One of the things I love about Miami is its vibrant arts and culture scene. There is always something happening at any given moment. A great place to visit is the Wolfsonian-FIU museum. It’s right in the heart of Miami’s art deco district, the bright and bustling area everyone thinks of when they think of M-I-A-M-I.
The newest exhibit at Wolfsonian-FIU is Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure American Seduction and the timing couldn’t be more perfect as the historic change in diplomatic relations in Washington continues. The exhibit focuses on the relationship between the United States and Cuba before 1959. In addition to the exhibit, the museum is hosting Havana Nights, a film series all summer long with Cuban themed films every Sunday. I had the chance to visit the kickoff with a screening of the 1941 “Good Neighbor” musical, Weekend in Havana.
Weekend in Havana is one of those 20th Century Fox Technicolor confections that I simply adore. The film is about a stubborn salesgirl (Alice Faye) whose vacation is ruined when the cruise ship she’s on runs aground. To compensate, a representative for the ship (John Payne) is sent to give her a first class holiday on the company dime and to make sure she has the best vacation ever. The film is a perfect example of America’s love affair with Cuba during the 1940’s. Cuba was viewed as a playground for the rich and famous. Americans were fascinated by the island’s music, dancing, gambling, and colorful landscapes. Before the film, I had the opportunity to speak with the Wolfsonian’s Chief Librarian and resident film buff, Frank Luca, about Weekend in Havana and the other films that are part of the series. Luca curated the show as well as the film series. He watched 85 films to put the lineup together. What a tough assignment! 😉
Before the film, Luca took a group of us on a guided tour of the exhibit. He will be doing this before all of the featured films during Havana Nights. His enthusiasm and passion for this project is infectious. He has a personality that’s as colorful as the tropics. I learned so much and was fascinated. I didn’t want the journey to end. The museum features many donated brochures and artwork the U.S. used to advertise Cuba as a destination. There are also several photographs of so many famous stars of the era like Marlon Brando, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, and others who vacationed in Cuba. One of the biggest highlights of the exhibit was a costume worn by “La Reina de la Salsa” herself, Celia Cruz.
I found Weekend in Havana to be the perfect choice as the first film for this summer series. While it’s a blatant advertisement to visit Cuba, that’s exactly what was happening at the time of this film’s release and the technicolor shows exactly why the U.S. thought Cuba was paradise. As Luca notes, the film was trying to entice middle class tourism to Cuba which was different than in the 1930’s where Cuba was an escape for socialites and the ultra rich. But timing wasn’t on Weekend in Havana‘s side. In 1941, the U.S. entered the war and people weren’t interested in travel but they were interested in escapist cinema which Cuba and Carmen Miranda provided. However, after the war Cuba saw a flood of U.S. middle class tourism.
I was a little nervous as to how the audience would respond a ‘Good Neighbor’ film. As I noted before in my essay on the topic, you have to take the historical context into account but how forgiving are audiences these days? In an age where everyone has an opinion and Hollywood just can’t seem to get anything right, I wondered how the people in the audience were going to feel when they saw Brazilian Carmen Miranda sing about Cuba then fall into the fiery/spicy Latina trope when she confronts her manager/boyfriend Cesar Romero who also plays into a stereotype as the crooked, Latin lover. I asked Luca about this when he was choosing the films and he told me, you absolutely have to take the time period into account and remember that what was being done were the first steps in a positive direction towards Cuba/U.S. relations.
“This was the first attempt by Americans to say, hey, let’s get to know our neighbors to the South, this was a removal from previously under Teddy Roosevelt with gunboat diplomacy, you know talk softly and carry a big stick that was our approach to Latin America. Franklin Roosevelt changes all that. With the Good Neighbor policy, we can be trade partners, we should have tourism. Yes, there was stereotyping going on but I think that’s natural for that time period but it was positive, it was meant to be positive at the time,” he said.
The film was screened across the street from the Wolfsonian-FIU at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. It’s a small, intimate theater that adds to the film experience. The audience responded to Carmen Miranda’s numbers and fashions positively. She is so much fun to watch and I’m glad they fell under her spell. TCM’s Robert Osbourne said it best in a recent CBS Sunday interview:
“I think we have to have dreams,” he said. “We need a little Carmen Miranda with all her tutti frutti hats. And we need some Fred and Ginger dancing. We need Gene Kelly hanging off that lamppost. We need to be taken into a fantasy world, and not be afraid to go there occasionally.”
Right now, with the way things are politically, I often think of this quote. Tying this into today’s discussions of foreign relations, we need to be reminded of the positive contributions our neighbors bring us.
This Sunday’s film is A Lady Without a Passport, a film noir starring Hedy Lamarr. Luca says he picked this film because it touches on all the issues we are dealing with today especially immigration. Luca feels that the film’s message of helping people is one we need to hear.
A Lady Without a Passport will be screened at 5:00 p.m. Sunday at M.B. Cinematheque. Admission is $11 for adults, $9 for students. It is free to Wolfsonian-FIU members. Guided tours by Frank Luca are included with admission.
The rest of the film series schedule is as follows:
June 19th – Our Man in Havana
July 10th – Soy Cuba
July 31st – Before Night Falls
To learn more about the Wolfsonian-FIU, click here.