Julie Christie Down Argentine Way: Reading Repression Cross-Nationally in Bemberg's Miss Mary

By Williams, Bruce | Journal of Film and Video, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview
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Julie Christie Down Argentine Way: Reading Repression Cross-Nationally in Bemberg's Miss Mary


Williams, Bruce, Journal of Film and Video


IRVING CUMMINGS'S 1940 MUSICAL EXTRAVAGANZA Down Argentine Way is most widely known as the film that introduced Carmen Miranda to American audiences. The pan-Americanism implicit in Miranda's synthesis of Brazil, the Caribbean, and Central America reflects the political climate of the Good Neighbor Policy and the US desire to create the mythos of a Western hemisphere alliance in the wake of the threat of fascism in Europe. From the perspective of the norms of US film production during the waryears, Miranda is indeed the most elucidative figure in the film. Doubtless, she is the image the American public deemed Latin-Caribbean, Brazilian, or (even!) Argentine. Yet when we reconsiderthe notion of reception and read Down Argentine Way m a Latin American context, an equally revealing political strategy comes to light, one which explores the ambivalent dynamics of cultural colonialism, tourism, and ethnicity in Latin America's most "Europeanized" country.

In a sequence replete with stereotype, the protagonist, played by Betty Grable, is invited by her Latin suitor to a village fiesta, where the "real Argentine" will sing and dance. To her surprise, and to the viewer's satisfaction, the true native turns out to be Grable's Yankee spinster aunt, played by high-kicker Charlotte Greenwood. Greenwood's song, which entertains the diegetic audience, both North American and Argentine, gives advice to the lovelorn gaucho on matters of courtship. The song's gender transgressions are evident; Greenwood speaks from the vantage point of a more experienced man of the world singing to his young buddies, explaining how a serenade can facilitate seduction. The gender ambivalence of the sequence is reinforced by a reprise toward the end of the film in which Greenwood performs her number in drag. Though most transgressive on the level of gendered subjectivity, Greenwood's song is equally ambivalent on both linguistic and sociopolitical levels. Introduced as the "true Argentine," Greenwood's look and mannerisms are flagrantly Anglo-Saxon. She is the spinster aunt of any North American musical, regardless of setting. The complicity of the "native" Argentines who cheer her spectacle, despite the difference so obvious to the Yankee viewer, betrays a national participation in the dynamics of Europeanization during the period prior to the rise of Perón. We must recall that, although Greenwood is posing as a gaucho singing to his friends, the words of the song are in English. The Argentine campesinos appear miraculously to understand the language. What appears to be at play in Down Argentine Way is an effacing of cultural difference and a rendering comical of all "Latin" elements in the film.

Down Argentine Way, released in Argentina as Serenata argentina (1940), was one of a number of major productions intended by Hollywood studios in the early 19405 for release in both the US and Latin America. This campaign, designed to combat the decline of the overseas market for American films, was ultimately a failure and led to what Thomas Schatz has termed a "cultural and political debacle" (25). Audiences in Latin America were cold to the stereotypical presentation of their cultures and put off by the lack of awareness in the United States of national and regional differences. The presence of Carmen Miranda in a film about Argentina was offensive to both Brazilian and Argentine audiences, whose cultures are radically different. In fact, as Schatz mentions, in 1941 an Andrews Sisters musical comedy entitled Argentine Nights was banned in Buenos Aires (25). Jack Whitney's Motion Picture Division of the Office of Coordination of Commercial and Cultural Relations between the Americas finally announced in 1941 its plans to address the issue by reforming Hollywood's production direction and by making films with serious stories and Latin American backgrounds. Not only would the US government figure more prominently in production plans, but the Office would open up a branch in Mexico City (Daggett 5).

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