In this post-Fidel Castro day and age, it seems really odd to think about Cuba being a top tourist destination for Americans, but at one time it was. Before the country was declared off-limits to Americans, people liked the fact that they could pop round to an exotic country for a quick visit and be right back to normal life. 1941’s Week-End In Havana not only capitalized on this trend, but played to audiences who were eyeing the ever-nearing prospect of entering the Second World War. Like most Fox musicals of the 1940s, Week-End In Havana doesn’t have a terribly complex plot. Instead, it’s a big candy box of fun and color.
The movie opens with a snowy view of the Brooklyn Bridge, and then we see brochures for sunny Cuba, promising romance and excitement. Ships constantly depart from America for this Valhalla of vacations, and one of them, the Cuban Queen, runs aground on a reef.
A representative from the Queen’s company, Jay (John Payne) is sent down to the marooned ship to have all the passengers sign a waiver. They can travel for free on the Caribbean Queen as long as they don’t sue the McCracken Steamship Company over the mishap.
Only one passenger, Macy’s hosiery salesgirl Nan Spencer (Alice Faye) refuses to sign, and she makes Jay come see her in her stateroom. She against the idea of postponing her trip because she only has two weeks’ vacation and has spent years saving for it. Plus, Nan knows something the other passengers don’t: When the ship ran aground, everyone came out on deck to look but the captain, who was in his cabin instead of on the bridge where he should have been.
Nan drives a hard bargain. She not only won’t sign the waiver until she’s had her trip, but she has to have a good time or the deal is off. Jay’s boss, Mr. McCracken (George Barbier) tells him to hop to it and squire Nan around Havana. His daughter, Terry (Cobina Wright), is mad because she and Jay are set to get married and this throws a wrench in the proceedings.
Terry just has to wait for now, though, and Jay sets Nan up in the swankiest hotel in Havana. The bathtub alone is so big it’s practically a lap pool. The hotel staff look at her McCracken-furnished wardrobe and assume she’s a rich socialite, a misconception Jay doesn’t clear up.
Jay tries to take Nan sightseeing, which means taking a drive and talking about Cuba’s thriving sugar industry. Nan is bored stiff. She’d rather go clubbing.
The two of them head to Casino Magdaleno, where Rosita Rivas (Carmen Miranda) is the star performer. Nan looks around at all the blissfully happy couples and is still bored, making a face at Jay when he asks if she wants him to make love to her. She finally wanders off and into the company of Monte Blanca (Cesar Romero), who’s very charming and romantic.
Monte takes Nan to the Casino Roof at the Magdaleno, where Nan initially has a lucky streak. He thinks she’s fabulously wealthy, and he’s also hoping she could pull him out of debt. The Casino’s owner, Boris (Sheldon Leonard) is hanging over him like Jabba the Hutt and Monte is as nervous as a cat.
Astute businessman that he is, Jay sees how enamored Nan is with Monte and looks to make it worth his while to keep Nan entertained. If Nan is content, Jay will settle Monte’s debts with Boris. Monte is a nice guy, but kind of hapless.
Rosita isn’t happy about Monte’s new gig as a gigolo because Monte is her manager. Take that as you will. Nan won’t be happy if she finds out Monte spending time with her is orchestrated. Meanwhile, Terry is smoldering back in New York. She’s really not happy.
Week-End In Havana‘s strong points are also its weak points. The music, which was written by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, is delightful but none of it has a life outside of the movie. The look of the movie is frothy and colorful, but it can border on the ridiculous, such as the men’s costumes in the final number, “The Nango.” They’re not as bad as those pink aprons in Something For the Boys, though, so that’s a plus.
The acting is excellent given the thin plot, and there’s a lot to enjoy. While Alice Faye as Nan is fun, she has this habit of waving her hand like she’s doing voodoo or something. John Payne as Jay is a pale character, but he’s supposed to be, and Nan bats him around almost as much as Terry does. That seems to be a thing in Week-End, because Carmen Miranda does it to Cesar Romero, too. They have a sparky chemistry and are by far the highlights of the film. In one scene she chases him around the Casino Roof in her tall-but-tiny platforms demanding her money, and lanky Romero has to scurry to stay ahead of her.
As is always common in the film industry, Week-End could have been a very different movie. According to TCM, it was almost rejected altogether because the Hays Office didn’t like how often Rosita refers to Monte as her “manager,” and then when Monte’s attention is on Nan, Rosita looks to Jay to fill Monte’s role. They thought it was too sexual an angle for the story. Needless to say, the dialogue had to be tweaked before the script could get the OK. The “manager” thing is still there, but it’s much more subtle than it probably would have been.
At first, Betty Grable was set to play Nan and Henry Fonda might have taken the role of Jay, but Don Ameche’s name was also floated. Who knows how producer William LeBaron settled on Alice Faye and John Payne, but Faye was a huge star at the time and pretty much any movie with her in it was a sure bet. After Week-End In Havana she would retire temporarily to have her first child.
Week-End must have felt like a good film to go out on, because it had a healthy showing, beating Citizen Kane at the box office. The critics took to it, but the main descriptor given was that the movie felt like a feature-length commercial–Bosley Crowther, for one, said that Week-End was “bait for the tourist trade.”
My, how times have changed.
The bottom line is that Week-End In Havana must have been a lovely distraction for a worried public in 1941 and could easily entertain audiences nowadays who are looking for an escape. The real Cuba may not be open to American tourists anymore, and that’s a good thing, given the current Communist regime, but movies like Week-End In Havana will always be there for the enjoying.
The Out To Sea Blogathon starts tomorrow, so I hope to see you then. Thanks for reading, all…
Week-End In Havana is available on DVD from Amazon.