One of my favorite CDs to listen to while my hour long commute is “Maracas, Marimbas & Mambos: Latin Classics At M-G-M.” Along with ballads performed by Colombian singer Carlos Ramierz and toe tapping, show stoppers by Carmen Miranda, one of my favorite 1940s bandleaders multiple times on this album: Xavier Cugat. From the fun and humorous “Take it Easy” from “Two Girls and A Sailor” (1944) to the bouncing “Walter Winchell Rumba,” Cugat’s songs are jaunty and full of spirit.
What do you think of when you hear “1940s culture”? Big band music performed by the likes of Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey with teens swing dancing and Frank Sinatra crooning? Though big band and swing seem to characterize the popular perception of World War II era United States, one of the biggest fads in the United States in the 1940’s was Latin and Spanish culture.
Throughout the mid-1930s through the early-1950s, Hispanic themed music was popular and Xavier Cugat was the Rumba King.
Cugat, nicknamed Cugie, was arguably was the top Hispanic bandleader during this time, popularizing the rumba in the United States. Cugat’s popularity landed him into 17 Hollywood films, including “Luxury Liner” and “Holiday in Mexico” with Jane Powell, and “Thrill of Romance,” “Bathing Beauty” and “On an Island with You” with Esther Williams.
In most of his film appearances, Cugat was accompanied by his female singer, Lina Romay.
Cugat’s trademark was directing his musicians with his violin in one hand while holding a chihuahua in the other. Other times he may sketch a quick drawing while directing.
Xavier Cugat in “Holiday in Mexico” (1948) performing the song “Yo Te Amo Mucho-And That’s That”
Along with Cugat, other hispanic performers would be featured, but each had their own musical style and none overlapped. Carmen Miranda’s numbers were colorful and often comical, characterized by her detailed and elaborate costumes.
Pianist José Iturbi would be featured playing classical pieces, sometimes accompanied by his sister Amparo.
But the Latin fueled music didn’t stop with Cugat, Iturbi and Miranda. In “Easy to Wed” (1946), Esther Williams and Van Johnson sing in Portuguese–coached by Carmen Miranda–“Bonecu de Pixe,” accompanied by “Hit Parade” organist Hazel Smith. 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.”
To a lesser degree, in most 1940s films, if the stars are in a nightclub, you bet they will be doing a rumba at one point. 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).
But this Hispanic influence didn’t stop at the music during this time period: It translated into clothing, film themes and dances.
Donna Reed on a June 1946 cover of LIFE in peasant clothes
The Spanish and Latin influence was not just limited to night club entertainment but also rubbed off on fashion.
Popular 1940s summer fashions were influenced by Latin culture with peasant blouses, colorful fiesta skirts and espadrille shoes.
Jane Powell can be seen wearing this style in wore a 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.
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:
•Down Argentine Way (1940)
•Week-End in Havana (1941)
•Holiday In Mexico (1946)
•Thrill in Brazil (1946)
Other movies like “Gilda” (1946) or “Romance on the High Seas” (1948) are located in South America and take part in Carnival.
Why was this Hispanic influence huge in United States pop culture?
The Good Neighbor Policy.
To state it as simply as possible-During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency starting in 1933, the policy was created with the principle for the United States not to interfere with domestic affairs in Latin America, and the United States acting like “a good neighbor.”
Specifically with stars like Brazilian Carmen Miranda, her job was to star in patriotic films such as “The Gang’s All Here” to bridge the gap between the Americas.
However, the policy declined in 1945 after World War II ended and the Cold War began.
Cugat remained popular throughout the 1950s, but much like big band performers like Harry James or Tommy Dorsey, his popularity faded as the rumbas and dance music were less relevant and rock n’ roll started to emerge. He retired in 1971 after suffering a stroke.
This is part of the Hollywood Hispanic Heritage Blogathon with Aurora’s Gin Joint.
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