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Hollywood in Havana PDF Print E-mail
Written by Gaspar González, Special to the BT   
September 2019

Enchanting history, dazzling theaters

Miami filmmaker Gaspar González on Errol Flynn’s Ghost, his new documentary about the enduring impact of American movies in Cuba


ICoverpicn August 1999, I traveled to Cuba for the first time, to meet my paternal grandmother and celebrate her 84th birthday. Getting to her required my father and me to fly into the eastern city of Holguín, then promptly hop into a car for an hour-and-a-half drive through poorly lit, rough country roads.

We arrived at the family farm sometime around midnight. A light inside the house told us my grandmother had stayed up waiting for us. When we came through the door, she leaped up from her rocking chair -- she remained spry till the end of her days -- and threw her arms around me. We were both crying. It took a minute, but my eyes eventually settled on the television set she had been watching. There, staring back at me from the screen, was Ava Gardner. It was a scene from the 1946 film noir classic The Killers.

Some years later, with time to kill at the airport before a nonstop flight from Miami to Los Angeles, I went looking for a book and found a biography of Julio Lobo, the Cuban sugar magnate. I figured it would either keep me company on the long flight or put me right to sleep. (In my experience, there’s very little middle ground when it comes to businessmen biographies.) Lobo turned out to be an interesting character, but it was a line early in the book that most caught my attention. The writer, sketching mid-20th century Havana, made the remarkable statement that the city had been home to more movie theaters than New York City; remarkable, because in 1950 the population of New York was eight million, while Havana was home to just over one million.

The estimate of the number of movie houses, or cines, in Havana relative to New York was accurate, some historian friends later confirmed. That little nugget, mixed with the memory of my surprise glimpse of Ava Gardner, became the impetus for my latest documentary, Errol Flynn’s Ghost: Hollywood in Havana. Funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and produced in collaboration with cinematographer Richard Patterson and editor Jorge Rubiera, it revisits the outsized, enduring cultural impact of American movies in Cuba.

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The degree to which Cuba -- and Havana, in particular -- was a center of film spectatorship is a largely unappreciated aspect of Cuban history. In the late 19th century, the island was one of the early adopters of the new medium of motion pictures; by 1914, Havana had as many as 40 movie theaters. European films were initially the dominant form, but that began to change during World War I, when the U.S. film industry took advantage of the interruption in European film production by flooding Latin America with product. U.S. film exports to the region quadrupled during the war. In 1916, the trade publication Moving Picture World called it “the Yankee invasion of the Latin American film market.”

In Cuba, the takeover could hardly have been more complete. During the 1920s, U.S. films dominated an estimated 95 percent of all movie screens in Havana. That figure would ebb and flow for the next three decades, but never fall below 75 percent. (In rural provinces, where audiences possessed less formal education and reading subtitles was a challenge, Spanish-language films were more common.)

The major Hollywood studios followed their films to Cuba, opening Latin American branch offices there in rapid succession. Paramount was the first to move to Havana, in 1916, followed by Twentieth Century Fox (1918), United Artists (1921), MGM (1923), Warner Bros. (1925), Columbia (1931), and, finally, RKO (1939).

Movie theaters -- small neighborhood houses and luxurious palaces -- sprang up in virtually every corner of the Cuban capital. By the 1950s, there were reportedly 138 theaters in Havana and its environs, containing an estimated 136,000 movie seats. This likely gave Havana one of the highest seat-to-citizen ratios of any large city in the world, one that Cubans took full advantage of, with multiple trips to the movies every week being the norm.


ACoverStory_1Blmost every Cuban from the era, it seems, has an indelible memory of going to the movies. In the 1950s, Nat Chediak’s father was a Havana attorney specializing in copyright, and also served as the honorary consul of Lebanon in Cuba. Or as his son put it when we interviewed him for Errol Flynn’s Ghost: “He was a very busy man. And one day he thought it was a good idea, since he had a lot to do at the office, to drop me off at the movies, and that meant this theater called the Rex.” A popular children’s movie house in Havana, the Rex was unusual in that it played cartoons around the clock. “After I had seen the first cartoon twice, I realized the show was through,” Chediak continued, “and I wandered out into the lobby and my father wasn’t around. He hadn’t come to pick me up.”

His father did finally retrieve him (“He probably showed up at home after work without me, got one look from my mother, and made a beeline for the car...”), but the unexpected freedom of the movie house that afternoon likely stayed with the future founder of the Miami Film Festival (and now the programming director for the Coral Gables Art Cinema).

“I don’t know if that played any significant role in my attachment to the movies,” he mused. “But, then, who can say for sure?”

Growing up in 1940s Havana, Max Lesnik, the Cuban rebel leader turned Miami radio commentator, used to frequent the Verdún and the Majestic, two theaters that, as he recalled in his interview, were especially popular with young people because they featured westerns: “Screenings would begin at two o’clock in the afternoon. Each show consisted of two movies. Then you would have a second show at 5:00 p.m. and an evening show at 8:00 p.m. If you wanted, you could be there till 11 o’clock at night.”

CoverStory_2In many instances, the theater was the show. The América, which opened in central Havana in 1941, was one of the great architectural landmarks of the era. Located on the ground floor of an Art Deco high-rise apartment building, it still boasts its marble façade, decorous curved staircases, and a terrazzo lobby floor inscribed with a globe of the world surrounded by the signs of the zodiac. The auditorium is a sea of red chairs framed by sweeping architectural lines, while above, houselights in the shape of stars twinkle from the ceiling.

“In this section of the city alone, there were more than 20 movie theaters, but none had the pomp, the majesty of the Teatro América,” theater historian Pedro Urbezo Pérez told us in 2015. “When someone came to watch a movie at the América, they made sure everyone knew they had been here. That was a big deal to people.”

Even more modest neighborhood venues could provide escapes from the everyday. The Lutgardita (now the Sierra Maestra) opened in 1932 in Boyeros, a rural community south of Havana, today the site of Cuba’s principal airport. The façade of the Art Deco theater does not depart radically from the Spanish colonial style that defined so much Cuban architecture of the period. It is only inside that one discovers a pop Mayan fantasy world, complete with elaborate wall decorations, “native” masks, giant columns in the guise of serpents descending from the ceiling, and, most improbably, a sculpture depicting a large kettle containing human body parts set to a boil (the remains of a human sacrifice). If Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theatre has a long-lost Cuban cousin, this is it.

“The element was display,” notes the Hollywood historian Scott Eyman in the film, describing the proliferation of themed theaters in both the U.S. and Cuba in the 1920s and ’30s. “The point of it all was to make going to the movies an enjoyable experience, even if the movie was lousy. If the movie is good, it [was] a bonus.”


OCoverStory_3f all the movie houses in Cuba, none could rival the Blanquita. Opened by Senator Alfredo Hornedo at the end of 1949 in the Havana suburb of Miramar, the Blanquita, named after Hornedo’s wife, was billed as “the world’s largest and most modern theater.” Built at a price tag of two million dollars, it seated 6700 patrons -- 500 more than Radio City Music Hall -- in air-conditioned comfort. And for those who didn’t care for the movie, the theater featured an ice rink on its 120-foot stage that opened for skating at nine o’clock.

(The Blanquita maintains its preeminent status. Renamed the Karl Marx following the revolution in 1959, it still functions as the main venue for Havana’s famed annual Festival of New Latin American Cinema.)

For Errol Flynn’s Ghost, we filmed the interiors of the América, Lutgardita, and Blanquita, all of which required spending long hours in hot, musty spaces -- theaters in Cuba don’t run the air conditioning except on show days (and then only for a few hours) -- and trying to capture their architectural details inside what are essentially giant, black boxes with only the lighting equipment we had on hand. It was worth it. The spaces, despite their age and the limited resources dedicated to their upkeep, remain stunning. “These theaters,” historian Megan Feeney observes, “were a great point of pride for Cubans.”

So, too, was being able to see the very same films as audiences in the United States. “Tyrone Power swashbucklers, Garbo, Gable, Spencer Tracy, Fred and Ginger dancing,” says Eyman at one point in Errol Flynn’s Ghost, ticking off some of Classical Hollywood’s most popular offerings. “Cubans were completely conversant with all of the major trends going on in American movies.”

CoverStory_4The influence of Hollywood found perhaps its greatest expression in Cuban slang. The term gangsterismo, to describe the shootouts between rival political gangs -- a fact of life in 1940s and ’50s Cuba -- appears to have been inspired by the American gangster movies of the 1930s and the films noir of the postwar years. Likewise, it was not uncommon for a well-dressed man to be referred to, playfully, as “un Robert Taylor,” after the American matinee idol of the 1930s and 1940s. (In later years, Tony Curtis would take Taylor’s place in the expression; Cuban moviegoers were nothing if not au courant.)

It’s the impulse renowned Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante captured so fully in his classic 1965 novel Tres tristes tigres, published in English as Three Trapped Tigers. Throughout the book, set in 1950s Havana, characters are introduced and their behaviors described in Hollywood terms, whether it’s the “incredible shrinking version of Marilyn Monroe” who turns up her lips and flashes her teeth, the “Rudolph Valentino” look someone affects, or the character who tries to keep his composure à la “George Sanders in All About Eve.”

It isn’t simply a case of Cabrera Infante having spent his early career as a film reviewer in Havana for the popular magazine Carteles. (Search the Internet and you’ll find a photo of the writer looking on as actor Marlon Brando raps on a conga drum on a visit to Havana, circa 1956.) It is evidence of the degree to which, by the mid-20th century, Hollywood had fully entered the realm of Cuban life.

Havana being a playground, this connection was not only figural, but literal. “Hollywood stars would travel to Havana by ferry or on the early commercial flights” Lesnik remembered the day we interviewed him in his office, his mind traveling to the Havana of his youth. “It wasn’t an odd thing to encounter Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable, Betty Grable, that rarefied crowd, and it wasn’t odd to go to the Hotel Nacional and find those famous figures there.” The walls of the hotel’s lobby bar are still covered with depictions of the stars who once graced the premises.


VCoverStory_5icki Gold Levi, who served as archival coordinator on Errol Flynn’s Ghost, traces her fascination with Havana back to her Atlantic City childhood (“Both places had beaches, hotels, entertainers, and gangsters running around”), and has spent decades amassing artifacts of the city’s Hollywood heyday. Among the items in her collection, now part of the holdings of the Wolfsonian-FIU museum, are sepia-toned photos taken at Havana’s Sloppy Joe’s Bar (no relation to the one in Key West, other than the shared name).

They may have been reproduced over the years, but Gold Levi’s photographs are the ones that hung in the establishment from the 1930s and ’40s, until Sloppy Joe’s closed in 1965 (not to reopen until 2013). Robert Taylor signing an autograph for patrons at the bar, while wife Barbara Stanwyck looks on; actress Joan Blondell and producer Mike Todd peering back over their shoulders at the photographer; actor Ray Milland looking much happier to be at a bar than he ever did in The Lost Weekend.

It was this “lost” world that we set out to recapture in Errol Flynn’s Ghost, but, as the title gives away, that story is linked to a related, even more obscure episode (one that seems too fantastic, even by Hollywood standards): how legendary screen swashbuckler Errol Flynn ended up in the middle of the Cuban revolution.

Born in the Australian island state of Tasmania, the preternaturally handsome Flynn landed in Hollywood in 1933, after a Warner Bros. talent agent spotted him performing with a British repertory company. In 1935, the young actor was cast as the lead in Captain Blood, the tale of an 17th-century Irish doctor forced to become a pirate. It would prove to be one of the year’s most popular films, and it launched Flynn on a dazzling career in which he would play a succession of larger-than-life figures like Robin Hood, George Custer, and Don Juan. At the height of his fame, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he was as big a star as Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, or Gary Cooper.

CoverStory_6By the summer of 1956, though, decades of dissolute living had taken their toll on the actor. (A statutory rape trial in 1943 -- he beat the charge, but not the expression it launched, “In like Flynn” -- did little to diminish his proclivities.) Changing American tastes in movies -- postwar audiences were gravitating toward social dramas, hardboiled detective movies, and more complex westerns -- didn’t help. Flynn’s career was in a tailspin.

So, looking for a spark, he traveled to Havana to star in The Big Boodle, a low-grade crime drama about a casino croupier who stumbles across a counterfeiting ring. The film did little for Flynn’s professional prospects, but it did bring him to Cuba at a critical time in its history. Fidel Castro, the 29-year-old rebel leader living in exile in Mexico, had declared that 1956 would be a year of reckoning for Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Though the prediction would prove premature, by year’s end Castro was indeed back in Cuba, hiding out in the mountains of Oriente province and solidifying his ragtag fighting force.

In late 1958, the rebels were making their final push toward Havana, and Flynn, taken with their exploits, planned to join them. Improbably, the 49-year-old actor wrangled a job with the Hearst Press as a kind of combat correspondent. In that capacity, Flynn is believed to have spent time with Castro in the mountains. (Asked about this later, Castro at first denied he knew the actor, then admitted that, yes, he had seen him around the action. Regardless, the two were spotted -- and photographed -- often in the months following Castro’s triumphant arrival in Havana.)

Flynn’s attraction to the revolution in many ways mirrored an earlier episode in his life. In 1936 he had traveled to Spain to observe the Civil War there. (In a dispatch that must have sent shivers through the Warner Bros. offices, on April 5 the New York Times reported that Flynn had “received a minor bullet wound on his face.” He had not.) Maybe it was that same curiosity that drew him to Cuba or, perhaps, as historian Eyman speculates, it was a desire to do for real what he “had only done in the movies.” Only Flynn knew for sure.

With the exception of a pair of poorly conceived efforts to capitalize on his association with Castro -- the low-budget semi-documentary Cuban Rebel Girls and the celebratory Cuban Story (originally titled The Truth About Fidel Castro Revolution) -- Flynn’s Cuban adventure was his last star turn, on screen or off. Broke and in chronic poor health, he died in late 1959, only months after returning from Cuba.


TCoverStory_7he revolution also brought to an end the Hollywood studio system’s reign in Cuba. Not long after, the Cuban government confiscated the remaining American-owned cinemas on the island. In a related move, the Havana offices once occupied by the American studios were given over to the newly created Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry, or ICAIC. That agency would soon usher in a golden age of domestic film production.

Hollywood films did not entirely disappear. On the contrary. Despite efforts by the revolutionary government to wean Cubans off what it saw as an ideologically subversive art form, the Cuban love affair with American movies persisted. So much so, that, as historian Feeney recounts in Errol Flynn’s Ghost, to get Cubans to sit through screenings of Soviet-bloc films in Havana movie theaters in the 1960s, the government was compelled to put American films on the same bill, as enticements. To this day, Hollywood films from the Classical era (like The Killers) routinely air on Cuban state television, albeit with an introduction telling viewers what lesson they should take away (lest they get counterrevolutionary ideas).

But even this attempt to contain Hollywood’s influence has its limitations. It’s no coincidence, after all, that the title of the 1957 western 3:10 to Yuma, about an impoverished rancher who risks everything for the reward that comes with transporting a hardened killer to justice (on the train of the film’s title), has become shorthand slang for trying to reach the U.S. What I wouldn’t give to get to La Yuma…

And what of the theaters that once drew so many? There are remarkably few in operation, not because they’ve been torn down or replaced by megaplexes -- that would have been their fate in Miami -- but because it is prohibitively expensive to equip them with modern projection technology. Of the roughly 138 movie houses that screened films in the city around the midcentury, there are perhaps a dozen or so that still do, although not with the same regularity. Nevertheless, owing to third-party distribution channels that can skirt the U.S. embargo, it’s not unusual to see American films playing in those theaters. That was the case when we visited Havana in 2015 and looked up at a marquee advertising director Max Nichols’s then recent Two Night Stand. Nearby, another theater was showing the British-American espionage thriller The Imitation Game.

The vast majority of the old movie houses are shuttered or have been repurposed for live music or drama, as dance rehearsal halls, or some other pursuit for which a large, windowless space is ideal. Given that many are still standing, however, there is hope that some can be refurbished and, perhaps, returned to their former status. Among the most endangered is the Actualidades. (It sat dormant when we last saw it in 2016.) An unassuming structure dating back to 1906 and located just across the street from the former Bacardí headquarters, it is believed to be the oldest surviving movie house in Latin America.

“These theaters are a link to our historical past, to our collective identity,” Cuban architect María Victoria Zardoya Loureda, who has done extensive research on the subject, told us when we interviewed her. She takes solace in the fact that so many of the theaters are still standing, but acknowledges the time for preserving them is running out.

The point was driven home to us on our last day of filming at the América, then a home to concerts. As we packed up our gear, the theater manager, a dignified Afro-Cuban gentleman, emerged from his office and approached us. “Did you get everything you needed?” he asked. I told him we had, and thanked him for his hospitality. He lingered. “Maybe your film will remind everyone of what we have here,” he said, looking around. “Things don’t last if people forget about them.”

Errol Flynn’s Ghost: Hollywood in Havana screens at 5:00 p.m. Sunday, September 8, at O Cinema South Beach (formerly the Miami Beach Cinematheque, 1130 Washington Ave.) and 7:00 p.m. Thursday, October 24, at Miami Country Day School’s Center for the Arts (10931 NE 6th Ave., Miami). Admission to the O Cinema screening is free for Wolfsonian-FIU and Miami Beach Cinematheque members, students, and seniors; tickets may be purchased at mbcinema.com. Admission to the MCDS screening, part of the John Davies Cultural Arts Series, is free to the public. To learn more about the film, go to errolflynnsghost.com.


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Enchanting history, dazzling theaters

 

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