by Lisa Lieberman
“Get ready for a torrid tropical holiday!” That's how the announcer on the trailer for Weekend in Havana (1941) introduced this film. Torrid: full of passionate or highly charged emotions arising from sexual love. Now there's an adjective to get your heart rate up! The list of synonyms in my thesaurus includes lustful, steamy, sultry, sizzling, hot, and here's Carmen Miranda, promising all that and more. I dare you to sit still through the opening number.
Granted, the Hays Code strictly limited how much steamy sex you could show explicitly in a 1941 movie, but directors were free to use innuendo. Here's handsome leading man John Payne working out the details of his (ahem) business relationship with Ms. Miranda. Meanwhile, Alice Fay is finding romance in the arms of a Latin lover, played by the Cuban-American actor Cesar Romero, a.k.a. “the Latin from Manhattan.” Rumba, anyone?
The archetypical Latin lover was Italian heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, of course. Back in the 1920s, he drove women mad with desire in his breakthrough role as a gaucho in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, stealing another man's partner and whisking her off in a tango faster than you can say, “Shall we dance?” Before his untimely death at the age of 31, he'd play a sheik (twice), a Spanish bullfighter, a Cossack, a maharaja, and a French aristocrat. The Latin bit had more to do with machismo style than nationality, it would appear. The gaucho's imperiousness on the dance floor was matched by the sheik's in ordering women about; in a famous scene from the sequel, Son of the Sheik, Valentino even initiates nonconsensual sex with the dancing girl whom he believes has betrayed him. (Valentino's films were all made before the Hays Code.)
Suave but not terribly virile in Weekend in Havana, at least Romero had Cuban heritage. Miranda, a performer known for her impossibly large tutti-frutti headdresses, was criticized in her native Brazil for pandering to American stereotypes of Latinas. “If they gave me the role of a Cuban girl, what was I to do?” Lisa Shaw quotes her as saying in her biography of the star. Cuban audiences, for their part, complained that the picture misrepresented their culture, that everything about Miranda was wrong—her tasteless costumes, her hip-shaking dancing, her exaggerated gestures and cartoonish facial expressions. But the studios called the shots, stage managing Miranda's over-the-top exoticism right down to instructing her on how to butcher the English language in comical ways. South-of the-border actors and locales were interchangeable in the escapist extravaganzas Hollywood concocted during World War II.
Miranda was neither the first nor the last to feed the fantasy of Cuba as a destination for illicit adventures. Rum, prostitution, and gambling had drawn American tourists to the island since the Prohibition era. “Leave the Dry Lands Behind” advertised the Bacardi rum company. Mojitos, daiquiris, and the Cuba Libre (rum and coke with a squeeze of lime) became popular cocktails at Sloppy Joe's and La Floridita, Ernest Hemingway's favorite bars. The Tropicana, a nightclub in which the Mafia had a controlling stake, was renowned for its casino and its lavish floor shows featuring scantily-clad chorus girls in colorful “native” costumes cavorting to the jazzy arrangements of a forty-piece house band.
Across the Atlantic, a British-born musician who called himself José Norman composed a song that came to epitomize the island's fun-loving spirit, “Cuban Pete.”
They raved about Sloppy Joe
The Latin Lothario
But Havana has a new sensation
He's really a modest guy
Although he's the hottest guy in Havana
And here's what he has to say
They call me Cuban Pete
I'm the King of the Rumba beat
When I play the maracas I go
Recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1936, the song became an instant hit in America and inspired a movie that launched the career of Cuban-born Desi Arnez, the leader of a rumba band in New York city who had a way with the conga drum. Watch him fire up the audience as he performs his trademark number, “Babalu,” with no Lucy to tamp down his enthusiasm.
All it took was a jaunt to Havana for Sky Masterson to loosen up the prim missionary in the 1950s musical Guys and Dolls. Right up to the eve of the Cuban Revolution, tourists looking to cast off their inhibitions were encouraged to head to Havana. Amid scenes of happy-go-lucky Cubans dancing the conga at carnival, a travelogue released in 1959—just before Fidel Castro took over—describes how, “for these people, lovers of music and gaiety, any excuse is reason enough for a celebration.”
Romance Without the Rumba
The party ended, but a new love affair with Cuba soon began. Che Guevara, the Argentinian doctor turned guerrilla who sought to bring about the complete transformation of Cuban society, captured the imagination of radical reformers around the world. Jean-Paul Sartre called him “the most complete human being of our time.” Nelson Mandela admired his uncompromising quest for freedom. Student militants evoked his passionate idealism in demonstrations throughout Western Europe and the United States in ‘68—sporting T-shirts emblazoned with his face at protest marches. And in 2006, on the thirty-ninth anniversary of Che's assassination by CIA-backed Bolivian army forces, Time named him a twentieth-century icon. “Though communism may have lost the fire,” the editors wrote, “he remains the potent symbol of rebellion and the alluring zeal of revolution.”
Che and Castro reimagined Cuba as a just and egalitarian country where all would have access to education, health care, and dignified employment. No longer would U.S. corporations control Cuban industries, banks, and public utilities. Gambling and prostitution would be eliminated, along with the corrupting influence of capitalist culture. Government would serve all the people, not merely the elite. Agrarian reforms would ensure that farm workers received fair compensation for their labor and that more of the island's land would be used to grow food for domestic consumption, not sugar and tobacco for export. Some of these reforms did come about as envisioned; literacy increased dramatically, public health improved, and resources have been equitably distributed across the country. But political persecution of dissidents and one-party rule underscore the repressive nature of the regime.
The love affair wound down as disillusionment with the Cuban Revolution set in, but don't put away those maracas. Over the past decade or so, economic hardships due to the withdrawal of outside aid following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the effects of the American blockade have resulted in a thriving black market and a burgeoning sex tourism industry. “Cuba has become a novel site for tourists of both sexes pursuing fantasies of sex and romance with the racially exotic and sexually exotic ‘other,’” Elise Andaya claims in Reproducing the Revolution: Gender, Kinship, and the State in Contemporary Cuba. “International advertising to attract tourism to Cuba frequently relies on the image of sun, sand, and sexuality, represented primarily through the depiction of the beautiful mulata woman.”
The thrill is back. Will the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States dampen the ardor for a torrid holiday in Havana? Somehow I doubt it.