When “Errol Flynn’s Ghost: Hollywood in Havana” screens at SPU’s Roy Irving Theatre as part of the Golden Door Film Festival, it will be a bit of a homecoming for director Gaspar Gonzalez. He was born 1968 in the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital (part of the original Jersey City Medical Center space that is now condos).
His family had settled in West New York in the 1960s – after they left Cuba.
“For me personally, I was always fascinated by the fact that my parents and grandparents, who otherwise were not steeped in American pop culture, could rattle off the names of classical Hollywood stars and recount the plots of even obscure movies,” says Gonzalez, “because they had seen them in Cuba.”
Funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Hammer and Nail Productions documentary explores the phenomenon that Hollywood movies were in 1940s and 50s-era Cuba, with Havana, as their press release notes, “reportedly boasting more movie-theatre seats per capita than any city in the world.”
“Errol Flynn’s Ghost” also explores the continued impact of classical Hollywood in modern Cuba, and parallels Flynn’s popularity as an action star and subsequent twilight in that vein with the revolutionary going-ons in Cuba.
It’s easy to think that Cubans went to the movies for the most obvious reason anyone does – escapism – but why stories resonate with people is often more complicated.
“What was most interesting to me about the cultural impact of Hollywood movies in mid-20th century Cuba was not that they were seen as escapist fare, but the degree to which they were seen as reflecting the realities of Cuban life,” says Gonzalez. “Historian Megan Feeney, author of the forthcoming book ‘Hollywood in Havana,’ describes how the 1939 Frank Capra classic ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ was seen by Cubans at the time as a kind of cautionary tale about the how American-style democracy — despite all of its stated virtues — could be corrupted by unscrupulous politicians. Cubans at the time, of course, were well acquainted with the limits of American democracy, knew that the American government was all too willing to prop up strong men in places like Cuba, if that suited its foreign policy goals.
“So the point of ‘Errol Flynn’s Ghost’ is that these Hollywood films really spoke to Cubans in a very fundamental way. Cuban audiences saw these films as relevant to their own lived experience.”
The most marked difference between American and Cuban fandom, according to Gonzalez, is that in the latter there was more of a hunger for “the cinematic ‘man of action’ (which) — whether a pirate or gangster or cowboy — really held sway in pre-revolutionary Cuba, because it was a type that was also popular in Cuban culture.
“What makes Flynn a special case is that he actually turns up in the middle of the revolution in late 1958, working as a war correspondent for the Hearst newspaper chain,” says Gonzalez. “It was the ultimate example of life imitating art — as if Flynn had somehow leapt off the movie screen in Havana to take his place alongside this real-life Robin Hood, which is the way Fidel Castro was seen at the time by a majority of Cubans.
“Both Flynn and Castro absolutely tried to capitalize on the association,” says Gonzalez. “For Flynn, whose career and life had been in decline for the better part of a decade, it was a chance to be relevant again… And for Castro, it was a chance to bask in the glow of Flynn’s star image.”
Gonzalez says one of the things he’s particularly proud of about “Errol Flynn’s Ghost” is that it’s “a true collaboration between (Hammer and Nail Productions) and the Cuban state film agency Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC).”
“Even though Cuba developed a vibrant film industry in the years after the revolution, to this day classical Hollywood films like ‘Casablanca,’ ‘The Killers,’ ‘3:10 to Yuma,’ etc. still air on Cuban state television.
“And, if you drive around Havana, you’ll see contemporary Hollywood films playing in certain theatres. They acquire them from distributors outside the U.S., so there’s no violation of the embargo. But it goes to prove the point: Cubans never got over their love affair with American movies.”
Gonzalez says that even though his family moved to Miami soon after he was born, West New York and Jersey City still have a warm place in their hearts. “Both of my brothers graduated from Memorial High in West New York. The oldest, Nelson, was killed in Vietnam and today our family sponsors an annual award for graduating seniors in his name: the Nelson R. Ramirez Memorial Award, which is given to a Memorial High student who successfully balances schoolwork with significant outside employment. My brother worked in a garment factory while he attended high school, so it’s a way to honor his memory and give back to a place that meant a lot to him, and to us.”
“Errol Flynn’s Ghost: Hollywood in Havana” screens Sunday at 10 a.m. at the Roy Irving Theatre, St. Peter’s University, 850 Montgomery Street, Jersey City. Short documentaries “Harv” (2017; Dir. Stephen Tucker) and “John Hemmer & The Showgirls” (2017; Dir. Kirsten Larvick) are also on the program. Tickets are $12 and may be purchased in advance through http://www.goldendoorfilmfestival.org.