What the Latins Think of Hollywood
FOR the past five years, Hollywood films have been losing ground in South America, while the productions of Argentine and Mexican studios have steadily increased their audiences. One reason is that Latin Americans prefer films with dialogue spoken in Spanish or Portuguese to those with English dialogue and difficult-to-follow Spanish subtitles. Another and less obvious reason for the failure of our films is that, since the beginning of the war, Hollywood has released a large number of pictures which are intensely nationalistic or which depend for their effect on an intimate knowledge of life in this country. Our audiences and critics like them. The South Americans do not.
Saroyan’s Human Comedy, for instance, drew critical acclaim and long waiting lines in the States. It flopped miserably in Buenos Aires and Bogotá, Santiago and São Paulo, because it could not be understood. The aspects of the story which were most familiar to Norteamericanos and gave the picture its particular down-to-earth appeal were the very weaknesses which caused South American patrons to walk out. The messenger boy hero, the significance of apple pies, Sister’s boy friends, and the lovable old telegrapher made little sense to Latin Americans, to whom they constituted, not a related world, but an entirely alien and not very interesting one. And the scene of the innocent good-night kiss given the young soldiers by the small-town girls caused church frowns and censorship deletions in several countries.
Warner’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, aside from the tough qualities of James Cagney, who is anathema to Latin filmgoers, had a story so Red, White, and Blue that Latins never did understand it. It was the same with the George M. Cohan music — evoking sentimental memories in the States, boredom in Latin America.
Bing Crosby’s Going My Way, which snapped up almost all of Hollywood’s Academy Awards, pictured a singing Catholic priest so different from the Latin conception that there were difficulties in a number of places. Besides, Crosby’s crooning, which has kept him among the ten top-grossing stars in the United States for years, has never caught on in Latin America. In One Foot in Heaven the picturization of a Protestant minister’s small-town ups and downs evoked similar distaste.
My Friend Flicka, a charming story of a boy and his horse, was rated high by United States critics and audiences. It fared badly in most Latin countries; the differences between the way of life depicted and that known in Latin America were too great.
The same differences have appeared in the reception of the war films which filled our screens after Pearl Harbor. Some were excellent, dramatic in handling and universal in appeal. Latin America liked and bought plenty of tickets to see Mrs. Miniver, Casablanca, and Wake Island, each presenting a different approach to the war. But many others, at least in Latin American opinion, were nothing more than flag-waving, sentimental tear-jerkers and superman heroics.
When Warner’s Air Force was run off for a group of Argentine Army officers, it was hoped they might be brought around to a little better understanding and appreciation of our forces, which at the time still had to prove their effectiveness in combat. All went well until the smash-bang climax. Then one Berlintrained Argentine colonel remarked, “A few more Hollywood pilots like those and you won’t even need a second front.” In varying degree, that was the reaction of most Latins.
Columbia’s Sahara was making a favorable impression with excellent performances and seeming authenticity until the arrival of what Latin critics called “the classic Hollywood finale” with Humphrey Bogart cleaning up everything in sight. Winged Victory produced the same reaction. Audiences either booed or were bored.
But while many of Hollywood’s war efforts made no friends, the fun-poking war films, often released at the very time when our armed forces were in their darkest days, actually did harm. Abbott and Costello’s In the Navy, and similiar service epics where admirals get kicked in the pants, — all in dream sequences, of course, — while demonstrating to folks at home that our sense of humor rarely deserts us, simply made Latins gasp. So did the production-line shenanigans in such “morale boosters” as SwingShift Maisie and We’ve Never Been Licked.
Like the pre-war gangster films, one or two such pictures in themselves mean little. The repetition, especially in poorly made pictures, of what one Uruguayan writer called “first the cowboys, then the cops and robbers, and now the Americanos and Nazis” helped contribute to Latin America’s lack of enthusiasm for, or understanding of, the war.
In some cases good anti-Nazi films like Bette Davis’s Watch on the Rhine and Tomorrow the World failed because there was too much conversation to translate into subtitles. As in the case of Bob Hope’s comedies, those films may go fairly well in the big cities, where many speak or at least understand some English. But not even the fact that Miss Davis is one of the most popular stars down there could keep Latin audiences coming after word got around that the film was all conversation.
There are still no certain guides as to what will be acceptable to Latins. The Andy Hardy series, supposedly thoroughly North American in character, was a great success. Mickey Rooney has long been popular in the other Americas, and the Hardy pictures, with their likable, friendly picturization of small-town life, did as much good to the American cause as anything in years.
A secondary film called Always in My Heart, which created no great stir in the States, ran more than fifteen record-smashing weeks in Rio and was a triumph everywhere in Brazil. Why, no one can be certain. Walter Wanger’s Arabian Nights in technicolor and Universal’s Phantom of the Opera broke records everywhere. Blood and Sand, with bullfighting sequences not permitted at home, was a tremendous hit , even in Argentina and Uruguay, which have no such sport . Gone with the Wind does better on its revivals than many new films.
Some of the more progressive American studios are beginning to cater specifically and painstakingly to the 125 millions below the border by establishing equal partnership studios with Latin producers, chiefly in Mexico. This is smart business. It gives them an inside track on information and on the distribution of their own product and may prevent Latin quota laws designed to stimulate national industry. No films made under this arrangement have yet been released.
A number of studios have also concluded that English-language talkies with Spanish subtitles are certain to become less and less popular as local production improves and European makers, especially in France, get back in business. One plan is to “dub” films in Spanish as was done with most American pictures in Italy and elsewhere on the Continent before the war. Twentieth Century-Fox’s Song of Bernadette dubbed in Mexico City was something of a test case, and Paramount has released Double Indemnity in Spanish.
But dubbing is a difficult, expensive, hazardous process. Some audiences, especially in the big cities, know that Greer Garson and Clark Gable don’t speak Spanish, and want the original version. Mexican Spanish, while cinematically acceptable as far south as Peru, isn’t popular in the River Plate republic or Chile. Brazil needs an entirely different version. And Argentine and Mexican producers, fearing that successful dubbing may lower their profits, have warned actors doing such work that they may be boycotted.
Another technique used in Europe was simultaneous production in two or more languages. A scene is shot in English, then with the same or other actors in Spanish, French, or anything else. RKO and the Mexican studios Aguila and Fama are already trying it — making a John Steinbeck original, The Pearl of La Paz, with a bilingual cast for American and Latin distribution.
Both these methods tackle only one angle of the difficulties our films face in Latin America and throughout the world. Interest in a picture will naturally increase if every word can be understood, but the difference in national points of view will remain. Some producers, aware that the domestic market is worth more than the rest of the world combined (even though it’s the showings outside that pile up the profits), intend to make their pictures primarily for home consumption and let the Latins take them or leave them.
Others, however, cite the case of Walt Disney to prove what must be done if Hollywood wants to make real progress in Latin America. When Disney went south a few years ago with some sixty artists and experts, it was no junket but a real research job, carefully planned and plotted. They set up headquarters in every Latin country and really got to know the best artists, writers, and illustrators. They rode with the gauchos over the pampas and with the Panagra pilots over the Andes; they studied the folks and the folklore. They came home and didn’t turn out a foot of film for months. The experts said Disney had picked a flop this shot.
Then Mickey Mouse and company released Saludos. It was the first time most Yanquis had ever heard an honest-to-goodness, non-Hollywood-ized samba or learned what goes on on the sidewalks of Buenos Aires. The more recent Three Caballeros carried on the idea. Both have been just as popular here as there. Interest, intelligence, originality, and a flair for international showmanship have enabled Disney to build not only good will but good box office in both the Americas — North and South. The rest of Hollywood, says Latin America, can do the same.