The CD “Maracas, Marimbas & Mambos: Latin Classics At M-G-M” is one of my favorite CDs. My favorite song on the CD is Xavier Cugat and Lina Romay singing “Take it Easy” from the movie “Two Girls and A Sailor” (1944).
It might seem random that I have a CD collection of Latin favorites from MGM films, but the Spanish songs, fashions and actors were popular in Hollywood and World War II era America.
Walter Winchell Rumba and Lina Romay
What do you think of when you hear “1940s culture”? Big band music like Glenn Miller? Swing dancing? Romantic crooners?
Though big band and swing seem to characterize the popular perception of World War II era U.S.A., one of the biggest fads in the United States in the 40’s was Latin and Spanish culture.
Watch any old movie from the 1940s. Actresses are wearing peasant blouses and fiesta skirts and everyone in the night clubs are doing the rumba.
Along with big band artists like Harry James, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, Xavier Cugat held his own as he directed his Latin orchestra with a violin in one hand and a Chihuahua in the other.
Xavier Cugat, nicknamed “The Rumba King,” popularized Spanish music, particularly the rumba, in the United States.
José Iturbi was another popular Spanish artist during the 1940s. The pianist was featured in several feature films, sometimes accompanied by his sister Amparo.
The Spanish and Latin influence was not just limited to night club entertainment but also rubbed off on fashion.
No, American women weren’t walking around in traditional Spanish dress, but popular 1940s summer fashions were influenced by Latin culture.
Jane Powell wore a peasant blouse, fiesta skirt and hemp and canvas shoes in “Luxury Liner” (1948). The July 17, 1944 LIFE magazine cover features a model wearing what was known as the “Peasant Clothes.” She is wearing a lose, capped sleeve blouse, a flared striped skirt and wedged hemp shoes.
Western movies also incorporated Latin fashions as many films had Mexican Vaqueros sporting ponchos and sombreros and women in traditional Mexican dresses.
Fly Rio, Rio by the sea-o
Movies reflected the Spanish influence interest with fashions, music, location and even film title. Some films in the 1940s were:
Movies based in small town America exhibit the interest in Latin culture. In “A Date with Judy” (1948) Carmen Miranda teaches Wallace Beery how to rumba so he can dance with his wife, Selena Royal, for their anniversary. Even Charles Laughton was doing the rumba with Deanna Durbin in “It Started with Eve” (1941).
Spanish actors like Carmen Miranda and Lupe Velez were popular in film. American actresses like Cyd Charisse and Linda Darnell frequently played Spanish roles when they were clearly American.
MGM had very American girl and boy next door actors Esther Williams and Van Johnson singing in Portuguese to “Bonecu de Pixe” at a party in “ Easy to Wed” (1946). Williams said they were trained by Carmen Miranda and she felt ridiculous singing in Portuguese since she was butchering the language, according to her autobiography “The Million Dollar Mermaid.”
I’m not sure why there was this obsession with Latin and Spanish culture in the United States. I personally love it and wish we could bring it back. Here are a few speculations I have of why 1930s and 1940s America was so interested in the culture.
•Rudolph Valentino was the big Latin lover in the 1920s. After he died suddenly, they tried to replace him with other “Latin Lover” types like Ricardo Cortez, who was actually of Austrian decent. Maybe Valentino set off the Latin interest, especially because of his sudden death that left fans mourning.
• In several of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, large dance numbers were featured that had a Latin beat or style of dancing. Some of these dances included the “Carioca” and the “The Continental.” This might have set off the interest of rumbas and Xavier Cugat.
•Eva Peron was a glamour and fashion icon in Argentina. She even modeled her clothing and hair style after Ginger Rogers, according to Rogers’ autobiography “Ginger: My Story.” Maybe her fashion and glamour interested Americans.
•During World War II, Americans could not easily take trips to Europe. South America seemed like the next best place to go abroad. It’s funny to hear of people in the movies going to Cuba since we don’t have the best relationship with them now.
What is your opinion?
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