Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ricardo Montalban Sings "The Monkey In the Mango Tree"

This is eerie. I sat down intending to post a song from the musical Jamaica, "The Monkey In the Mango Tree," sung by Ricardo Montalban -- and then I see that Ricardo Montalban died today at the age of 88. Of course the eeriness isn't what's important; what matters is that he was an excellent actor and personality who was always a pleasure to see, regardless of the project. He gave a lot of good performances at MGM despite the limited range of roles available to him (he got more diverse roles in television, where he was able to play parts like Khan that weren't specifically ethnic). He just kept on giving entertaining performances, year after year, decade after decade, onscreen and in voice-over almost literally right up until the end of his long life.

He got a Tony nomination for Jamaica, one of the most obscure hit musicals ever: it ran over 500 performances back when that was still a highly successful, profit-making run, but the version that came onto Broadway (after much rewriting and recasting) basically had no script left, and ran on the strength of Lena Horne, Montalban, and the sets and songs and choreography. There's been no revival of it because there's nothing left to revive, but the Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg score produced one of my very favorite cast albums. Arlen and Harburg weren't exactly at their best -- Horne expressed disappointment that none of the songs became classics -- but I can't resist the mixture of calypso-flavored tunes and satirical lyrics by two of the all-time great songwriters.

In this song, the most calypso-influenced and satirical in the whole show, Montalban is given a song and a role that was intended for Harry Belafonte. (When he didn't do the show but Lena Horne was available, the whole thing was rewritten around the character of the hero's girlfriend; that's why it was such a mess.) He manages to do well with it, as he always did with whatever he was given.


Griff said...

I always admired Montalban's talent and personality -- as you note, he was always a pleasure to see.

While he never received his due in terms of film roles, I found him pretty impressive as a Mexican undercover agent in Anthony Mann's surprisingly gritty BORDER INCIDENT. He made the character amply intelligent and brave -- and deeply human. This was a performance that should have made him a big star. He was also quite good in the James Mason role in "Operation: Cicero," The Twentieth Century-Fox Hour's condensation of FIVE FINGERS. Mason was a hard act to follow in this, but Montalban made the part his own. I'm not a great fan of filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, but I was moved by his thoughtful casting of Montalban as the grandfather in two of the SPY KIDS movies. It was good to see him again in a important role on the big screen.

Anonymous said...

Ricardo Montalban was fighting the good fight from a time before he had clout, telling MGM how wrong they were to depict Clark Gable's character riding a horse into a hotel in a major South American city, portraying the place in an uncivilized manner. He was a class act and will be missed.

Flo said...

If you had ever met Ricardo Montalban, you’d never forget it. I worked for Dinah Shore’s television program in the early ‘70s and met him when he was a guest. He put out his strong hand, shook mine firmly, and looked directly at me while acknowledging the introduction. For that moment, he totally made contact with me. I’ve met many celebrities, and Ricardo’s introduction is the one I remember.
I also worked for his PR agency during “Fantasy Island.” One day I arrived at the set and found him being worked on in the makeup trailer. I teased him: “I’m going to tell the tabloids – Ricardo Montalban wears mascara.” (I didn't, but we had a chuckle over it.)
I do know that he was in constant pain from hitting his back on a rock when thrown from a horse as a young man.
He said a couple of things I’ll always remember. Prior to “Fantasy Island,” when his career was not doing well, he went on the road in a production of Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell.” When asked why he would go on the road at his age and stage of life and career, he said, “An actor is only an actor when he is acting. I did it to be acting.”
On a late night talk show years ago, he expounded on immigrants to America not learning English. “If I moved to China, of course I would learn Chinese. Learning the language is the only way you can fully participate in the life of the country.”
From my limited perspective, Ricardo Montalban was a lovely and intelligent gentleman. His passing is our loss.

coffee said...

Dos Equis should have hired Ricardo Montalban to do a few ads for them, he would have fit the bill perfectly

Angela Williams said...

Thanks for this post. I was looking for the lyrics to this song to use on my next blog post and I oculdn't find them anywhere. I hope you enjoy how i used the song.