ABSTRACT

In the 1950s film Guys and Dolls, Marlon Brando, in order to win a bet with Frank Sinatra, takes Jean Simmons down to Havana to woo her. There, in an exotic landscape, she loses her prim Salvation Army inhibitions, gets extremely drunk on ‘a nice milkshake’ (coconut laced with bacardi), dances a spectacular sequence, and gets involved in a brawl before later declaring her true feelings in a moonlight Havana evening. Before 1959 this was the most typical celluloid image of Cuba, a lush backdrop against which the heroes of Hollywood and Mexican cinema could act out their fantasies. There was very little commercial Cuban cinema: some 80 features were made between 1930 and 1958,1 mostly melodramas or musical comedies made at break-neck speed by adventurers such as Ramon Peon. There were few Cuban films, but a very large cinema audience: in the 1950s, out of a population of less than seven million, there was the astonishing figure of 1.5 million film-goers per week, notwithstanding the fact that significant parts of the rural population had little or no access to cinema.2 Nestor Almendros, the cinematographer who was resident in Cuba at the time, paints the picture:

And yet paradoxically, at that time Cuba was a privileged place to see films. First, unlike the Spanish, the Cubans knew nothing about dubbing so all the films were shown in their original versions with subtitles. Second, since this was a free market with almost no state controls, the distributors brought in many different kinds of film. I got to see all the American productions there, even the B movies that had trouble getting to other countries. I also saw Mexican, Spanish, Argentine, French and Italian films. Around 600 films were imported each year. The censors were very tolerant

. . . . Havana was paradise for a film buff, but a paradise with no critical perspective.3