Week-End in Havana: Carmen Miranda, 1941's answer to Sofia Vergara, and a prematurely black Cesar Romero take a turn.
Havana watch a trio of musicals set in pre-revolutionary Cuba. Care to join me?
Week-End in Havana (1941)
Out of the 480 steamship passengers stranded on a reef, Nan Spencer (Alice Faye), a hosiery salesgirl at Macy’s, is the only one who refuses to sign a waiver. Fearing a hefty lawsuit, cruise ship tycoon Walter McCracken (George Barbier) asks his vice president (and future son-in-law) Jay Williams (John Payne) to postpone his pending nuptials and fly to Cuba to play diplomat. McCracken orders Jay to stay by her side for the entire two weeks, even if it involves his “making love” to the unmarried and man-hungry Nan. With the exception of the opening piece — a travel agency window comes to life — the rest of the production numbers (including Carmen Miranda’s novelty tunes) play like a phonograph with pictures. Much of the sightseeing is limited to the brief lap-dissolve tour that greets our arrival and a subsequent tour of a sugar cane field. The film’s sweetest spot is the high-fructose performance by Cesar Romero as gigolo Monte, Miranda’s on-again, off-again lover and manager. Monte may be broke, but he can still afford to flick individually monogrammed cigarettes. Then again, indoors or out, to the ritzy Mr. Romero, the world was his ashtray. Walter Lang directs.
Club Havana (1945)
Once you are inside Club Havana, you will never leave. You can’t. Edgar G. Ulmer, King of the B’s, could afford only one set, thanks to the lack of budget supplied him by poverty-row PRC Studios producer Leon Fromkess. (Ulmer later confessed his love of the film to Peter Bogdanovich.) The director’s reputation for inventive efficiency preceded him the day Fromkess, a man without a screenplay, called Ulmer into his office and said, “OK, you say you can do things - shoot it without a script - invent it.” Ulmer gathered around him a cast that included future Detour star Tom Neal, Margaret Lindsay, Lita Baron, Ernest Truex, Marc “Johnny Cool” Lawrence, and Gertrude Michael, knocking it over the center field fence as Hetty the all-knowing powder room attendant. The challenge was to “make something special”; the four-day shoot resulted in a 62-minute variation on the M-G-M warhorse Grand Hotel. The set isn’t a patch on Metro’s boarding house for the high-falutin, but damn if Ulmer doesn’t make the most out of every inch of it. The cinematographer credit went to Benjamin Kline (Three Smart Saps, Munster, Go Home!), but it was Eugen Schüfftan (Eyes Without a Face, The Hustler) behind the lens. Not a card-carrying member of the American Society of Cinematographers, Schüfftan was denied screen credit. Who else but Ulmer would have the stylish audacity to end the film’s opening number in the back row of the darkened nightclub? A much more engaging and personal approach to storytelling than the film that inspired it, if for no other reason than its being half the length. Club Havana, like most of Ulmer’s oeuvre, has long been in the public domain. Find it on YouTube.
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004)
Before I share my thoughts on Gidget Goes Cuban, allow me a brief moment of good-for-the-soul confession: I have never seen The Karate Kid or any of its sequels, I passed on all the Nightmare(s) on Elm Street, and with the exception of Havana Nights, I wanted no part of the Dirty Dancing dynasty. Why should this installment be different from all others? Because a friend suggested that my unapologetic affection for the Step-Up series made Havana Nights the unshirkable type of kitsch that guilty pleasures are made of. She was so right. Open with a laugh: “Based on True Events.” Set in November 1958, this does for the Cuban revolution what Roller Boogie did for disco-skating. Romola Garai stars as high school senior Katey Miller, a virtuous American teen intellectual who — along with her parents (Sela Ward and John Slattery) and younger sister (Mika Boorem) — migrates to Havana in late 1958. Not only does Katey fail to fit in with her racist American counterparts, she rattles their cages by falling in love with Javier Suarez (Diego Luna): busboy, prospective dancing partner, and future revolutionary. Believe it or don’t: this was originally intended as a searing political indictment. That was before the script was rewritten to the point of unrecognizability. Original scenarist Peter Sagal told This American Life that not one line of dialogue from his initial draft. (The finished product does, however include a riff on Animal House’s “Do you mind if I dance with your date.”) Thanks to its PG-13 rating, the dancing is more lightly soiled than downright dirty. Havana Nights has the feel of a film that’s been locked in a time capsule since 1960. (Back in the day, Connie Stevens would have played perky Juliet to John “Anglo” Saxon’s Mexican Romeo.) Predictability is part of its appeal; sit back and enjoy watching as the generic regularity falls in line.