Archive for the Latin American/ Spanish Category

Trav S.D.’s Guide to the “Mexican Spitfire” Comedies

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Latin American/ Spanish, Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Lupe Velez (read more about the talented and gorgeous Latin star here). A fitting day, we think to do this little post on her last (and today, best known) career phase, her “Mexican Spitfire” comedies.

While worth watching as historical curiosities, to the modern sensibility these films seem both sexist and racist. The Spitfire character is a sort of combination of Lucy and Desi, hot tempered, fast talking, and trouble prone, like some sort of wild animal. The only way you would be prone to find it amusing is if you were by default poised to laugh at the idiocy of women and Mexicans. Leon Eroll as Uncle Matt (and his alter ego Lord Epping) is a bit of welcome relief. Essentially these are cheapie B pictures on every level, forgettable, disposable, and very much representative of the times.

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The Girl from Mexico (1939)

The first “Mexican Spitfire” movie, although no one knew at the time that a series of films would transpire. Lupe Velez plays an unknown singer in a small Mexican village brought north of the border by a radio scout (Donald Woods) who is affianced to a scheming phony. Lupe will of course win him for her own.

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Mexican Spitfire (1940)

The first official one in the series. They settle into the formula. The couple are now married and its all about the culture clash of being a Latina in America. The comedy is much broader than in the previous one. This also introduces the recurring motif of the British distiller Lord Epping, played also by Leon Erroll. So Uncle Matt (also Errol) has several bits where he goes in disguise as the English gentleman (this was one of Eroll’s stage specialties, in addition to his famous drunk routine).

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Mexican Spitfire Out West (1940)

This one doesn’t quite deliver what the title promises.  It’s not a western comedy. Carmelita goes to Reno to pretend to be seeking a divorce from her boring husband because she thinks he is being unfaithful (someone turned on the radio to a peppy station while they were on the phone). And Lord Epping returns. So there is an irritating subplot of Dennis (the husband) having to outscheme some rivals for the attentions of Lord Epping, who is sometimes Uncle Matt in disguise. But the main question is “Who cares”? Who cares whether he has a coup at work or if their marriage breaks up?” On the positive side,  Tom Kennedy has a funny bit as a cab driver.

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Mexican Spitfire’s Baby (1941)

The title of this film so badly makes me want to do a comedy mash-up sketch of this and the Mia Farrow/ Roman Polanski horror picture. The production values in this one seem to have improved over the previous one a little. The anonymous Donald Woods is now replaced by Buddy Rogers as Carmelita’s husband and he is much better at playing comedy than his soporific predecessor. Velez now sports a fashionable 40s haircut.  And Zasu Pitts is in the cast as prissy hotel manager Miss Emily Pepper, and Fritz Feld does his patented Frenchman routine. This improved cast makes it a vastly more watchable movie, even if the script is as tedious as the previous ones.  It opens on an anniversary party at a fancy night club. Dennis and Carmelita are still troubled. Uncle Matt suggests they adopt a “baby”. Unfortunately Dennis gets a “baby” – a gorgeous blonde French girl named “Fifi” whom he somehow has to host for work. Much misunderstanding and yelling in Spanish ensues.

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Mexican Spitfire at Sea (1942)

The couple takes a ship to Honolulu to get away from work and have a second honeymoon. And who’s on board but Fifi and Miss Emily Pepper from the previous film? And Uncle Matt and his snobby wife? And it all becomes about Uncle Matt masquerading as Lord Epping to help Dennis land a business deal with a gent who is traveling on the same tub. Endless permutations of the various characters having conversations in different staterooms or on deck. Can there by anything more disposable?

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Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost (1942)

The inevitable spook comedy. The Carmelita character gets even more demeaning in this one. When we first see her she is having fun riding a painters scaffolding apparatus on the outside of a skyscraper oblivious to her safety. Dennis and his aunt go to Lord Epping’s country mansion to go hunting (for business reasons). They leave Carmelita behind because she lacks class; Uncle Matt takes her to a boxing match. But they show up anyway…after all they are the stars of the film.and it’s a good thing too. Lord Epping doesn’t arrive to clinch the business deal so Uncle Matt masquerades as him for the umpteenth time. Unfortunately the house is also haunted! (Naturally the explanation is the usual thing—crooks are hiding in the basement making explosives, and are faking the ghosts to scare them off.) One of the other guests is the irritating Donald McBride (the “jumping butterballs” guy from Room Service. And naturally the servants are Mantan Moreland and Lillian Randolph. It wouldn’t be a ghost comedy without some stereotyped eye popping and superstition.

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Mexican Spitfire’s Elephant (1942)

We are initially disappointed to learn it’s not a circus elephant, but a statuette carved out of a gem (much like the titular rock in The Pink Panther). Lyle Talbot is the crook who is smuggling it. But thanks to a misunderstanding of Carmelita’s we do eventually get our live elephant. As if to provedthat the character of Dennis is a tedious cog, the actor playing him has been replaced yet again, this time by the mustachioed Walter Reed, who’s so unappealing he looks precisely like the sort of guys who normally play villains in movies like this . This one is also burdened with wartime propaganda nonsense…Uncle Matt is working for civil defense on air raid drills etc.

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 Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event (1943)

This one, the last in the series, achieves new levels of inconsequentiality. Confusingly, unlike Mexican Spitfire Out West, this one actually has a “western” setting and theme. It’s set at an Arizona resort. When we first see Carmelita she is dressed in a little cowgirl outfit. The main plot of the film is actually similar toMexican Spitfire’s Baby. Dennis thinks Carmelita is pregnant but in reality its just that her cat is going to have kittens (apparently this is a world where even married people can’t have sex – particularly sex with Mexicans). The usual boring shit about business deals with Lord Epping, now with a bunch of guys in army uniforms running around, shoving the war down our throats. Hugh Beaumont and Alan Carney play minor roles.

The following year, Velez would be expecting her own “blessed event”. Unmarried at the the time, she took her own life rather than suffer the public humiliation of such a predicament given the mores of that day. Whether there would have been more Spitfire movies after that is academic. The popularity of the series had begun to wane, and she had resumed making other sorts of films.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Variety Arts #27: La Carpa, the Mexican Vaudeville

Posted in HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Latin American/ Spanish, Variety Arts (Defined) with tags , , , , on May 5, 2016 by travsd

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Just a few days ago, we wrote a little appreciation of Mexican influence on American culture. Today being the holiday of  Cinco de Mayo we thought we would again celebrate a particular manifestation of Mexican culture, one that overlaps with the customary themes of this blog in a more obvious way, the Carpa, or Mexican tent show.

Carpa means “tent” in Spanish, and readers of this blog know that America has long been home to all manner of traveling tent shows, particularly during the 19th and earth 20th centuries. Black vaudeville, medicine shows, circuses, religious revivals, and the peculiar midwestern phenomenon known as the Toby Show are all examples. The Carpa sprang up in the years following the Mexican Revolution (ca. 1910-1920), reaching a peak during the 1920s and 1930s, and lasting into the 1940s. Its precursor was a tradition of presenting plays in the religious season between the Day of the Dead (November 1) and Christmas beginning in the 1870s.

The carpa promised family entertainment and usually featured clowns (often portraying certain stock characters, not unlike commedia), acrobats, magic, puppets, music, dance, and in later years, movies. They presented their shows all over Mexico, but also in the American Southwest. Famous shows included Carpa Valentina (a Russian circus family which had fled the Russian revolution and Civil War), Carpa Garcia (a large family concern whose territory included California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas), Carpa Azcapotzalco, Carpa Cubana, and Carpa Monsavias.

For much more on the carpa, this article provides much excellent flavor and detail.

find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Why “Hamilton” is the Best Show Ever

Posted in AMERICANA, Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Latin American/ Spanish, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Playwrights with tags , , , , , , on May 4, 2016 by travsd

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Well, as predicted, Hamilton was nominated for a gazillion Tonys yesterday, and I would say “well deserved” except I never follow the Tonys, I know nothing of the other nominees, and I have not seen Hamilton live. But the announcement does give me an occasion to gather together stray thoughts I’ve been germinating about the show for a couple of weeks. I haven’t done so yet because a) I haven’t seen it, I’ve only done like millions of people around the world have done, and how I did with many shows as a teenager — played the cast album (and watched the occasional video clip); and 2) I didn’t listen to the album until rather recently, and I’m so behind the curve in this case that I feared my gushing would only embarrass both of us. It is particularly embarrassing because my praise for it is as immoderate as everyone else’s, and this too puts me behind the curve. I am not accustomed to agreeing with everyone else. After all, everyone else seemed to love Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and I walked out of that show after ten minutes. It was rubbish, and the sycophantic audience at the Public combined the worst qualities of Restoration bubble-heads mixed with the mob at the Roman coliseum (yes, I review audiences along with productions). Finding myself in agreement with the sickening masses of humanity disorients me and makes me want to bury that knowledge in a deep hole. However, my love is much better than your love — at least I can have that consolation.

Since I was a teenager I have periodically penned little rants and manifestos and essays and blogs about how things (theatre, plays, musicals) ought to be. In fact, I was about to do another this month, along with a series of other serious, thinky posts that began with this one on May 1. But my encounter with Hamilton pre-empted it. Headed it off at the pass. Hamilton is so great an accomplishment, and so aligned with what I have been seeking from the theatre my entire life, that I no longer have any complaints. Granted, I am not satisfied with most everything else (including my own attempts to attain my own ideal). But for the rest of my life, I will be able to say, I have been satisfied — so much more than satisfied — by this. Forgive me, but I have a personal mental checklist…and every box was checked. And normally almost none of them are. An American theme. Check! A historical theme! Check! An American history theme! Check check check!!! An American history theme that represents the outsider and talks about our problematic history with issues of class and difference!!!! Check!!! A quasi-Shakespearean tragic hero!!!! Check check!! Populist in both spirit and aesthetic while NOT dumbing down to the audience or pandering to the lowest common denominator!!! Quntillion checks!!!! Poetical genius in the literary sense!!!! Formal brilliance!!!! Quintillion checks to the 10th power!!!! Contemporary music that talks to our own culture and reaches past the normal self-imposed musical theatre ghetto that has made most live theatre culturally irrelevant for the past 75 years! Quintillion checks to the the quintillionth power!!!!! Created by an individual as opposed to a committee! (Unmeasurable!!!) An individual who is essentially a rock star as a performer, comparable in his way to Elvis (Unmeasurable to the gazillionth power).

The Mad Marchioness put it best — Lin-Manuel Miranda is like the George M. Cohan of our time. But in some ways, he’s even better. Cohan wrote indelible, timeless popular songs, and was a terrific stage star. But as a playwright he never wrought anything as complex or as masterful as Hamilton. Is Miranda the Second Coming of Jesus? Well, I suppose only his next show will be able to tell whether he will hold this exalted status for the rest of his life. But you know what? As far as I’m concerned, he never has to do anything else as long as he lives. He never does.

No Mexicans, No Cowboys (¡Que viva México!)

Posted in AMERICANA, CULTURE & POLITICS, Hollywood (History), Latin American/ Spanish, ME, My Family History, Westerns with tags , , , , on April 25, 2016 by travsd

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“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bring those problems [to] us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

I don’t have to attribute this quote to anyone, do I? This candidate was dead to me before he even started, but once he uttered these risible remarks (and these ones were months ago, quite early in his campaign), anyone who ever had anything to do with him going forward were dead to me as well. This includes the Republican Party, which I usually have at least some good things to say about though I’ve never voted that way myself. And it includes the media which handed him his free megaphone.

The candidate’s statement is not only racist and race-baiting, but false on several fronts. To wit, the country of Mexico isn’t “sending” us anybody. The speaker makes it sound as though the situation were analogous to the Cuban prisoners Castro released in the direction of Florida as a kind of international practical joke, a sort of human hot-foot. No one is “sending” Mexicans in the direction of the United States. They, like people from the other 200+ nations on planet earth, come to America because in many ways it remains a desirable place to live and work, presumably more so than where they came from.

Secondly, look at the paragraph: it says nothing about the illegality of the immigration. He has a problem with Mexican immigration to the United States, period. He’s not talking about the political conundrum of how to solve a certain problem — he is simply issuing a blanket mischaracterization of the people who are involved. In other words, he’s not against illegal immigration; he’s against Mexicans, legal or illegal. He’s so against them he’s tarred them with the kind of sweeping lie that one associates with Goebbels. (Ironically, the speaker is from a relatively recent immigrant group himself. How easy it would be to tar the Germans in like fashion: “They send us their sado-masochists and their Jew-Killers, the monsters who raped and pillaged their way across France and Poland!”). And he ends with a rhetorical device that is right out of the Nazi playbook, he only “ASSUMES” some Mexicans are good people. But, this presidential candidate aside, German-Americans are not all to be characterized as Nazis. On the contrary, I have celebrated their contributions to American culture in print and in talks. Mexican-Americans deserve the same kind of shout out.

Today is the 170th anniversary of the start of the Mexican-American War.  I have ancestors who fought in that war, and others who fought in the war of Texas Independence and who otherwise pioneered former Mexican territory. And my research for the western book I’ve been working on made something abundantly clear that maybe hadn’t been, as some one who has spent his entire life on the northeast. The revelation I had was the extent to which America as a whole is culturally Mexican. Now, in an obvious way, Hollywood in particular has not done right by this group. I’ve watched hundreds of westerns over the last few years, and as you can imagine, positive portrayals of Mexicans are as rare as hen’s teeth. It’s very much in the tradition of blackface minstrelsy and other show business stereotypes: they’re either sinister or stupid. Even the films and tv shows that are meant to portray a Mexican in a good light, were patronizing and infantalizing, a kind of South-of-the-Border Uncle Tomisim. But for the most part it’s Speedy Gonzalez and Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. And as often as not, as in the latter case, it’s a white actor in brownface.

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BUT, as I began to explore western American history something dawned on me with great force. That is, the degree to which American culture itself ABSORBED aspects of Mexican culture, in a manner much similar to the way it absorbed elements of African culture, and Native American culture, and to lesser extents, every single culture we have assimilated. Immigrants are Americanized. But it works in the other direction as well. And since one-third of America WAS Mexico…America IS Mexico to a certain extent, not just geographically but culturally. In light of that, to see the situation as “them” and “us” strikes me, like all racism, as a kind of madness, a social disease that prevents people from seeing what’s really there in front of them.

When I visited London about 20 years ago, I met a guy who asked me, sort of playfully, “Are you from Texas?” He was egging me on, teasing me, but his joke said something about the American image in the world. It’s not someone like me, a New England Yankee — hasn’t been, almost from the beginning. It’s a cowboy. Ronald Reagan. John Wayne. Marlboro Man. Cowboy hat.

Thanks for the tribute to Mexico, Ron!

Thanks for the tribute to Mexico, Ron!

Have you ever stopped to ask the important questions “Why COWS?” Because I am kind of a spacey guy (and because I was researching a book), I have. How did that insane mania for beef come about? Cows are not indigenous to this continent. And they didn’t come over with the English and wend their west from Massachusetts and Virginia. (A few were imported to the original English colonies but not many). The big herds of the west? The Spanish brought them. The cattle industry of the great Southwest began when that territory was still Mexico. The migration of Yanquis to participate in that industry is what resulted in the Annexation of Texas and the Mexican American War (1846), which brought the territory that is now Arizona, New Mexico, California, and parts of Colorado and Nevada into the union. That symbol of American power the cowboy hat evolved from the sombrero – in many early western movies it is still called by the latter name. The lasso, the bandana, chaps. The unparalleled popularity in the U.S. of a Spanish instrument known as the guitar!

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Dance! Dance, You Unknowing Mexicans!

In other words, all of these things we have to think of as bedrock symbols of Americana (country music, rock and roll, ten gallon hats, fast food, the family barbecue), owe their existence to the influence of Mexican culture. The irony is that often a lot of the very people who have this apparent terror of the “Brown People” in our midst are dressed in Mexican-derived fashions, listening to music played on Mexican instruments, and gobbling a food staple that came to their door via Mexico. The ignorance and irony of that are mind-boggling.

And even if this were not the case? Drugs, crime, rapists? If I were Mexican, I’d be worried about the importation of those things from NORTH of the border. After all, we’ve been much more successful at invading THEM then they have at “invading” us.

As for the people of Mexico?

Today, I celebrate you, my friends!

I exalt your beautiful art!

I admire the beauty of your language!

I dance to your music!

I devour your food!

I celebrate YOU!

I welcome you!

This girl welcomes you!

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Eddie Cantor in “The Kid from Spain”

Posted in Comedy, Eddie Cantor, Hollywood (History), Latin American/ Spanish, Movies with tags , , , , , , on November 17, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Eddie Cantor comedy The Kid from Spain (1932), written by Kalmar and Ruby, directed by Leo McCarey, featuring Lyda Roberti, and the Goldwyn Girls, choreographed by Busby Berkley! Is that team or is that a team?! And it’s just as terrific as you would expect. All of these artists are at their peak here. Delectable stuff: hilarious jokes, extremely witty songs…

It starts out with a very funny, sexy musical number set at a college starring an enormous number of pre-code co-eds. Eddie is discovered in one of their beds and expelled, along with his dashing Mexican room-mate (Robert Young!) Young tries to get Eddie to come with him to Mexico but Eddie decides to stay…and then ends up going to Mexico anyway. While parked outside a bank, he is mistaken for the getaway driver of a robbery, and has to drive the escaping gang to their hideout. To avoid capture, he goes to Mexico, where he instantly bumps into Robert Young, who must have been loitering around the border checkpoint. But a detective has followed Eddie across the border. Through Young’s instigation, Eddie masquerades as a famous Spanish bullfighter, the son of one of a famous hero of the ring. (This is one of those films where a bad Spanish accent allows you to communicate with native Spanish speakers). The climax of the film is of course the cowardly Eddie having to do a bullfight. The romantic subplot concerns Robert Young’s trysts with a girl who is affianced to some turkey though an arranged marriage.

Great Kalmar and Ruby songs. “Look, What You’ve Done” reminds me of “Why Am I So Romantic?” from Animal Crackers. “In the Moonlight” reminds me of “Everyone Says I Love You” from Horse Feathers. This being a Cantor movie, there is also unfortunately a blackface number: “What a Perfect Combination”.

 

In the end, Eddie is vindicated by a telegram. And it turns out the detective knew the truth all long—he just wanted to see Eddie fight the bull!

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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On the Brief Co-Stardom of Anita Page

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Latin American/ Spanish, Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , on August 4, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of MGM star Anita Page (Anita Pomares, 1910-2008).

Fair hair notwithstanding Page was actually a Latina, of Salvadoran origin. She grew up in Flushing, Queens and, based on a submitted photo, got screen tested for Paramount at the Kaufman Astoria studio. This led to a screen test with MGM and a contract with the latter studio, which lasted until 1933. Her career bridged the last years of silents and the earliest years of talkies.

While she appeared in over three dozen movies, a few will be of especial interest to our readers:

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* Our Dancing Daughters (1928): Page, Joan Crawford and Dorothy Sebastian play a trio of wayward flapper friends, each of whom gets into varying degrees of trouble. Page gets to play the really nasty one — but she pays for it in the end. The film was a hit and boosted the careers of all three of its co-stars. Interestingly, both Page and Sebastian would later co-star with Buster Keaton; and Crawford had earlier co-starred with Harry Langdon. 

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* Broadway Melody (1929): One of the very first Hollywood musicals and an absolute must-see for lovers of show biz and vaudeville history. Page and Bessie Love play a vaudeville sister act, who of course get separated by career and romance. The film was another smash, and won the Best Picture Oscar.

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* Free and Easy (1930) and Sidewalks of New York (1931). These are the films in which she co-stars with Keaton. In the first she plays a country girl who comes to Hollywood to be a star, accompanied by her mother and her bumbling admirer (Keaton). In the second, she plays a poor girl who converts millionaire Keaton to a life of philanthropy.

For some reason, by 1933 Page (who at one point got more fan mail than any other star at MGM) had lost popularity, and she was let out of her contract. She married MGM songwriter Nacio Herb Brown the following year (he’d written songs for several of her movies) but they broke up within months. In 1937 she retired for good and settled down to marry a naval officer. In the 1990s she re-emerged from retirement to take parts in several low budget horror movies. Ain’t that always the way?

Now check it out! Here she is being interviewed during her twilight comeback in 1993:

For more on early film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Olga San Juan, “The Puerto Rican Pepperpot”

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Dance, Hollywood (History), Latin American/ Spanish, Movies, Singers, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the lovely singer-dancer-actress Olga San Juan (1927-2009).

Born in Brooklyn and raised in both Puerto Rico and New York’s Spanish Harlem, San Juan began dancing at age three and performed in nightclubs throughout her childhood. Gradually the venues grew more prestigious (the Copacabanna and the El Morocco) and she was hired by The King of Latin Music, Tito Puente. Eventually she formed Olga San Juan and her Rumba Band and began to be heard on radio as much as in nightclubs.

In 1943, at the height of the Latin craze, Paramount hired her and she began to appear in pictures, most of them musicals. She was in Blue Skies (1946) with Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, the all-star Variety Girl (1947), with Ava Gardner in One Touch of Venus (1948), and with Sonja Henie in The Countess of Monte Crisco (1948). Her last major film role was in the late Preston Sturges comedy The Beautiful Blonde of Bashful Bend (1949), which I watched recently and first brought her to my attention. While San Juan often played Lupe Velez and Carmen Miranda type broad-stroke Latin characters, in Beautiful Blonde, she downplays that element, radiating taste, wit and intelligence rather than crude dialect humor. It made me sit up and take notice.

Unfortunately, that was her last opportunity to do that in film. That year she also married the actor Edmund O’Brien, and she retired to raise their children. She had one more major role on Broadway, in the original production of Paint Your Wagon (1951-52). After this a couple of bit roles in the films, and that was it. She and O’Brien divorced in 1976.

 

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.For more on comedy film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

 

 

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