Hollywood in the Caribbean

Susan Ward looks back to the days when Humphery Bogart and Errol Flynn came to make movies

  • Maureen O’Hara, Alec Guinness and director Carol Reed (far right) listen respectfully to a young Fidel Castro during a break in the filming of ‘Our Man in Havana’
  • Humphrey Bogart takes his peanuts straight in this scene from the 1944 production ‘To Have & Have Not’ set in Vichy-run Martinique
  • Humprey Bogart and Lauren Bacall talk through a scene with Seminole Indian extras in Key Largo (1948). Photograph by the British Film Institute
  • Photograph by the British Film Institute/ Warner Brothers

Before the Second World War, Hollywood couldn’t afford real locations for pictures with exotic settings – if it had the budget, it lacked the imagination. The crashing surf of a South Sea island, a winding kasbah in Morocco, a besieged fort on the sweltering Indian plain – all found themselves conjured up in the varied landscape of southern California or in the improvised “foreignness” of a suburban studio.

Only in the mid-1940s did directors begin to venture further afield than their own backyard: to Mexico, the Caribbean, and finally to Europe and beyond. To Have and Have Not (1944) was one of the first films to draw film-makers away from the golden spell of the Hollywood Hills, and in so doing scored a double hit for the Caribbean. It involved two islands, Florida’s Key West and Martinique, and it was the only time two Nobel prize-winners were credited on a Hollywood film (Ernest Hemingway as author of the original novel and William Faulkner as scriptwriter).

In the 1930s and 40s, Key West – the southernmost point in mainland America – was where Hemingway made his home and wrote some of his most enduring stories: A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, To Have and Have Not, For Whom the Bell Tolls, all later made into classic films. True to his well-publicised image as a macho-man, Ernest entertained like-minded types at his green-shuttered house, took them deep-sea fishing on his yacht and treated them to heavy rounds at Sloppy Joe’s Bar on Greene Street (now Captain Toy’s Saloon).

On one such outing, the great director Howard Hawks bet Hemingway he could make a good film out of what he deemed Ernest’s “worst book” – To Have and Have Not.

No Hollywood director could bear to stick too close to any original, no matter how good, so Hawks and his crew set about changing the settings from Key West and Cuba to Martinique, and the story-line from private gun-running to romantic support for the French Resistance. The star, Humphrey Bogart, was still basking in the success of Casablanca, made two years earlier, so everyone, from the public to Warner Brothers, saw the new film as a Casablanca Mark II.

The place it finally earned in movie history had less to do with the romance of war than with the romance between Bogart and 19-year-old Lauren Bacall in her first film. They went on to a spectacularly successful marriage and three more films, one of which, Key Largo (1948, directed by John Huston), used another Florida Key as its setting (though, like To Have and Have Not, most of the shooting was still done back in Hollywood).

Today Key Largo has its landmarks of that golden era of movie making, among them the original African Queen steamboat featured in the 1951 Bogart-Hepburn film of the same name. It is moored at the Key Largo Holiday Inn; director John Huston actually shot The African Queen on location in Africa, but he left hard currency along with his memory at the Caribbean Club on the island, where he was a guest and frequent gambler. It has fallen on hard times without his patronage; today its ambience is more blue-collar than white-tie.

When Captain Blood hit the silver screen in 1935, it brought stardom and a first taste of the Caribbean to a young actor called Errol Flynn, even if it was courtesy of the Warner back lot. Not until some 15 years later was Flynn able to claim a part of the real thing for himself. In the northeast corner of Jamaica, in Port Antonio Harbour, he bought Navy Island.

There Flynn, his second wife Patrice Wymore and a partying crowd of Hollywood cronies made what became the Admiralty Club Hotel the hippest, glitziest joint on the island in the 1950s. By that time Flynn’s drinking and womanising had taken their toll, but he found something like contentment in the laid-back, non-judgemental character of Jamaica and its people.

Today, the old ghosts take their pleasures quietly, while more conventional guests enjoy the mini-island’s three white, fine sand beaches (one of which is “clothing optional”) and the 30 bungalows hiding in its 60 palm-fringed acres. The dining room and terrace extend out over the water, where once the swashbuckling actor moored Zaca, one in a series of glamorous yachts.

A mere seven hours by ferry from Port Antonio, or an hour from Kingston by plane, Cuba is slowly moving back into the international tourist consciousness. But in the 40s and early 50s, Havana was the low- life high-jinks capital of the Americas, where the New York underworld and Hollywood demimonde went to shed their inhibitions. Today the huge mouldering Art Deco palace hotels and villas in the Vedado district are mute testimony to its tarnished glamour.

The best view of the main street, Calle 23 – better known as La Rampa – can be had from the roof of the Cuba Libre Hotel, whose bar saw the creation of the eponymous cocktail, a happy marriage of rum and coke. The Havana scenes in Mankiewicz’s 1955 film version of Frank Loesser’s musical Guys and Dolls, with Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons and Frank Sinatra, were set here, though they were actually realised on a Hollywood sound stage.

Beyond lies the suburb of Cojimar, the scene of Hemingway’s evocative novella The Old Man and The Sea. A bust of Hemingway stands near the beach, once alive with small fishing boats and men mending nets, but nowadays becalmed by the decline of maritime industry.

The book itself, which some critics have called the author’s Passion allegory, was actually written in Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s haven in the late 40s and 50s. Now overtaken by Havana’s southwestern suburb San Francisco de Paula, the house is kept as he left it in 1960. His typewriter stands at the ready; marlin and other deep-sea trophies line the walls. The contract for the film of the book was signed there in 1953, but it took three years of planning and another two and a half of shooting to reach the screen.

Hemingway himself can be glimpsed as a spectator in one brief flashback scene, an arm-wrestling fight involving the hero, Santiago, played by Spencer Tracy, whose days with the author resulted in an enduring friendship. Havana’s busy streets and local beach-and-sea locations featured in early shots, but production went $2 million over budget and the film was finished in a Burbank, California, water tank, using a foam-rubber shark.

The bitter slide from verisimilitude to shoddy invention almost broke the heart of the novelist who put truthfulness above all other virtues.

While The Old Man and the Sea was in production, a relatively low- budget film with a much larger and most intriguing cast was being made further down the Caribbean island chain, in Grenada (certain background shots were filmed later in Barbados). Island in the Sun (1956) was an ambitious, if confused, work. Based on a novel by Alec Waugh, it attempted to marry the narrative conventions of Crime and Punishment with the social changes sweeping a fictitious Caribbean island.

Politically, it pitted the old order of land-owning whites (played by James Mason, Joan Fontaine, Michael Rennie, Stephen Royd and John Collins) against the rising consciousness of the black electorate, personified by a young union leader and his sister (Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge, backed by a large part of Grenada’s population, cast as extras). Sociologically, this was also the first Hollywood film to try to deal seriously with sexual relations between the races.

That the film did not succeed in all its ambitions was perhaps due as much to the beauty of Grenada as to the muddled storyline. When the critics came to reviewing it, the island was the one star no-one could fault. The Santa Maria Hotel, where the cast stayed, and the Grand Anse Beach Club, where they played, have been overtaken by much plusher and more highly-promoted operations, but the magic lingers on. In his autobiography Before I Forget (1981), the much-travelled sophisticate Mason reminisced: “If anyone asks me: in all your travels, which is the loveliest place you have ever known? The answer comes pat. Grenada.”

By the end of the 1950s, location shooting had become an accepted part (and perk) of film-making, with wildgame sequences in Kenya and Ceylon (Mogambo, Elephant Walk), volcano exploring in Iceland and Italy (Journey to the Centre of the Earth) and Biblical spectaculars all over the Mediterranean (The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur) exploiting their background attractions to the full.

But none of the casts of these films could have known what it was like to watch real history in the making. That was the gift given to the actors and location unit of Carol Reed’s Our Man in Havana (1959), based on the novel by Graham Greene. Alec Guinness, Noel Coward, Ralph Richardson, Burl Ives and Maureen O’Hara played their characters as creatures caught in a mad, fictional world; but their real selves were marooned on an island which had transformed itself into a revolutionary state even as filming began. The new world seemed no less uncertain or frightening than the old.

The gambling casinos, elegant hotels and Cadillacs of the old regime disappeared as if overnight; in charge was a man with the status of a folk hero but about whom little was known and much feared. Greene, an admirer of Fidel Castro, flew out to meet his hero; the reactions of the others on the set ranged from charmed through bemused to sceptical.

In hindsight, the meeting between the revolutionary who challenged American might in its own backyard (and who is still there 35 years later) and a clutch of respected British and American stars spelled the end of more than one era. Even a left-wing dictator, it seemed, could be seduced by the glamour of celluloid. Politics and the cinema have become ever closer as the years pass by.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.