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Friday, November 9, 2007

South of the Border (originally published 4/00)

A recent article in "USA Today" comments on the somewhat puzzling relationship between Hollywood and the growing Latino audience. Despite occasional exceptions like "La Bamba" (1987) and "The Mambo Kings" (1992), it seems that Hollywood has ignored the Hispanic market almost as diligently as the music industry has courted it. The article speculates that the recent release of "Price of Glory" may signal a renewed interest in films skewed to the Latino demographic.

If Hollywood does finally decide to try harder to appeal to Hispanic viewers, it won't be the first time. The original Hollywood campaign to court Latino viewers took place over half a century ago, and was undertaken, in part, at the urging of the federal government.

In the late Thirties, with Europe at war, Hollywood's once-lucrative foreign market was rapidly drying up. The film industry's response was to shore up its ties with our neighbors to the south, who represented the most densely populated foreign market still untouched by the developing world war. Suddenly the familiar stereotype of the villainous Latino vanished from American screens. Instead Hollywood promoted as leading players such names as Desi Arnaz and Maria Montez.

This demographic skew was further encouraged by the Roosevelt Administration's "Good Neighbor Policy," seeking to reinforce political ties between the Americas to present a unified front against the fascist threat from overseas. Nelson Rockefeller was placed in charge of a branch of the Council of National Defense called the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA). The CIAA's appeals to the movie industry to produce films reinforcing pan-American brotherhood were well received, especially since the industry had already embarked on such a course out of its own economic self-interest. For a sampling of the films that emerged from this double-barrelled effort to win the hearts and minds of Hispanic audiences, look for these titles on home video.

"Springtime in the Rockies" (1942). Probably the single most popular star to ride the crest of Hollywood's renewed interest in Hispanic viewers was Carmen Miranda. Known as the "Brazilian Bombshell," Miranda was already a major recording star in South America before signing with the Fox studio. Loaded with charisma and possessing a natural flair for comedy, she quickly became a favorite of American audiences. In "Springtime in the Rockies," Betty Grable and John Payne play quarreling lovers who turn to brief flings with other partners, she with Cesar Romero, he with Miranda.

"The Three Caballeros" (1945). This fascinating Walt Disney production was made more or less as a direct response to the government's plea for movies spreading the message of Anglo-Latino brotherhood. It's difficult to adequately describe, a combination cartoon, travelogue, and musical revue. The star of the show is Donald Duck, whose animated form is combined seamlessly with live action footage of Brazil and Mexico.

"It's All True" (1993). Disney was not the only filmmaker working on a cinematic collage south of the border in the early Forties. Orson Welles was sent there by RKO, to whom he was under contract, to create a three-part film to be called "It's All True." One part was to be a bullfighting story based on Hispanic folklore. The second was planned as a history of the samba, including extensive footage of the Carnaval in Rio. The third segment would have been a re-enactment of the true story of four fishermen who made a hazardous journey to personally ask the Brazilian president for help for their village, making their way up the Brazilian coastline some 1600 miles on the open sea on a small, fragile raft. Unfortunately, the project was canceled by RKO before editing could begin. In 1993, a group of filmmakers released a documentary about the project, including a look at what the segment about the fishermen's voyage might have looked like, using the footage that has survived.

One of the great ironies of this first groundswell of interest in all things Latino is the career of Margarita Carmen Cansino. This beautiful young Latina broke into American movies in the late Thirties and went on to become a major star. But in order to do so she had to all but renounce her ethnicity, adopting an Anglo appearance and intonation, and changing her name to Rita Hayworth. If "Price of Glory" really does create a new boom in films for the Latino market, perhaps the next Hispanic superstar will find such accommodations unnecessary.

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