Sunday, June 23, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #18: "Escape to Paradise" (1939)

Twelve-year-old boy soprano Bobby Breen sings and sings and sings in Escape to Paradise.

The flick: Escape to Paradise (RKO Radio Pictures, 1939; reissued by Variety Film Distributors, 1946) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.0

Director: Erle C. Kenton (Island of Lost Souls, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Pardon My Sarong)

Actors of note
  • Bobby Breen (Way Down South, Make a Wish; boy singing sensation of the late '30s)
  • Kent Taylor (The Scarlet Empress, The Crawling Hand; partial namesake of Clark Kent, the other being Clark Gable)
  • Marla Shelton (A Star is Born [1937 version], Flying Down to Rio)
  • Rudolph Anders (A Star is Born [1954 version], The Great Dictator, To Be or Not to Be)
  • Pedro de Cordoba (Captain Blood, Hitchcock's Saboteur)

The gist of it: Way down in quaint Rosarita (sometimes "Rosarito"), South America, young go-getter Roberto Ramos (Breen) shuttles tourists around in his motorcycle with a sidecar and occasionally sings at his mother's restaurant. But his real dream is to save up enough money to buy a taxicab. The town's big industry should be the tea (yerba mate) that grows there, but sleazy Mr. Kormac (Anders) is keeping the price down. Into this situation comes playboy Richard Fleming (Taylor), who just wants to get off a cruise ship and ditch annoying would-be girlfriend Penelope (Compton). With Roberto as his guide and sidekick, Fleming tries to woo the lovely Juanita (Shelton) by buying a single shipment of tea from her father, Don Miguel (de Cordoba). This puts him at odds with Kormac, who desires both Juanita and control of the tea business, and gives the people of Rosarita the mistaken impression that Richard Fleming is the town's economic savior.

Yerba mate, the MacGuffin of this film.
My take: Ah, 1939 -- Hollywood's most golden year, lauded by film scholars as the creative peak of the American movie industry! But the studios weren't exclusively turning out masterpieces that year. No, they still cranked out plenty of cheaply and indifferently made "filler" like this movie -- an imperialist comedy that seems to think that South America is a small country and not a huge continent. 

Escape to Paradise is mainly a vehicle for 12-year-old Bobby Breen, a young boy with the voice of a grown woman. It's a little unsettling, and I never quite got used to it. Obviously, a pre-adolescent male singer has a very limited amount of time in which to make as much cash as possible. Three years after this flick, Breen's film career ended with Johnny Doughboy (1942), alongside fellow washed-up child star Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer. The former boy soprano kept performing in nightclubs and recording for decades after that (for a brief while, he was signed to Motown for no apparent reason), eventually settling in Florida and starting his own talent agency.

As for this movie, it's largely a forgettable dud. Kent Taylor is little more than adequate as the romantic lead, and Marla Shelton is far too generic to be of much interest. Rudolph Anders should be able to stir things up as the slimy, monocle-wearing gringo villain, but the script doesn't give him many opportunities to do so. The film sets up the possibility of a duel between Fleming and Kormac, complete with glove-slapping, but nothing ever develops from this. 

Those attempting to watch Escape to Paradise should know that the film is in pretty rough shape, especially its soundtrack (which sounds like one of those Edison wax cylinders). Also, the characters often converse in untranslated, un-subtitled Spanish. That is, when they're not speaking pidgin English, both with Fleming and among themselves. All this means you'll probably have to concentrate a bit to follow the plot, and it's really not worth the effort. 

By the way, yerba mate is very real and is sometimes consumed for health reasons. Whether that's a good thing is up for debate.

Is it funny: Once in a great while. I got a good solid laugh from the film's one big Fleming/Kormac confrontation scene. (There should have been more.) And the movie has one successful, sustained comedic sequence in which Richard Fleming goes to the home of Don Miguel in order to woo the fair Juanita. He and Roberto do the whole "Cyrano de Bergerac" bit, with the kid singing from behind a hedge (the loveliest song in the movie, by the way) while Fleming pitifully tries to lip sync the lyrics he clearly doesn't know while feebly pretending to play a guitar. Juanita catches on almost instantaneously. Our would-be Romeo then tries scaling the wall to her balcony with less-than-ideal results.

My grade: C

P.S. - Being set in "South America," Escape to Paradise has no offensive black stereotypes. You could argue, though, that it has plenty of offensive Latin stereotypes. The people of Rosarita are nice folks but very backwards and behind the times. Striding through the streets in his crisp white suits, Richard Fleming displays an attitude of benign condescension towards the town and its citizens. Regrettably, Roberto's mother is an enormous woman who spends most of her time napping while sitting upright in a chair.