Cuba in the Movies

Many people react with interest when they find out I am originally from Cuba. That likely has little to do with me, but rather because there is a curiosity about the island nation, which holds a romantic appeal thanks to days gone by. In the 1920s, for instance, with prohibition curtailing alcohol in America, out-of-work U.S. bartenders flooded Cuba. This Havana travelogue produced for RKO’s Vagabond Adventure Series in 1933 gives you a glimpse of Cuba in the 1930s. In the decades that followed Cuba was a playground for American socialites and celebrities like Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Errol Flynn, and of course Ernest Hemingway thanks to its reputation as an exotic, permissive playground. Referred to as “The Paris of the Caribbean,” Cuba was once the exclusive hotspot. However, the advent of cheap flights and hotel deals made the island accessible to American masses through the 1950s. For around $50 tourists could purchase round-trip tickets from Miami, including hotel, food and entertainment. Big-name acts, beach resorts, and luxury bordellos were all within reach. (Smithsonian) Much of that is reflected in movies featuring Cuba, its reputation and backdrop perfectly suited for intrigue, romance, laughter, and music. These movies are the focus of this entry, a focus on Cuba in the movies for the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon hosted by me on September 29.

Movies have always been an important part of Cuban culture. In its heyday, Cuba could boast the third highest number of theaters in Latin America, which is impressive given its size. Cuba, along with Mexico and Argentina, has the most developed cinema culture of Latin America. I would say that culturally, the movies have played as important a role to Cubans as baseball. (IndieWire) I’ve shared a few stories on this blog about my father’s fascination with movies, mostly American gangster pictures, which he would watch as often as possible as a child. His connection with the movies I grew to love is important to me and is as much a reason for this entry as are the movies themselves.

Let’s begin…

The AFI Catalog includes many notations of films released in the late 1800s that focus on Cuba or its history, the majority of which are documentaries at sea or about actual battles. Those are of less interest to me. Instead I begin this story in 1910 when the Edison Manufacturing Company sent a crew to Havana to shoot romantic comedies, as Charles Musser wrote in the March 1, 1910 issue of Kinetogram, “On January 19, 1910, studio manager Horace G. Plimpton dispatched a crew to Cuba, where J. Searle Dawley directed Laura Sawyer in love stories such as The Princess and the Peasant and A Vacation in Havana, the latter doubling as a travel picture.” (AFI) Who knew? These were not the first scripted pictures shot in Cuba, however. The Edison Company shot there in the late 1800s, but it’s early enough to gain my fascination even though I cannot offer any first-hand detail on either picture.

Another fascinating treat I have little information about is Do or Die, directed by J. P. McGowan and distributed by Universal in 1921. Here we have an 18-part serial starring Eddie Polo and Magda Lane that was filmed in Cuba specifically spotlighting the island’s historic Morro Castle in several adventures.

We move on to 1923 with more traditional movie fare starring names we all recognize. John S. Robertson’s The Bright Shawl was produced by its star Richard Barthelmess who plays Charles Abbott, an American who visits Cuba and gets embroiled in the island’s quest for independence against Spain. Dorothy Gish, André Beranger, Jetta Goudal, William Powell, Mary Astor, and Edward G. Robinson, in his second film appearance, are all reasons to watch this. I was not convinced by the story written by Joseph Hergesheimer adapted for the screen by Edmund Goulding and 1923 reviews agreed with some believing the screenplay was unworthy of the cast. The cast and crew of The Bright Shawl sailed to Cuba for a three-week principal photography stint. Interiors were shot at Tilford Studios in New York City.

Another John G. Adolfi‘s Prowlers of the Sea (1928) starring Ricardo Cortez as Carlos De Neve, a young Spanish military officer tasked with preventing gun-smuggling in Cuba. Cuba’s revolutionary history in all eras has been the focus of many films as has romance and the combination of insurrection and romance. It looks like the majority of scripted movies centering on Cuba in the 1920s centered on those themes. As an aside, noted in The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez by Dan Van Neste is the fact that Prowlers of the Sea was one of seven films Cortez made at B-movie studio, Tiffany-Stahl between 1928 and 1929. That movie was filmed at Tiffany-Stahl on Sunset Boulevard, but Tay Garnett’s Her Man (1930) also with Ricardo Cortez was partially filmed in Havana, which means I must search for it.

Another pre-code set in Cuba that you may want to watch is W. S. Van Dyke’s The Cuban Long Song (1931) starring Lawrence Tibbett and Lupe Velez. I dedicated an entry to that movie here. “The Peanut Vendor” written by Moïse Simons is featured The Cuban Love Song, which prompted me to dedicate a separate entry to Cuba’s most influential song – perhaps second only to the country’s unofficial anthem, “Guantanamera.”

Music plays an important role in Cuban culture so it’s no surprise that the movie musical would have had some success there. The unfortunate part of this conversation is that finding information about Cuban popular releases through the years is not an easy task. I would venture to say that the popularity of Cuban musicals mirrors their popularity in America. For instance, Ramón Peón directed two musicals in 1938, starring Cuban singer and actress Rita Montaner, Sucedió en la Habana (It Happened in Havana) and El Romance del Palmar (Romance Under the Palms), the latter breaking attendance records in Cuba. Montaner later went to Mexico where she starred in numerous Rumbera films in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Rumberas are a fascinating hybrid film genre. The Mexican rumbera had various and disparate influences, including the extravagant musicals made in Hollywood in the 1930s, the femmes fatales of film noir (both Mexican and from abroad) and the Afro-beats of Cuban rumba music, wildly popular in Latin America for most of the first half of the 20th century. Much like Mexican film noir, the genre reached its peak during the late 1940s thanks to a boom in city nightlife and cabaret culture. (BFI)

Rosita Fornés was another Cuban singer-turned-actress who made a couple of musicals in Cuba before starring in movies in Mexico. Actually, Fornés was born in New York, but grew up in Cuba. Anyway, both Fornés and Montaner performed throughout the U.S. extensively, but to my knowledge, neither made it to Hollywood to make pictures. Hollywood was already replete with talent and could make their own Cuba pictures.

Siboney (1940) was the first film by Spanish director Juan Orol and is considered the first Rumbera movie. This was the film debut of its star, Maria Antonieta Pons at the age of 16. She and Orol were married and moved to Mexico, where that vibrant cinema industry was beginning to flourish. The two made four more films together before splitting in the late 1940s. Pons had a stellar acting career appearing in nearly 60 movies over three decades opposite the biggest names in Mexican cinema. Maria Antonieta Pons may well be the subject of a tribute on this blog soon.

A Mexican production, Siboney was shot in Cuba, inspired by the beautiful title song written by Ernesto Lecuona, the Gershwin of Cuba. The Galician Center of Havana was used in many scenes throughout the picture. Siboney is not mentioned in any retrospective about Mexican Cinema, which leads one to believe it is not worth watching. However, for the purposes of this discussion it’s definitely important as it was billed as “a distinct Cuban film.” I haven’t been able to find a copy of this film, but the plot as noted in several places reminds me of a typical telenovela where a peasant girl strives to become somebody only to find out she is the daughter of an aristocrat.

1940 saw Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard go to Cuba in George Marshall’s The Ghost Breakers. Cuba and its sights don’t play an important role in this, the film was shot at Paramount studios. But this is an entertaining movie, one of my Bob Hope favorites. It tells the story of Mary Carter (Goddard) who inherits a haunted castle in Cuba. Larry Lawrence (Hope) ends up going with her and saving her from frights. If you haven’t seen The Ghost Breakers you simply must. The combination of laughs and frights works great and the gags are almost all funny.

If you are familiar with 20th Century Fox musicals of the early 1940s, you know that several had Latin-American themes. The popular Alice Faye made two released in 1941, Irving CummingsThat Night in Rio and Walter Lang’s Week-End in Havana with the second a bit more interesting for our purposes.

In Week-End in Havana Faye plays salesgirl Nan Spencer whose cruise is cut short because the ship runs aground in Florida. To make up for it, Nan is taken on a tour of Havana where everyone is smitten with her. Naturally. Week-End in Havana is loads of fun as Bosley Crowther wrote in his 1941 review, “You who envision Havana as a city of gayety and laughter, of palatial hotels and night clubs, of rattling gourds and rhumbas—and, to complete the picture, of Cesar Romeros all over—will not be at all disappointed.”

Audiences loved Week-End in Havana too. And why shouldn’t they? Joining Alice Faye are John Payne, Cesar Romero, and that special brand of Carmen Miranda sassiness. For the record, the best number in the movie is Miranda’s finale. In its release week, Week-End in Havana went to the top of the box topping Citizen Kane, which was in its second week of release.

A few sources including the AFI Catalog report that according to studio records, “long shots with doubles, atmospheric shots and process plates” were filmed on location in Havana and the Cuban countryside for Week-End in Havana.

From an entertaining musical we move on to a dud. Jean Yarbrough directed Universal’s Cuban Pete released in 1946. This is a silly romp with a few catchy songs starring Cuban-born Desi Arnaz playing himself for the most part, a Cuban bandleader who makes it big in the United States. The title number made famous in the The Diet episode of I Love Lucy where Desi (as Ricky Ricardo) performs the number accompanied by his wife Lucy as Sally Sweet. The number is eons better than Cuban Pete the movie, but I felt obliged to offer at least one mention of Desi Arnaz.

In 1949 John Huston’s We Were Strangers featured Havana as the backdrop with several notable sites like Havana University, Morro Castle, and Colon Cemetery making appearances. Several reviews of We Were Strangers mention the rear projection problems, but I find this an atmospheric account of revolutionaries’ attempt to overthrow the Machado government in the 1930s. This movie is not great, but certainly watchable with the cast making it all worthwhile. Jennifer Jones, John Garfield, and Pedro Armendáriz alongside Gilbert Roland, and Ramon Novarro should pique your interest. Roland does some enjoyable overacting too.

I chose this next movie because I adore its title from a gorgeous song by Puerto Rican singer songwriter Bobby CapóPiel Canela (Cinnamon Skin) is a 1953 crime drama from Mexico directed by Juan Jose Ortega. The film stars Sara Montiel, Manolo Fábregas, and Ramón Gay. It was set and partially filmed in Cuba and tells the story of a woman whose face was disfigured since childhood, later gets plastic surgery and the surgeon falls in love with her. While I enjoyed Piel Canela, this story was better told two previous times as A Woman’s Face, in 1938 directed by Gustaf Molander and in 1941 directed by George Cukor. Powerhouse Ingrid Bergman is wonderful as the woman with the face issue in 1938 and I enjoy Joan Crawford in the 1941 version as well. Sara Montiel brings you the B-movie melodramatic version. Unfortunately, every time I think of this movie my mind immediately goes to Sara Montiel singing with the disfigured face donning the extreme Veronica Lake peek-a-boo hairstyle. It’s laughable. Why this women would put herself through such torture as she is clearly in pain while audience members yell at her about hiding her face. Perhaps if she hadn’t been a singer the movie would work better. The only thing Piel Canela has over the other two films are the songs, which are lovely.

Sara Montiel pre-surgery in Piel Canela
Sara Montiel singing pre-surgery in Piel Canela

Sara Montiel was extremely popular with Spanish-speaking audiences and boasted the highest grossing Spanish-language movies. She was offered a contract by Columbia pictures, which she turned down due to the typecasting of Latin actors in American films, but she freelanced at several studios working with directors like Sam Fuller and Anthony Mann who she married in 1957. Piel Canela was the first of three films that Sara Montiel made with Juan Jose Ortega in the 1950s that were shot in Havana, Cuba. The other two were Frente al Pecado de Ayer and Yo no Creo en los Hombres both released in 1955.

Yambaó (also known as Cry of the Bewitched) from 1957 was directed by Alfredo B. Crevenna. Although this is listed as a drama in most places, to me it can easily be considered a horror film as it scared me quite a bit. The story takes place on a Cuban sugar plantation in the late 1800s where slaves and their masters live in feigned peaceful coexistence until the granddaughter of a murdered sorceress appears. The young woman bewitches the owner of the plantation and wreaks havoc due to being possessed by her grandmother.

Yambaó was a co-production between Mexico and Cuba and was shot entirely in Cuba. Yambaó is played by Cuban dancer Ninon Sevilla, who had a long career in Mexican cinema during the 1940s and 50s, particularly in Rumberas. Mexican actors Ramon Gay and Rosa Elena Durgel co-star in the film. Yambaó proves an important Mexican production as it was the first film from that country to openly reference the Afro-Cuban culture, particularly the religious rituals of Santeria. Although many Cubans on the island and Cuban U.S. immigrants practice Santeria, it remains somewhat of a voodoo subject. In addition, the majority of the actors in Yambaó are of African origin, which was unusual for cinema at the time. The film was shot in Cuba.

Next we go fishing with John Sturges’ highly acclaimed The Old Man and The Sea (1958). Spencer Tracy stars as the old Cuban fisherman who struggles with perseverance, courage, and self-worth as he battles a fish for three days after 84 days without a catch. I confess I’m not crazy about The Old Man and the Sea. I wasn’t when I had to read the book in high school and I don’t necessarily like the movie although I cannot argue the talent involved. Dimitri Tiomkin won the film’s only Academy Award of three nominations for Best Music Score. Spencer Tracy was nominated for his performance and James Wong Howe for Best Cinematography, Color. Cuban sites visible in this version of The Old Man and the Sea include Cojimar Bay in Havana and Boca de Jaruco, a small fishing village near Havana. Other filming locations include Peru, Hawaii, and Warner Bros. studios in Burbank.

Spencer Tracy and the James Wong Howe mastery in The Old Man and the Sea

 

On January 1, 1959 Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement. Batista fled the country amid celebration and chaos in the Cuban capitol of Havana. Many films have depicted the turmoil of that night, but none is as well-known as the scene during which Michael Corleone kisses his brother Fredo during the New Year’s Eve party in the presidential palace in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974). The scenes depicting Havana in Coppola’s film were shot in the Dominican Republic as filming in Cuba was not allowed by the 1970s. Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, portrays 1950s Havana in the movie with its Presidential Palace a substitute for Batista’s palace where the festivities end for Fredo Corleone.

Films actually released in 1959 were still able to use Cuba in screen stories. Probably the best of those is Carol Reed’s Our Man in Havana, which premiered in London in December 1959 followed by a U.S. release early in 1960. Our Man in Havana stars Alec Guinness as a clever vacuum cleaner salesman who becomes a spy. The rest of the cast is wonderful including Burl Ives, Maureen O’Hara, and Ernie Kovacs, making this a supremely enjoyable film. Actually, I love it. For our purposes today, however, Our Man in Havana proves an important entry as it was actually filmed in Cuba shortly after Castro’s forces took the country. Havana locations used during the seven weeks on the island include Cathedral Square where Fidel Castro is reported to have visited the set, Calle Lamparilla, the Hotel Sevilla famous at the time for all sorts of shady reasons, and the roof top of the Hotel Capri formerly under mafia control as many others were in Havana. Seeing the sights of old Havana in this film is a real treat.

One can’t discuss Hollywood and Cuba without including Errol Flynn who had a special relationship with the island. Before I get to Flynn and the movies in Cuba, I want to encourage you to visit the site of Errol Flynn’s Ghost: Hollywood in Havana written and directed by Gaspar Gonzalez. The documentary, which is currently out on the festival circuit, discusses not only Flynn’s career, but the cultural significance of American movies in Cuba, a topic close to my heart as I’ve mentioned. You can make a donation on the page so that the documentary can be made available to everyone.

Errol Flynn was one of the celebrities who took full advantage of all Cuba had to offer. Its luxury hotels, women, and nightlife were all available at his disposal and whim. Those stories would make a compelling entry on their own, but let’s talk about the movies. Flynn’s first movie in Cuba, Richard Wilson’s The Big Boodle was shot entirely in Cuba in 1956, one of the last movies to be entirely filmed on the island before the revolution. The Big Boodle has noirish tendencies with the hero forced into a cat-and-mouse game while trying to clear his name after being implicated in a counterfeit ring.

Mr. Flynn looks a bit worse for wear in The Big Boodle, but honestly he’s still more handsome than most humans and I like his performance in this movie as I do that of several of the other actors including Rosanna Rory, Pedro Armendáriz and Gia Scala. Flynn plays Ned Sherwood, a blackjack dealer in a Havana casino. When a woman (Rory) leaves him a bundle of counterfeit bills and walks away, Sherwood is left at a loss for the money, in possession of incriminating evidence and a primary suspect. Soon he’s caught between the police and the bad guys with everyone convinced Sherwood knows where the counterfeit plates are. All things come to a head in a terrific final gun battle in El Morro Castle watching over Havana Harbor. The best things about this movie are the visuals of a pre-revolution Cuba.

Flynn returned to Cuba and made two movies in 1959. Barry Mahon’s Assault of the Rebel Girls also known as Cuban Rebel Girls (1959) is the first. If you’re only familiar with Flynn the movie star, this is an interesting watch, a pro-Castro propaganda film based on articles written by Errol Flynn for the Hearst organization. Cuban Rebel Girls is pretty bad, but Flynn plays himself so there’s that. He also narrates the semi-documentary semi-drama.

Cuban Story: The Truth about Fidel Castro Revolution was also made in 1959. In this documentary Errol Flynn stars, telling the story of Castro and the revolution. From an historical perspective Cuban Story is a better bet than Cuban Rebel Girls, but it’s an odd presentation as well. If Cuba sites are what you crave then I recommend both films as I do if you’re a Flynn enthusiast. There’s little doubt that the actor was all in for Fidel Castro who had not yet admitted his communist goals in 1959. Errol Flynn died of a heart attack before Cuban Rebel Girls and Cuban Story were released.

Errol Flynn arriving in Havana at around the time Cuban Story was made

The Castro revolution had one interesting result in the realm of motion pictures, in my opinion, and that is that films produced in Cuba in the decade that followed are – for the most part – memorable and unique. Two in particular loom large, Mikhail Kalatozov‘s Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba) (1964) and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea‘s Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment) (1968).

I Am Cuba is a Cuban-Soviet co-production that had fallen into oblivion until Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola ensured its restoration and release in the United States because of its cinematic mastery. Although it is dated due to its politics, I Am Cuba is stunning in its visual storytelling. I’ve heard and read about masters of cinema being blown away with what is done with the camera in this film. There is a long, funeral procession sequence that will take your breath away guaranteed.

Soy Cuba is comprised of four stories aimed at comparing the suffering of the Cuban people against the spoiled riches of Americans on the island before the revolution and the damage that had. Although, as I said, I Am Cuba is highly regarded today it was not well received when initially released. Most notably, it was all but shunned by the Soviet Union for not being pro-communist enough.

I Am Cuba features the streets of Havana, the Hotel Capri, the Iglesia del Santo Angel Custodio, Havana University, and the Cuban countryside and farms to beautiful effect if you are moved by black and white photography. The next few films mentioned were all filmed in and released by Cuba.

The first movie I saw directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea was La Muerte de un Burócrata (Death of a Bureaucrat), a terrific 1966 comedy. Simply, this movie makes fun of the bureaucracy in Cuba at the time, which was maddening as so brilliantly depicted in this movie. Following the death of a man, his wife has to jump through numerous, often hilarious hoops, to get what’s due her from the government. In fact, everyone’s lives are made much more difficult by needless bureaucracy. There are traces of silent comedies in this too, I saw touches of Chaplin and Keaton here and there.

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea was a supporter of Fidel Castro and the revolution directing the state-supported Historias de la Revolución (Histories of the Revolution) in 1960. One would think all of his films are politically charged to the extent that they are unwatchable by mass audiences, but that’s not true. As Cuba’s most highly regarded director, most of Gutiérrez Alea’s films are moving and entertaining thanks to his gift for storytelling. Among other Gutiérrez Alea films I recommend are Las Doce Sillas (The Twelve Chairs) (1962), Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) (1993), and Guantanamera (1995), his last film, which reminded me of Death of a Bureaucrat as its story too follows a death resulting in often hilarious circumstances.

Las Doce Sillas tells the story of a woman who, on her deathbed, reveals that she hid her jewels in one of twelve identical chairs to keep her possessions from being given to a collective. Mel Brooks remade the movie in 1970. Fresa y Chocolate, which was released in the U.S. in January 1995 may well be my favorite of the “contemporary” Cuban films listed. This one remains the only Cuban movie to be nominated for an Academy Award. The film stars Cuba’s most famous actor Jorge Perugorría, who also stars in Guantanamera, and Vladimir Cruz and tells the story of a gay artist, his friendships, and struggles in the face of the government’s persecution. This is a deservedly acclaimed movie with great performances. As an aside, the primary set in the film was so popular with tourists that the owner turned it into a restaurant. Check out the story here.

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s most famous work is Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment) from 1968. I have seen this film twice and it just doesn’t move me like the others, but I may be alone in that because it was ranked by the New York Times as one of the 10 best films of 1968. All reviews are outstanding as well and its restoration was funded by the George Lucas Family Foundation and The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project.

In Memories of Underdevelopment we are served the story of Sergio (Sergio Corrieri), an aspiring writer who decides to stay in Cuba after the revolution as many in his life leave for the United States. As Sergio remembers the revolution, the Cuban Missile Crisis and several of his relationships, so do we through his narrated thoughts. Alienation is a central theme here as Sergio considers the effects his now isolated country has on him and those around him. If you have the opportunity to watch Memories of Underdevelopment let me know what you think.

Memories of Underdevelopment

There are two other Cuban films from the 1960s that I am interested in watching, with the first being Humberto SolásLucía, which was described by the New York Times’ J. Hoberman as, “An openly tendentious tour de force considered by many as Cuban cinema’s peak accomplishment,” after its 4k restoration in 2018. This film tells the stories of three women all named Lucia from different eras in Cuba’s history.

Finally, before we head back to Hollywood, La Primera Carga al Machete (The First Charge of the Machete) (1969) directed by Manuel Octavio Gomez is another highly acclaimed pseudo-documentary film I am curious about.  The film takes place in 1868 when Cuban peasants took up machetes against occupying Spanish forces.

While Cubans were documenting their plight pre- and post-revolution, Roger Corman directed Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961) for about five dollars. This tells the story of a human monster who blames his killings on a make believe sea monster that turns out to be real. The comedy-horror was filmed in Puerto Rico, but the story takes place during the Cuban revolution. As with all of Corman’s movies, this is a fun hour and 3 minutes of pure schlock.

Of the many important films being made about the Cuban revolution in the 1960s, few represented the lives or struggles of Cuban exiles in the United States. One of the first, if not the first, to do so is Philip S. Goodman’s We Shall Return released in 1963. Shot primarily in Florida, the film stars Cesar Romero and Anthony Ray as an anti-Castro father and son who are able to return to Cuba after a successful plot to overthrow the government. I warn you that this movie is so bad it may make you want to leave the country. Other films about Cuban immigrants are noted below.

 

In October 1962, an American U-2 spy plane secretly photographed nuclear missile sites being built by the Soviet Union on the island of Cuba. President Kennedy did not want the Soviet Union and Cuba to know that he had discovered the missiles. He met in secret with his advisors for several days to discuss the problem.

After many long and difficult meetings, Kennedy decided to place a naval blockade around Cuba. The aim of this “quarantine,” as he called it, was to prevent the Soviets from bringing in more military supplies. Kennedy demanded the removal of the missiles already there and the destruction of the sites. On October 22, 1962 President Kennedy spoke to the nation about the crisis in a televised address.

For thirteen days that October the world waited—seemingly on the brink of nuclear war—and hoped for a peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The world came closest to nuclear war during this crisis than in any other time in history. That tension and worry has been the subject of several movies most notably for my money in Anthony Page’s 1974 TV movie, The Missiles of October and in Roger Donaldson’s Thirteen Days (2000), replete with facts as it is.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969), based on the 1967 Cold War novel Topaz by Leon Uris, also centers on events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis before a Hitchcockian international spy ring is disrupted. I’m fairly sure Topaz is nobody’s favorite Hitchcock venture, but it is worth watching nonetheless. I also recommend Paul Sylbert‘s 1971 comedy The Steagle for its unique take on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Richard Benjamin stars as Professor Harold Weiss who decides to travel the country, living a different adventure every day, rather than sit idle waiting for a nuclear holocaust that seems imminent. Comedy greats Cloris Leachman and Chill Wills are in support.

 

That is my classic tour through Cuba in movies, but I won’t let you go until I recommend a few contemporary films as well. I cannot boast knowing many, but of the relatively few I’ve seen, there are several worthy of a look. Probably the best known of those is Wim Wenders’ 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club, which spotlights retired Cuban musicians reunited by Ry Cooder. Buena Vista received a well-deserved Best Documentary Feature Academy Award nomination. Historical and intimate, the film remains extremely watchable and the music featured a favorite respite of this blogger. Life in and about a post-revolution Cuba was eye-opening in 1999 and there is enough nostalgia to please buffs of yesteryear.

Julian Schnabel’s biographical drama Before Night Falls (2000) is another film people should see. Javier Bardem gives an affecting performance as Cuban poet, novelist, and playwright Reinaldo Arenas, an early sympathizer and later critic of Castro’s Revolution. The film is based on Arenas’ memoir the story is told through his work. Much of Before Night Falls was shot in Mexico.

Humberto Solas’ Miel para Oshún (Honey for Oshún) (2001) is another great choice. Once again starring Jorge Perugorría, whose acting I cannot laud enough. I watch anything I can find with him in it. Here, Perugorría plays a man who returns to Cuba after his mother’s death with the film spotlighting the tough choice many Cuban exiles face. Perugorría also stars in Paddy Breathnach’s Viva (2015) where he plays the estranged father of an aspiring drag performer in Cuba. The son, Jesus, is played by Hector Medina who’s also quite good in this. The struggles between father and son are difficult to overcome, but the journey beautiful and painful to watch.

Honey for Oshún was filmed in Cuba with Camagüey, Havana, Santi Spiritu, and Varadero all featured.

If you haven’t had enough of Jorge Perugorría after watching those films, I strongly suggest the Netflix original limited series, Four Seasons in Havana, an enjoyable, 4-part neo-noir detective series produced in Spain and shot in Cuba. The series is based on Leonardo Padura’s “Havana Quartet” novels about detective Mario Conde (Perugorría) and is portrayed beautifully with atmospheric visuals and through its performances. A seedier side of Havana is at your disposal here.

Netflix original series, Four Seasons in Havana

There have been plenty of films depicting the life of Che Guevara, which always includes his part in the revolution. Then there are later movies depicting the plight of Cuban immigrants in the United States, the most famous (and infamous) of which is Brian De Palma’s story of drug lord-ering run amok starring Al Pacino, Scarface (1983). I may watch that movie now and again, but I am not a fan of it. Instead, I prefer the benign, predictable Cuban immigrant story depicted in The Perez Family (1995) directed by Mira Nair. I have a soft spot for this one, which was filmed in Florida with a scene or two shot in Puerto Rico.

The Perez Family story takes place in Miami during the Mariel boat lift in 1980, the same time period depicted in De Palma’s movie. Here a group of Cuban immigrants, all with a last name of Perez, decide to pretend to be a family. Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina, and Angelica Huston make for a fun time. None of them are convincing as Cubans, by the way, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying this as a fluff piece. Two things make The Perez Family memorable for me: the appearance of the great Celia Cruz and the film’s soundtrack, which includes several notable Cuban songs and their interpreters like Perez Prado, Beny Moré, and La Lupe. And that’s a nice way to end this.

Many more films are being made all the time featuring Cuban stories and TV productions are showing up in Havana more often that we’d anticipated a couple of decades ago. Soon the sights and sounds of that exotic island will be common place and many more people will be made aware of Cuban stories, stories that are humorous, often sad, and always human. I hope I’ve mentioned a movie or two you might watch for the first time. And, as always, recommendations are welcome. Thank you for taking this journey with me for the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon coming to a blog near you on September 29.

6 thoughts

  1. And what a tour this is!!!!! I need to see Cry of the Bewitched 1957, I Am Cuba and The Bright Shawl (asap)… What a fascinating historical look at Cuban Cinema, the backstories and related films. As always, its such a pleasure to read one of your pieces. Happy Hollywood Hispanic Heritage Blogathon!–Cheers, Joey

  2. So much history for me to learn, both the homegrown stories and those made seeking an exotic locale. A place so close and so far.

  3. That article was fascinating! I ended up with many more films for my watchlist, and the feeling that, no matter how many movies we watch, there is always something left to discover – which is amazing. I loved how you connected Cuban movies with Hollywood movies shot in Cuba.
    Thansk for hosting this fun event!
    Kisses!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s