Whether by day or night the action was non-stop.
We love vintage nightclub photos, and vintage pix of people partying in general. Since Havana photos are unusually interesting, we're always drawn to them. There's a large number of Havana photos out there, but not primarily because of Cuba's political history. The photos really exist because Cuba was a pioneer of Caribbean tourism, attracting travelers beginning in the 1920s through a heyday of the mid-1950s. The island was promoted as a place of sophistication, mixed with permissiveness, unpredictability, and a touch of the primitive. This prompted various movers and shakers—from New York City businessmen to top musicians to Hollywood stars—to flock to Havana. And where important people went, cameras followed.
Was the Havana image true? Probably, based on what we've read. But it was not unique. During the same period Tangier had a similar reputation, as it attracted writers like Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs, and numerous gay expatriates. During the 1960s Acapulco was knownas a great place to go for thrills. During the 1980s, Ibiza or Mykonos. The 90s, Thailand or Goa. The 00s, Tulum. Havana wasn't unusual in terms of what it offered. Bigger, yes. More convenient for Americans, for sure. But numerous far flung locales have served as paradises for foreign visitors to lose themselves and get crazy.
Most or all of the aforementioned places are considered to have changed for the worse, whether through ecological damage, destruction of historic architecture, unchecked overbuilding, overtourism, or all four scourges at once. But it was revolution that changed Havana, a fact that gives vintage photos from there a particular poignancy. A typical narrative is that while elites and tourists partied, exclusion, inequality, and poverty helped fertilize the seeds of upheaval. But we don't judge anyone in these shots. We've lived in similar circumstances in Central America. We were even partners in a beach bar in the Caribbean. We were always well aware of the prevailing socio-political problems, and we sympathized greatly with the local populations. But it didn't stop us from partying the nights away.
There's an immense feeling of freedom being in a simpler place—and for all its opulent nightclubs and restaurants, Havana is said to have exuded a primeval sensuality that intoxicated tourists and expatriates. If you live in the U.S. or some other modern nation, that feeling isn't something you can achieve by merely paring down your current lifestyle. The things you give up continue to exist all around you. By rejecting those, you become a weirdo. But by living in a less modern nation your life truly changes top to bottom, and you gain this while still existing above the local mean. That's the paradox, or the injustice, depending on your point of view: your satisfaction derives partly from the ability to take or leave anything you wish, because you are economically able to do so. You live more simply than you did, yet live better than most people around you. It isn't noble, but it's very much an attraction.
Bowles and Burroughs lived well in Tangier because it was immensely cheaper than Europe or the U.S. With the savings gained they hosted parties and had time to hone their literary crafts. They were a part of the local society, but existed in a middle-upper stratum, high above the impoverished, well below the Moroccan elites, benefitting from the general perception that foreigners from rich nations are themselves rich. That's how it was for us too. So there's inequality built into thattype of expatriate experience. It's unavoidable. A friend of ours lived in a stick shack on Cayos Cochinos for an entire year and he was still considered a rich foreigner. Everyone knows you have a choice. The Americans who partied in Cuba could never have been anything but wealthy invaders, no matter the reality of their finances, or the inclusiveness their sensibilities.
Living comfortably means the novelties one experiences seem thrilling or romantic. When we were knocking around Guatemala, El Salvador, and the Bay Islands, we turned washing our clothes by hand into an enjoyable ritual, yet understood quite well that many families' daily water intake literally depended on walking a mile to a river. Buying food from the local fruit and veggie stand was far more convenient than queuing at the supermarket for meat, and we ended up dropping to our college weight, but we were nevertheless aware that many people couldn't afford any food, and would have been disgusted at how pleased we were that our reduced fat intake meant we could show six pack abs at the beach. We helped some local families, both financially and logistically, but when your downsized existence is a choice you can never truly fit in.
But the freedom you feel is real. Offloading the burdens of modern life brings legitimate satisfaction. The pursuit of pleasure takes on a special joy. We hit bars, parties, and gallery mixers continually. As foreigners there's no social stigma to drinking every night. Unless you have a job—and we didn't—it's how you form a social circle. Locals generally disapprove, but their judgements carry little weight. So when welook at Havana partying shots we don't quite see oblivious, entitled people, because we know it isn't that simple. Most of them knew what was percolating. Stability was diminishing fast. There was a dissolved parliament, large protests, a 1953 battle in Santiago de Cuba, and other signposts on the way to change. It was clear the fun could never last.
The assortment of people you see here are caught on film like insects caught in amber, long dead but preserved. They're having a few laughs, enjoying some drinks, executing deft turns on dance floors, making their small, temporary marks on the world, leaving behind images showing them for one sliver of a moment in timeless eternity. Things changed in Havana, and now things have changed for all of us. If circumstances where we can dance and laugh and shout together in hot crowded places without fear of sickness ever return, be sure to embrace them fully. We don't just mean in some far flung tropical enclave. We mean anywhere. Because if it isn't a virus that takes those pleasures away, it'll be the march of years. You'll want to have done your best with this gift called life.
An ice cream vendor patiently waits for potential customers to emerge from the Capri Hotel and Casino, 1958. Fashion model Jean Patchett and author Ernest Hemingway, who habitually went shirtless, lounge at Finca Vigia, his house in Cuba, 1950. Above, Constantino Ribalaigua Vert, the "Cocktail King of Havana," inventor of the Papa Doble daiquiri, and owner of the famed bar El Floridita. Liberace performs on stage at the Tropicana with headline dancer Ana Gloria Varona, 1954. A Coke and a smile from two soft drink vendors. Patrons enjoy drinks at El Floridita, 1955. Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante stands by while Marlon Brando tries his hand—or both of them—at the conga drum at Hotel Packard, 1956. Mafia kingpin Meyer Lansky, on the right in this shot, attends the opening of the Hotel Riviera in December 1957. Famed entertainer Zulema dances the rhumba at the Zombie Club, 1946. Three women liven up the room from their perch on the bar at Cabaret Kursal. Cesar Romero and Tyrone Power enjoy a drink and a chat at Sloppy Joe's Bar. Revelers including Errol Flynn and Desi Arnaz, Jr. form a conga line during the Yoruba festival known as Dia de Babalú-Ayé. José Abeal Otero, founder of Sloppy Joe's Bar, mixes up a giant batch of liquid magic. No, this isn't the same person as above, Ribalaigua. They were both small, dapper guys. A firebreather thrills onlookers in front of the Saratoga Hotel, 1949. This photo shows Nat King Cole and his wife Maria Cole, along with Martin Fox, who was the owner of the Tropicana, accompanied by his wife Ofelia and an unknown fifth party. U.S. born vedette and movie star Tongolele, aka Yolanda Montes, poses outside the Capri Hotel and Casino, 1958. Meme Solis and Elena Burke pose at the entrance to the 21 Club, located in the Capri Hotel. These photos show Silvano Chueg Echevarría, a master of percussion and an iconic musical personage. Let's go back to that Marlon Brando photo for a sec. Brando was an aficionado of percussive instruments. During that 1956 jaunt to Cuba he made it known that he wanted to buy drums from real percussionists. One of the musicians he met was Echevarría. All the Havana percussionists knew of Brando, of course, but thought he was a musical dilettante. At some point he finagled his way onto a nightclub stage, sat in with a band, and truly amazed onlookers with his ability on the conga. He wasn't a master, but he was pretty good. He won respect, and bought his drums. Raquel Revuelta, Manuel Corrales, and Mariano Rodriguez leave the famed bar Bodeguita del Medio and walk through the Havana night to other locales, other adventures, 1958.
Who's afraid of him? Nobody anymore.
Isn't this a great poster? It was painted for La femme au gardénia, better known as The Blue Gardenia. Every once in a while you come across an old movie that's so ahead of its time you can't believe what you're seeing. This one is about a woman's response to sexual coercion, and law enforcement's reaction to the aftermath. Basically, Anne Baxter, who's five-three and a buck twenty, ends up in the apartment of Raymond Burr, who's six feet and goes at least 230. Burr plies Baxter with booze, and when he later tries to get her horizontal a struggle ensues and he ends up dead. Baxter escapes the apartment, and thanks to the arrival of a very efficient cleaning lady nearly all the evidence of her presence is accidentally erased the next morning before Burr's body is discovered.
So Baxter's scot-free? Well, not quite. There's that whole guilt, edginess, and fear thing, which her roommates notice. And there are a few bits of evidence, which lead to police drawing ever closer. All these are good plot moves. Lacking an identity for the killer, the press begins calling her—the bit of evidence that exists indicates it's a her—the Blue Gardenia, which is a clear Black Dahlia echo. We liked that. And we also liked that, at this point, the film was a thriller built wholly around consent and power. But this was the 1950s. Of course they weren't trying to impart that lesson. What were we thinking? Instead, an ending so pat that it almost ruins the movie comes blundering over the horizon. Is it wrong to suggest watching the first 75 minutes of this and turning it off?
Okay, the movie isn't completely trashed by the ending. It's just that we thought we had something daring on hand, and in reality it's a decent-not-great semi-noir from Fritz Lang that flirts with feminism but decides not to close the deal. However, the story was derived from a novella by author and playwright Vera Caspary, and we can't help wondering if the suits overruled her on a different ending. Probably not, but we'll have to dig that tale up and read it anyway. Regardless, we think the movie is worth watching just for Anne Baxter's bravura performance. And we love the platinum poodle cut she sports too. Plus there's Nat King Cole as, presumably, himself. The Blue Gardenia opened in the U.S. in 1953, and premiered in France today in 1954
The blood may stop but the stain is permanent.
These old movies. The Scarlet Hour is fun in a way modern flicks simply aren't. Basically, a rich man thinks his young wife is two-timing him. She and her lover, seeking privacy one night, drive to a secluded lookout. Three men arrive and discuss plans to rob a nearby hilltop mansion. The take? $300,000 in insured jewels. The lovers, from their hiding place, hear the plot and decide that if they rob the robbers they can get enough money to run away together. Their consciences are clear about it, because the goods will have been stolen already. But the husband, now deciding to do something about his wife's nocturnal forays, begins following her around. On robbery night that puts him in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time.
It's a twisty set-up, handled deftly thanks to Rip Van Ronkel's, aka Alford Van Ronkel's clever screenplay. The complications keep coming, which means The Scarlet Hour has surprises in store all the way to the end. And as a bonus it was directed by Michael Curtiz, the man behind Casablanca, and as sure-handed a director as ever worked in Tinseltown. It also has a nice nightclub number by crooner Nat King Cole. As far as we know, there are no good digital transfers of the film available, which means a rental or download may yield a less than pristine television rip (like the one we watched). Noir City will be showing an archival print, which would make this worth the extra effort to see even if the movie weren't great, which it is. But even if you aren't anywhere near San Fran tonight, this is one to keep in mind for future viewing.
Monroe may wobble but she won’t fall down.
Marilyn Monroe shows up just about everywhere, and here she is yet again where we didn’t expect to see her—fronting a Malaysian film publication that appeared today in 1953. The magazine, called Filmalaya, is in English, which marks it as aimed at the British colonial community that occupied the upper stratum of society in Malaysia and Singapore. The cover photo is from a publicity series made when Monroe filmed the movie Niagara in Ontario, Canada in late 1952, and let’s just assume her perch is not as precarious as it seems and there’s a handy ledge or lawn behind her in case she goes heels up. But if she does, there are other stars in the magazine, such as Joan Collins, Betty Grable, Rhonda Fleming, Ava Gardner, and Nat King Cole.
Filmalaya represents an interesting snapshot into colonial society, as in the article about Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in London, which describes the thrills and excitement in Malaysia during the event. Doubtless, the mood around the Commonwealth probably seemed festive when viewed from inside the colonial bubble, but we doubt actual Malaysians were particularly moved. Needless to say, this magazine is rare, but luckily items from Asia are often a bargain, so this cost a mere six U.S. dollars. While the inside is nothing special visually speaking, that doesn’t matter when the magazine has this great cover and is such an informative slice of history. We’ve uploaded a few of the best pages below. Enjoy.
Cuba’s Tropicana nightclub turns seventy years old today.
Above is a vintage image of the outdoor stage at the famed Tropicana nightclub in Havana, Cuba. The Tropicana, renowned as one of history’s greatest party spots, opened on December 30, 1939 on the Marianao estate of Guillermina Pérez Chaumont. The place simply blew people’s minds, not only because of its lush setting and luxurious amenities, but because of its extravagant and highly decadent stage shows. The place billed itself as “paradise under the stars,” and if you could afford to get in, it certainly must have seemed that way. On a given night you might see mob bosses, sugar barons, and captains of U.S. industry socializing, while acts such as Pérez Prado, Rosemary Clooney, and Nat King Cole performed onstage. All these years later, despite all the changes on the island of Cuba, the Tropicana is still open, and remains the hottest and most expensive ticket around. Below are more pieces of Tropicana memorabilia, mostly borrowed from Ebay.
Havana when it sizzles.
Fifty years ago on this day, U.S.-installed dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba, acknowledging defeat by socialist forces aligned with Fidel Castro. At the time Cuba was controlled by U.S. business interests and organized crime figures, with 75% of its land in foreign hands, and the capital of Havana serving as an international vice playground. It was known as the Monte Carlo of the Caribbean, and establishments like the Tropicana, San Souci, and Shanghai Theatre were famous for casinos, prostitutes, and totally nude cabaret shows. The El Dorado had an all female orchestra. Mobster Meyer Lansky was royalty. Luminaries such as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Edith Piaf were regular headliners. Havana was simply the place to be.
Less than an hour from Florida by air, New York businessmen who’d told their wives they were at a Miami conference could be enjoying a Cuban whore by lunchtime, and be back in Dade County in time for bed and a phone call from the missus. Alternatively, they could stay all night, or for days at a time, and lose themselves in daiquiris, dancing girls, and the lure of forbidden Barrio Colón. It was paradise—at least if you were a foreigner or one of the wealthy Cubans in partnership with them. For thepoor Havana was pure hell. The billions in revenue earned by casinos and hotels trickled not down, but out—into foreign bank accounts. Malnutrition, illiteracy, and crime were rampant. When Castro ran Batista off the island the party cautiously continued, because his political intentions were not immediately clear. Everyone knew the old system would change; nobody knew exactly how much. But for a brief, post-revolutionary moment Cuba remained open to foreigners, and so the expatriate carnival went on—albeit under a cloud.
But the lines had already been drawn in the greatest ideological battle of modern times. U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower was using the CIA to train Cuban exiles for an invasion to oust the socialists, and Castro was planning to nationalize a corrupt capitalist economy that had excluded those who were too poor, too black, or too lacking in influence to get a seat at the big table. When Castro made nationalization official, the U.S. struck with an embargo, and followed up five months later with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Since then the ideological battle lines have occasionally shifted, but Cuba remains the prize jewel of the war.
As historical events go, the Cuban Revolution, as well as its prelude and aftermath, have been invaluable to genre fiction, providing rich material for authors such as Graham Greene, James Ellroy and a literary who’s-who of others. It has been the subject of countless revisionist potboilers. Stephen Hunter’s Havana is perhaps the best of these novels, at least by an American writer. In that one Fidel’s fate is in the hands of a goodhearted redneck from Arkansas. Sent by the CIA, the heroic marksman is more than a match for the hapless Cubans, but does he really want to kill Castro?
Daniel Chevarría went Hunter one better and wrote several novels set in Cuba, including Tango for a Torturer and the award winner Adios Muchachos. Movies ranging from Errol Flynn’s piece-of-fluff Cuban Rebel Girls, to Wim Wenders’ inspiring Buena Vista Social Club, to Benicio del Toro’s heavyweight Ché have also used the island as a backdrop. Doubtless Cuba will provide material for as long as authors write and directors yell action, as its history continues to inspire, and its future continues to be in flux.
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