In a Latin American country called Patria, sweet, innocent Yolanda Aquaviva (Lucille Bremer) celebrates her birthday and, with trepidation, prepares to leave the convent where she grew up. Yolanda is sole heiress to the Aquaviva empire, worth seventy-two million dollars and overseeing everything from bottled water, cattle and automobiles in the idyllic town of Esperando. “The world outside needs all the help, all the love you can give it”, urges her Mother Superior (Jane Green), but consoles her with the thought that everyone has a guardian angel to watch over them.
When slick fraudster Johnny Parkson Riggs (Fred Astaire) overhears Yolanda praying, he decides to pose as “Mr. Brown” her guardian angel to con her out of her fortune. As Johnny slowly falls for the beautiful, trusting heiress, his conscience starts to trouble him, while he and accomplice Victor Budlow Trout (Frank Morgan) are suddenly stalked by the mysterious, cigar-puffing Mr. Candle (Leon Ames).
Produced by the legendary Arthur Freed as a vehicle for his lover Lucille Bremer, this musical fantasy was sadly, a notorious flop in its day. It ruined the talented Bremer’s career and convinced Fred Astaire to put his on (thankfully temporary) hiatus, while critical reaction to its fanciful story, “syrupy orchestrations” and “bad performances” were surmised by Los Angeles Times writer Edwin Schallert as “Not for realists.” Given that we’re dealing with a genre where people spontaneously burst into song, you’d think these wiseacres would cut it some slack. Yet whimsy was something American audiences simply did not respond to at the time and wouldn’t until the Baby Boomers arrived on the scene. Even Astaire remarked: “This verified my feeling that doing fantasy on the screen was an extra risk.”
But if you’ve room in your heart to believe in faith, innocence and the redemptive power of love, there is much to engage here. Especially with MGM maestro, Vincente Minnelli wielding the studio’s vast resources as his own personal paint box and toy chest. Beautiful matte paintings meld with extravagant sets in a Disney cartoon come to life, with fluffy, pink clouds and rainbow skies overlooking green hills, where crimson-clad schoolgirls, little boys in sombreros and revellers in fancy dress cavort amidst an eye-popping carnival atmosphere. Yolanda’s palatial mansion is a wonder of rococo elegance that extends even to her bathroom, where Minnelli films her leaving a bubble bath to don a glamorous gown like Venus rising from the waves.
While the songs co-written by Freed and Harry Warren do err on the syrupy side, they are beautifully delivered and the choreography is top notch. Bremer proves a most charming foil for the fiendishly charismatic Astaire. Yolanda’s naivety may seem cloying to modern audiences but, as played by Bremer with utmost sincerity it is believable and even affecting. Her big dance number amidst wild floor patterns and coloured gels is exhilarating stuff, sustained by the rhythm of clapping hands, while Minnelli pulls off an amazing dream sequence where Astaire elegantly hoofs though a papier-mâché desert and the extraordinary sight of Yolanda draped in animated silks (a stop-motion effect) and glittering gold. It’s a psychological fantasy that illustrates Johnny’s subconscious anxieties and desires - ideas Minnelli carried through to An American in Paris (1951).
Amidst the ingeniously composed frames and fluid camerawork, Minnelli emboldens the movie with subtle storytelling and surreal visual gags: a door that opens into a series of smaller doors, a chain-smoker who grows extra arms like an octopus, Johnny playing an enchanting boogie woogie number on a harp. Most of the comedy comes from Mildred Natwick’s delightfully batty Aunt Amaralla, who takes absent-mindedness to new levels. A typical exchange: “We have the largest stables in the country. Do you like horses? You do? Oh, then we must buy a horse.”
Maybe the story isn’t strong enough to sustain all the whimsy. It’s certainly hampered by an abrupt conclusion. Yet this is a movie where a wealthy family run a powerful conglomerate founded on “love, tenderness and loyalty.” It creates a world we’d all like to live in. And in fabulous Technicolor to boot.