Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Written by Ralph Block, Warren Duff, Jerry Wald, and Julius Epstein
It's been a while since we've done some Busby Berkeley, and perhaps I wasn't dying to jump back in, for though we left off lo those many moons ago on the excellent Gold Diggers of 1935, I knew that his next film—this time again only as choreographer, working parallel to his 42nd Street, Footlight Parade and Fashions of 1934 director, Lloyd Bacon—was the beginning of a clutch of obscurer efforts, all lesser-seen and some wholly unavailable. In Caliente itself is not included in Warners' big Berkeley set, and it has never been released on proper streaming platforms, either. This could be worrisomely reminiscent of Wonder Bar (which has been made less-than-readily-available for fairly obvious reasons), though the good news is In Caliente is at least pretty harmless: it's a dumb-Americans-go-to-Mexico story, and one driver of its comedy is that the local inhabitants are obnoxious to the tourists, but it's hard to get particularly exercised about it. The bad news is it's worse than Wonder Bar on any merit besides "it does not conclude upon an extremely long and elaborate routine involving Warners' entire corps of extras wearing Hollywood's entire supply of shoe polish on their faces," and the thing we're here for, the Berkeley numbers, aren't very good.
But first let's discover how those dumb Americans get to Mexico. In New York, we find arts critic Larry MacArthur (Pat O'Brien), founder and president of a New Yorker-like magazine (NEW YORK'S SMARTEST MAGAZINE reads the door to their office) albeit operating under a name, Manhattan Madness, that suggests that either none of the four writers understand the tony affectations of The New Yorker's style or that I don't understand what kind of tone The New Yorker struck back during its first decade of publication. Maybe they did sound like a try-hard alt-weekly. Still, Larry MacArthur is indeed the kind of person who might well choose a name like Manhattan Madness, for between his unnecessarily-cruel criticism, his fairly serious drinking problem, and the lamprey-like attentions of his girlfriend Clara (Glenda Farrell), he's worked himself into a tizzy. Hence his partner in the magazine business Harold Brandon (Edward Everett Horton) contrives to get him away from that golddigger, which turns out to be pretty easily-accomplished, due to the aforementioned drinking problem.
When Larry wakes up in a strange hotel, Harold explains they're 3000 miles from Clara and the breach-of-promise suit a woman like her promises, specifically in the Hotel Caliente in Aguacaliente, state undetermined, Mexico. (Thereby rendering the film's title slightly less stupid. I assume the original intention was "in hot water" but they decided that a mangling of "in heat" was more marketable, and they were probably right.) Well, Harold is further inspired when Larry beholds a fellow guest of the hotel, a dark-eyed beauty, and Harold surreptitiously arranges with this woman, Rita Gomez (Dolores Del Rio), to take on the role of a tangible distraction for Larry in exchange for a handsome sum. But Rita has an agenda of her own: she knows Larry quite well already, even if he only knows her by her stage name and doesn't recognize her now. Some time back he gave her dancing a scathing review in Manhattan Madness—"the dance becomes merely a progression of a bag of bones across the stage," that kind of scathing—and Rita fixes keenly upon the prospect of avenging herself by humiliating him. Meanwhile, Clara's not one to give up so easily.
That seems quite fine enough to serve as an 83-minute container for comedy, romance, and musical numbers. It is in fact close to being good enough, particularly once things leave New York and the film's enervating approximation of New York culture and 30s newspaper comedy (well, periodical comedy), consisting primarily of people yelling over one another, recedes before a somewhat more relaxed and rather more structured series of vignettes furthering along the farce plot; and while it's needling, one can accept this movie needs a plot and with some effort ignore that Harold's plan makes no legal sense even if breach of promise suits hadn't been abolished in New York earlier that year, inasmuch as the breach of promise lawsuit Larry has indeed set himself up for wouldn't be invalidated just because the defendant took a vacation.
Anyway (come to my movie blog for historical discussions about family law in the 1930s!), the main thing is the movie does not actually have that much juice as farce, and though it has a strong, smirkworthy running gag—Clara's progress towards Aquacaliente is tracked by way of importune phone calls from increasingly-close cities, and at every turn Larry obliviously claims not to know anybody from wherever she is—it's a lot more content to amble about with cute little scenes of varying degrees of humor. Basically anything with Horton is at least okay, as you would expect from the reliably-endearing character actor—for a moment, it really feels like the movie's getting on track humor-wise with the way he runs down Del Rio and he Horton-stammers his proposition to her by the poolside, continually accidentally getting his shoes and socks wet—though Horton has never to my knowledge saved a mediocre movie all by himself. It's not too hard to identify the weak link, then, and I kept thinking to myself "this movie would be considerably hotter and more credible if Horton were the one seducing Del Rio," which probably indicates the scope of the problem with her actual romantic lead.
I am not an O'Brien scholar: I have seen him in only two movies and in both he's kind of shit, in no small part because in both he's deeply miscast as a lothario, though at least in this one he's rich (in the other, I've Got Your Number, he plays a pushy telephone repairman who somehow hectors Joan Blondell into a romance by, uh, trashing her apartment). He's loud and barky and to the extent he's funny it's because "being surly" can be amusing, and while he's more seductive in this than in I've Got Your Number by virtue of not being a total asshole, he's not Del Rio seductive. Given that this very pro forma 30s romcom script was never going to actually do the work of making Rita's burgeoning affection for the target of her ire seem natural, it absolutely required a leading man dashing and alluring beyond argument, rather than the guy who's a bit like if you took Al Jolson, put him in a straight role, and stripped him of charm, charisma, and class. And unlike how one imagines Horton would've fit into the role—Horton seems like your go-to choice for "mean-spirited arts critic," right? (though I suppose this would leave a void in the "neurotic friend who wishes to interfere with the heterosexual couplings around him" role)—O'Brien doesn't even seem to be aware his character's an erudite snob, and nothing I know about his screen persona was ever designed to support such a thing. The script, likely tailored after his casting, doesn't make any particular effort towards making that a salient element of the character, despite it being the entire reason the plot occurs. (Hell, it sort of implies his reviews are ghost-written by his secretary because he's a forgetful and inarticulate drunk.)
That puts a hole in the film where the generic agreeability should go, but Berkeley movies had survived much worse in the past; this might be a struggling comedy, but it's never so turgid that it feels like a miscategorization to still call it a comedy, like Dames, which is still a good Berkeley movie. It benefits from a lot of tasteful leering at Del Rio, as well, though it does not necessarily say good things about the Berkeley that the sexiness here is predominantly in the Bacon-directed scenes where Del Rio's business is "do leg lifts, you are, after all, a dancer by trade" or "be in a bathing suit." But then, "not being sexy" isn't the Berkeley numbers' problem. It's more that they just barely register as Berkeley numbers in the first place.
It could've been after the exertions of the previous two years the choreographer was running low on inspiration and ready to try more conventional things. Both of In Caliente's major numbers come toward the end (they do not come at the very end, however, which suddenly recalls that this farce hasn't had much farce and immediately jams a whole third act's worth of it into a goony car chase and double-wedding). There is a minor number—an aperitif of sorts—I assume titled "Mexicano," as that's the only intelligible word of the song (this being a 30s vocal stylings thing; the song is identifiably in English). It's mostly a peppily-edited montage that establishes Mexico with stock footage and showy shot transitions, but there's a bit of choreography to it, and by my lights it features the single strongest "Berkeleyesque" gesture in the whole film, playing with abstraction and tiling and just plain whimsy, when a kneeling dancer gets buried in stark white cowboy hats on a patterned floor.
The first major one, though, is a performance at the hotel, involving none of our principals except as witnesses (well, Horton gets pulled into a bit; Del Rio leaves in a huff before it starts). If it has little to do with anything, that of course is only an observation, as most Berkeley numbers have little to do with anything. It does, however, come with a hit song, Allie Wrubel and Mort Wilson's "The Lady In Red," a song I neither like nor dislike but is surprisingly (almost obnoxiously) earwormy. The Berkeley that's in it is interesting, even if I don't think it's too terribly successful: it begins with the lights going down, replaced with table candlelight ignited by a succession of chanteuses, roughly one per lyric, the black frame lit up with the flame illuminating a new woman as she sultrily sings. It's something of a slowed-down remix of the classical Berkeley trope of a parade of faces, giving a wide cross-section of chorines their moment of immortalized beauty.
It's perhaps sleepier than one prefers their Berkeley, but it's solid and I wondered if I misremembered the number, a feeling intensified as it meanders, via dreamy editing, to a bar and Berkeley indulges his fascination with large groups and vanishing points with lines of servers and drinkers meeting in the deep background amidst pouring and drinking movements that could frankly be better-synchronized. Nevertheless, it's promising, but over very quickly: it devolves incredibly rapidly into basically just a diegetic showcase for Wini Shaw of "Lullaby of Broadway" fame, though unlike that number, it's no more special than the floor show that might be featured in any given 30s musical. Perhaps less: Tony De Marco and Sally De Marco, a ballroom duo of sufficient fame that they get featured in the opening credits' montage of faces (but not of sufficient fame to be billed on the poster), are awarded an exhibition that is compelling in neither photography nor in technique, such as any competent director-choreographer of 1935 could have put together, and maybe I don't even need to limit that to competent, as Berkeley doesn't always quite manage to keep their feet from falling out of the frame. And even that's forgetting what happens between those two phases, this being comedienne Judy Canova arriving out of nowhere to harass Harold with an ear-splitting "comic" verse as a shrilly-accented hillbilly caricature, which means I lied, and not everything with Horton is okay.
The second number, coming more-or-less immediately thereafter (though a full 24 hours later in the film's chronology, weirdly), theoretically has more functionality, as part of Rita's plan of revenge against her critic, to reveal her identity, break his heart, and overwhelm him with her talent, though on the latter count it's never too clear why she thinks this number will render her terpsichorean prowess irreproachable. She's hardly a bag of bones, but it's not much of a demonstration for Del Rio, who basically doesn't do anything here besides join the moves of the ensemble, get spun around by a few male chorines, and be the center of attention for the camera and the narrative. Yes, narrative: this number, "Muchacha," is arguably a playlet set to music more than it is a musical number, not always Berkeley's strength. It involves Phil Regan, leader of a group of banditos, making a beeline for a famed singer, catching up with her at a tavern. Other than again playing with the linear possibilities of servers and patrons around a bar, the Berkeleyesque here is that it's just so big and full (I'm also fairly sure that the background female chorines are topless except for a skimpy rebozo that covers their breasts, which is fairly Berkeleyesque, though they're scarcely gazed at close enough or long enough to tell, which is not). There is one fascinating aspect to all this: to introduce Del Rio within the number, Berkeley engages in a traveling shot from the back of the stage through the thronging couples in the tavern, involving choreographing the dancers around the camera without calling attention to that fact, and while it's not some diabolically-complicated layout Berkeley's devised here, for a brief moment In Caliente is thrillingly futuristic, pointing to the kind of experiential film musical choreography that would only really begin to be developed in the 40s and is still difficult even in the modern era of lightweight cameras. It is, unfortunately, more like an experiment carried out on a whim than an aesthetic spine, and the bulk of the sequence is just prosecuting this playlet's little plot or giving its various players the proscenium so they can sing Harry Warren and Al Dubin's song, featuring such winning couplets as
Muchacha, tonight I've got you where I want ya, my muchachaI'll watch ya... just like a cat would watch a little cucaracha
which is I guess cherrypicking the worst lyric (I mean "in this song," but if you understood me to say "in any song" that's fine), but it's all pretty underwhelming. It's all painless, but this is the Berkeley film without much at all of the abstracted sexuality or architectural weirdness or mesmerizing surrealism or bold energy, which means it's scarcely a Berkeley film at all.