In 1942, Vincente Minnelli was finally given real authority (and credit to match) in making “Panama Hattie,” which he saw in New York with Ethel Merman. The stale story, which centers on a provincial singer who falls for a young and handsome man, was a mediocre show that ran for a year due to the star’s clout.
To put it bluntly, the show was not top-drawer of the famed composer Cole Porter, with mediocre songs like “Let’s Be Buddies” and “Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please.”
From the beginning, it was clear to Freed (without telling Minnelli) that Ethel Merman would not be invited to Hollywood to reprise her role. Minnelli had little saying in casting Ann Southern, when the movie went into production in September 1941, under the helm of Norman Z. McLeod, who had done “Topper,” and later established a name for some of Danny Kaye’s popular titles, like “The Kid from Brooklyn.”
Minnelli was familiar but didn’t like Sothern’s work in the “Maisie” movie series; he never worked with her again. When the first preview proved disastrous, producer Freed decided to restructure the whole picture, requesting a new screenplay and replacing McLeod with Roy Del Ruth. Moreover, after consulting with Minnelli, Freed decided to add to the cast Lena Horne, whom Minnelli had met in New York. Though Horne’s part is small, she’s on screen for a few minutes only, her appearance made a difference.
Despite new efforts, the musical wasn’t warmly received by the press, and the “New York Times,” rather uncharacteristically, mentioned the film’s troubled history, noting in the end, “Metro revised it, with scissors and pen but couldn’t put the movie together.” However, the public made the slightly improved musical a moderate hit.
A low-brow musical, “Panama Hattie” has a silly dialogue, a song celebrating getting drunk, “(Did I Get Stinkin’) at the Savoy,” and so on. Hampered a dull romance between Sothern and Dan Dailey, the noisy movie doesn’t take advantage of its talent, Red Skelton, Rags Ragland, and Ben Blue, all mugging rather than acting. The opening number, Porter’s “I’ve Still Got My Health,” mounted together with Roger Edens’ “Hattie from Panama,” was shot by McLeod but suffers from Sothern’s poor singing.
The best things in the movie are the Lena Horne’s numbers, and as Stephen Harvey noted, Minnelli deserves credit for shaping the screen image of the first black star in Hollywood’s sound era, presenting Lena as exotic and suave femme.
In the 1940s, Horne, like other black actors, couldn’t share the same screen with white performers, and was thus relegated to guest appearances. Sharing screen with the gymnastics of the Berry Brothers, Horne is adorned in black net with ball fringe, using a Caribbean accent to her lyrics, “a tricky, icky dance they call the Sping.” In “The Sping,” a drummer is on a moving platform that travels across the dance floor.
Minnelli’s dance numbers are the only interesting things in the film. At times, the singers just stand there and belt. Others have more inventive movement. Lovingly framed by Minnelli, she delivers the few memorable moments in the movie, including “Just One of Those Things,” borrowed from Cole Porter’s Broadway score for “Jubilee.” (Check)
“Hattie from Panama” opening number has the singers in white tropical suits and dresses, with black accents. They anticipate the “white and black clothes” that will later run through Minnelli’s color films. The men in the chorus line resemble some of the male chorus boys in Minnelli all dressed alike.
“Berry Me Not,” the first song by the Berry Brothers, also dressed in white-and-black, is performed with canes. The sequence is shot with a rather kinetic movement, with the camera following one of the brothers, moving down to a close view of his legs, then pulling back to a long shot of all the dancers jumping.
In “Good Neighbors,” some sailors are trying to pick up women on a floor tiled in an interesting pattern. Minnelli moves up his camera with the crane to get an elevated angle, showing dancers forming triangles, with three men in the middle and three women outside. The dance gets geometric in the finale, which is the film’s most intricately patterned dance.
The intended rousing ending, “The Son of a Gun Who Picks on Uncle Same,” displayed American patriotism in statically staging number, in which the entire cat, without the black artists, look forward in a long shot, with banal lyrics like “We’ve got a wood kimono for the Mikado/We’ve got a mausoleum for Mussoleen.”