Panama Hattie (1942): Low-Brow Musical, Songs by Cole Porter, Musical Numbers Staged by Minnelli (Before Debut the Next Year, Cotton Club)

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.

Grade: B- (**1/2* out of *****)

Panama Hattie
Panama Hattie (1942) still 1.jpg

Ben Blue, Red Skelton, Ann Sothern, Rags Ragland in Panama Hattie

To put it bluntly, the show was not of the top-drawers of the famed composer Cole Porter. It was defined by several mediocre songs, such as “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 with some of Danny Kaye’s popular titles, like “The Kid from Brooklyn.”

Minnelli was familiar with, but he didn’t particularly like Sothern’s work in the “Maisie” movie series; he would never work 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. And, ultimately, the movie was profitable at the box-office: Made against a budget of about $1 million, it grossed twice as much.

A low-brow musical, Panama Hattie is plagued with a rather 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. 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.”

“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.

Unfortunately, the well-intentioned rousing ending, “The Son of a Gun Who Picks on Uncle Sam,” displayed American patriotism all right, but technically it suffered from a statically staged number.  It showed the entire cat, without the black artists, look up and forward in a long shot, accompanied with banal lyrics like “We’ve got a wood kimono for the Mikado/We’ve got a mausoleum for Mussoleen.”

Songs in the Film:

“Hattie from Panama” (Roger Edens) –Chorus

“I’ve Still Got My Health” (Porter)–Ann Sothern

“Berry Me Not” (Phil Moore), dance by Berry Brothers

“Just One of Those Things” (Porter)–Lena Horne (from Jubilee)

“Fresh As a Daisy” (Porter)–Virginia O’Brien

“Good Neighbors” (Edens)–Red Skelton, Rags Ragland, Ben Blue and Chorus

“Let’s Be Buddies” (Porter)–Sothern with Jackie Horner, and O’Brien with Alan Mowbray

“Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here” (Arthur Sullivan; Theodore F. Morse) [instrumental]

“Did I Get Stinkin’ At the Savoy” (Harburg and Donaldson)– O’Brien

“The Sping” (Moore and J. LeGon) – Horne [danced by the Berry Brothers]

“The Son of a Gun Who Picks on Uncle Sam” (Harburg and Lane)– Company

Credits:

Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Written by Jack McGowan and Wilkie C. Mahoney (screenplay), based on the 1940 musical “Panama Hattie” by Herbert Fields and Buddy G. DeSylva
Produced by Arthur Freed
Cinematography George J. Folsey
Edited by Blanche Sewell

Production company: MGM

Distributed by Loew’s, Inc.

Release date: 1942

Running time: 79 minutes
Budget: $1.1 million
Box office: $2.3 million