, apologizing to Iturbi for making an ass of herself. A tearful Christine comes to the right conclusion for all the right reasons. The scene dissolves to the stupendous outdoor concert finale; a moonlight amphitheater with a candle-lit choral surrounding Christine and a two hundred piece orchestra in the foreground, conducted by Iturbi to the skin-crawling strains of Schubert’s Ave Maria.
Holiday in Mexico won’t win any awards for high art, but it remains a supremely satisfying bit of escapist nonsense put forth with great panache by arguably, the only studio capable to manage its artifice and effervescence in song. Those who would quietly discount the picture as all fizz and no cola, however, would do better to reconsider the embarrassment of riches on display; Harry Stradling Sr.’s luminous cinematography offset by Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith’s elegant production design, and, Irene and Valles sumptuous garments. L.B. Mayer’s standing order at MGM – and not only for musicals – was all women should appear beautiful and all men, handsome. We get this and more in Holiday in Mexico. George Sidney directed the picture, but he really is at the service of this show’s producer, Joseph Pasternak whose particular brand of ultra-glossy European schmaltz has never been equaled. There are more sophisticated musicals out there to be sure, but Holiday in Mexico is just a lot of fun. With Powell, Cugat, Massey and Iturbi working the room, it’s also boffo entertainment, and, a genuine bang for your buck.
Holiday in Mexico comes to us via the Warner Archive. How I wouldn’t give the Archive to go back and do this one right on Blu-ray. For now, the results on MOD DVD are not too far off the mark. While scratches persist, and color-timing blips crop up now and then, the Technicolor on this nearly 80 year old classic has held up remarkably well. I suspect somewhere along the way Holiday in Mexico received a refurbishment of its Technicolor master from Warner, because not only does the image pop with bright and bold colors, but flesh tones are darn-near perfect. Even more remarkable: no differential shrinkage of the 3-strip negative – the image tight and razor-sharp throughout and showing a lot of fine detail with virtually no compression artifacts or other digital anomalies. Honestly, outside of this catalog title getting a Blu-ray upgrade, I could not be more pleased with these results. Not so much the audio: occasionally crackling during the higher registers of Powell’s singing, and coming off fairly garbled during the first few stanzas of the climactic Ave Maria. The audio’s not terrible, but it decidedly needs some work. If this ever gets the Blu-treatment via the archive I really would love WB to seek out the separate audio stems and produce a repurposed 5.1 stereo option for Powell’s songs. I believe this is still possible. Bottom line: recommended as mindlessly appealing fluff entertainment with Jane Powell the real selling feature.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)