Posted by Susan Doll on March 18, 2013
Now that I live in Florida, this line of dialogue from Moon Over Miami passes across my mind from time to time. I have not seen any millionaires hanging from palm trees, but I do glance up from time to time.
A colorful musical with a terrific cast, Moon Over Miami stars Betty Grable and Carole Landis as Kay and Barbara, two blonde sisters from Texas. Together, they head for Florida, along with their Aunt Susie, who has just come into a small inheritance. The three use the money to stay at the lavish Flamingo Hotel, where they hope to find millionaire husbands. To lure wealthy men into their circle, Kay masquerades as an heiress, Barbara pretends to be her secretary, while Aunt Susie gets stuck as the maid.
Released in 1941, Moon Over Miami epitomizes the kind of musical vehicle that Twentieth Century Fox tailored for Betty Grable during the Golden Age. Fox was grooming Grable to be their biggest female star because the studio’s reigning box-office queen, Alice Faye, was hinting about retirement. Grable’s first film for Fox, Down Argentine Way (1940), had proved very popular with audiences—a relief for the vivacious musical star who had been making movies at other studios for a decade. When her contract was not picked up by Paramount in 1939, she was worried that her career had fizzled. But, Darryl F. Zanuck gave her a new home at Fox.
Grable costarred in Down Argentine Way with Don Ameche, who was reteamed with her for Moon Over Miami. The rest of the sparkling cast included Landis as the serious-minded sister and a boyish Robert Cummings as the second male lead. Typical for musicals of the era, character actors were cast in scene-stealing roles that provided offbeat comedy and novelty. Charlotte Greenwood costarred as down-to-earth Aunt Susie, Jack Haley played a worldly wise bell captain at the Flamingo, and a specialty act called the Condos Brothers dazzled with their vigorous and precise dance number.
While MGM’s musicals tended to exploit primary colors, Fox’s musical comedies featured a palette of pastel and tertiary colors, such as deep pinks, sky blues, sea greens, and soft lavenders. The eye-catching candy colors created an optimistic fantasy world where even night scenes were free of gloomy hues and gray shadows. In Moon Over Miami costume designer Travis Banton, along with art directors Richard Day and Wiard Ihnen , created a fairy-tale Florida, where it was entirely possible that rich, handsome men could grow on trees. In one scene, Kay strolls into her hotel bungalow in a sky blue dress trimmed in white fur, which is set off by pale, smoky blue walls decorated with white bas-reliefs. Barbara, who trails behind her, provides just the right accent in her pale green dress. The girls’ luxurious bungalow was furnished with white chairs and beds, with the windows dressed in rattan blinds. The bathroom featured a curved, glass brick wall, and a private patio was located just outside the bedroom. All of the bungalows encircled a terrace, where the men sang “You’ve Started Something” to the ladies as they danced around the reflecting pool or the sunken garden. The Flamingo Hotel was frequented by beautiful women and handsome men who met each evening for cocktails and romance amid exotic tropical foliage and the bright Miami moon.
The dream-like hotel in Moon Over Miami was a product of movie magic on a Hollywood sound stage, but there actually was a Flamingo Hotel in Miami Beach during that time. Early in the film, a montage of Miami locations includes a long shot of the real Flamingo and a close up of its neon sign. Miami Beach’s first grand hotel, the Flamingo was built in 1921 by Florida legend Carl Fisher, who is credited with turning the mosquito-infested barrier island into one of America’s premier winter resorts. Fisher, who was enchanted by flamingos (who isn’t?), painted his grand hotel pink and decorated it with flamingo murals. However unique and grand the actual Flamingo was, its rooms and suites looked nothing like their movie counterparts.
Moon Over Miami was such an important production that Zanuck invested more money and time than usual for a Fox film. After a year of preparation, the musical was in production for four months. The studio sent a second unit to South Florida under director Otto Brewer to shoot background footage for several scenes. But, the intent was not accuracy or realism. Instead, the goal was to evoke the glamour and allure of 1940s Miami and Miami Beach, when the city was a haven for the rich. The montage near the beginning not only includes the Flamingo but also shots of yachts and boats on Biscayne Bay, the huge hotels along the beachfront, and the Hialeah Park racetrack. Other scenes used background footage of water skiing and boat racing shot at Cypress Gardens, Rainbow Springs, and Silver Springs to depict South Florida as a playboy’s paradise.
And, what about that storyline in which a couple of feisty girls go looking for rich husbands? Well, the notion of searching South Florida for millionaires to marry was not that far-fetched. The Miami and Miami Beach lifestyle during the mid-1930s reflected a stateliness and elegance, partly because of the wealthy crowd that wintered there. Moon Over Miami was based on a popular Broadway play from the Depression era, when over 600 millionaires spent every January through April in Miami Beach, including such industry barons as Elmer Maytag (washing machines), Mark Honeywell (thermometers), Leonard Florsheim (shoes), and Warren Wright (Calumet baking soda). Old money also claimed Miami as their winter home, including a few Vanderbilts and a couple of Astors. The tropical atmosphere and elegant trappings gave Miami and Miami Beach the image of the perfect place for romance–an image circulated by photo magazines of the era, including Life and Time. Fittingly, Miami was the marriage and divorce capital of America in the early 1940s.
At the end of the film, the characters express their joy at finding a new love and a new life by singing “Miami (Oh Me, Oh My—ami),” an ode to the city’s reputation as America’s Winter Playground. Perhaps if I hum a couple of bars, one of those millionaires will drop into my lap.
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