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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Panama Menace is a by the numbers comedy spy musical romance about a
group of crooks who want a new formula being brought to panama. They
conspire to follow the inventor's sister to find out who the inventor
is but she realizes she's being followed and enlists the aide of a man
to help her throw the bad guy off the track. It works but she runs off.
He tries to follow. There's more complications as the bad guys follow
the wrong man, the woman masquerades as a Panamanian singer and romance
blooms. It's a messy film, but it some how works despite of itself
thanks to a less than serious attitude.
Sue me I liked it.
Chemist Paul Martin (Hugh Beaumont) has invented a special kind of
paint, intended to use on airplanes, to make them less vulnerable to
anti aircraft guns. As this invention could boost the security of the
Panama Canal, the scientist is bringing a visit to a military base in
that area, to demonstrate what his invention is all about. (Using "with
kind permission" of the RAF a model of a Hudson. Some authentic
newsreels showing clusters of bombers have been added to the movie) The
leader of a (German ?) spy ring, who uses the role of hotel manager as
a cover, has intercepted a telegram from the scientist to his sister,
who's staying in that hotel. In it, the brother asks her not to come to
the airport to pick him up. The hotel manager however sends her another
telegram, asking her to come to the airport. This way his agents will
recognize who they will have to kidnap. The sister however realizes
that something isn't OK. In stead of rushing to her brother, she runs
to a man standing behind her brother, and starts to embrace him. Mike
Lawrence (played by Roger Pryor) later turns out to be a reporter, is
of course somewhat surprised, but isn't minding too much being kissed
by the blonde. (Pryor already played a reporter before, in "Missing
Girls' from 1936). The enemy agents mistake him for the scientist. The
attempt to kidnap him fails however. Several other attempts to lay
hands on the formula of the special paint will be made, but of course
the enemy agents hey, this is a 1941 movie after all- will be
outsmarted by the hero.
In fact it's a rather silly story, since it's quite strange that such an important scientist with an invention vital for US security is staying in a (not so) ordinary hotel. The logical thing to do with such a VIP would have been to keep him locked in a military camp, guarded by a bunch of mean looking MP's. But well, you'll have to accept this illogic part of the script, for otherwise there wouldn't be a story of course. Like often in the 1930's-1940's, the movie isn't politically correct towards Afro-Americans either. The filmmakers apparently just couldn't resist to add a scene, in which the friendly black hotel servant unnecessarily has to roll with cliché bulging eyes, after a corpse hidden in a cupboard fell down on his back. At that time, it were only whites who were supposed to be heroic and quick with their fists, saving beautiful ladies in distress or the country against vicious saboteurs and spies. The role of Afro-Americans then often was reduced to such grotesque stereotyping scenes. Finally, as so often in spy movies, the female lead character is playing a night club singer. Yet another aspect of a not so resourceful script.
I quite enjoyed Virginia Vale though. She clearly had a lot of fun playing night club singer Dolores Esteban. (A kind of fun that reminded me a bit of that of French actress Mireille Darc in the spy spoof "Les Barbouzes") This part of her double role allowed her to talk with a zany Spanish accent, and teasing reporter Mike Lawrence about a certain blond lady (the scientist's sister). In fact -unknown to Lawrence at the beginning- Dolores happens to be that same blonde, covered with a black wig, to give her a "latino" appearance. It's only at the end of the movie that he adds 2 and 2.
I'd give this B-movie a 6/10. Although better than ridiculous films such as "Adventure in Iraq" (1943), "Panama Menace" aka "South of Panama" is by far not as good as "Across the Pacific" (1942) with Bogart & Sydney Greenstreet. Rather a movie of interest for the "completist" collecting spy movies/political thrillers than for the average viewer hoping to spend a pleasant evening. The movie seems to be relatively obscure by the way:I didn't come across whatever lobby cards or posters of it in any of the main selling places (Moviegoods, Heritage Auctions etc.) To find a copy of the movie itself, check out eBay USA or Ioffer.com, you'll certainly find it there somewhere. Ben Vanhees Belgium
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