Saturday 23 February 2013

Cuban Rebel Girls (1959)

Director: Barry Mahon
Stars: Beverly Aadland, John MacKay, Jackie Jackler and Marie Edmund

The last line of Errol Flynn's infamous memoirs, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, reads, 'The second half-century looms up, but I don't feel the night coming on.' He dictated that in late 1958, at the age of 49, while living in Jamaica with his girlfriend, Beverly Aadland, as she turned sixteen, but the night came on quicker than he thought, as he died of a heart attack in Vancouver only a year later. It's unlikely that it was a surprise to anyone else, as a lifetime of hard living and harder drinking had turned him from the swashbuckling icon of Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk into a bloated parody. He hadn't been healthy for years, rejected for service in 1942 as 4-F for an enlarged heart, chronic back pain, malaria, tuberculosis and a set of venereal diseases. His liver began to fail in 1952, as he contracted hepatitis. Heavy smoking had caused Buerger's disease, thrombosis of veins and arteries. His second half-century lasted less than four months.

It's not unusual for Hollywood stars to deteriorate, slowly or quickly, and die before their time, but usually they fade away. In Flynn's case, what makes it unusual is he did the opposite. 1959 might even count as his most fascinating year, even had he not died towards the end of it. He survived a bout of food poisoning earlier in the year, after eating a mixture of uncooked hamburger meat and raw egg yolks. He was plagued by the IRS, who eroded his finances so far that he was heading for bankruptcy, though his lifestyle continued as if he was still one of Hollywood's highest paid actors. His third wife, Pat Wymore, was finally divorcing him, which made his teenage girlfriend happy, as she was eager to become his fourth. Even his career was notable again, his three 1957 and 1958 films, The Sun Also Rises, Too Much, Too Soon and The Roots of Heaven, praised for some of the best acting in his career. Yet his final two, shot in 1959, were perhaps his worst.

Conversely, they're also two of his most interesting, as he found himself in the right place at the right time to meet a variety of personal needs. The place was Cuba, which he knew well, having long enjoyed the hedonistic lifestyle made possible by Fulgencia Batista's openness for wealthy tourists. The time was just before Batista, Cuba's president and dictator, was overthrown by the guerrilla revolution led by Fidel Castro and his 26th of July Movement. Revolutions had long been a magnet to the idealistic Flynn, who once wrote, 'Ever since boyhood I have been drawn, perhaps romantically, to the ideas of causes, crusades.' He joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War and condemned Gen Franco in Madrid, as he aimed 'to follow in Hemingway's footsteps' as a wartime correspondent. With a new Cuban cause, he took to the hills to report it for the New York Journal-American, a Hearst publication. He wrote at least two features.
Clearly just as important to Flynn as this serious reportage was the need to repair his finances, so he took the opportunity not only to write about the revolution but to film it too, making two rather different pictures that went on to have rather different histories. The one that nobody knew about for the longest time was Cuban Story or The Truth About Fidel Castro Revolution, as it saw a world premiére in Moscow before disappearing for four decades, finally being rediscovered and screened in New York in 2001. A supposed documentary, it's closer to propaganda, clearly taking the side of the rebels, with whom Flynn and film producer Victor Pahlen, felt kinship. Pahlen, a Russian born American, met and befriended Flynn in Havana in 1956. They both knew and loved Cuba under its dictator, but were well aware of problems that Castro claimed he would solve, after seizing power, like restoring elections and press freedom.

As propaganda, Cuban Story is a mess, a paeon to an ideology that didn't exist, awkwardly pro-Castro but not pro-Communist. The rebels fighting Batista were comprised of different factions with different agendas, including anti-communists; even after taking control, Castro came to the States to deny he was communist. In 1965 he became First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, but Flynn saw that writing on the wall in 1959. 'It is one thing to start a revolution, another to win it and still another to make it stick,' he said, 'and as far as this writer is concerned it ain’t sticking,' adding that 'the police state in Cuba is not very different from that of its predecessors.' What Cuban Story really has is amazing footage, chronicling the changes in Cuba from the very beginnings of the revolution to after its success. When it finally resurfaced, even the head of the Cuban National Archive told Pahlen's daughter that he had never seen it before.

As it wasn't all shot in 1959, clearly Pahlen was responsible for the footage, or at least most of it, with Flynn peripheral in the grand scheme of things. Maybe he helped get Pahlen and his camera into some of these places, but he doesn't appear on screen much at all. He's there at the outset, apparently ad libbing an introduction whilst under the influence, locating Cuba on a globe that he literally tosses throws away to bounce audibly off screen. He's there early on playing cards with Aadland at the Casino de Capri in Havana, partly owned by George Raft. For a shot of Flynn with Castro though, we have to settle for a photograph. While Flynn clearly gives the introduction, it just as clearly isn't him providing the narration, though the film claims that it's 'reported by Errol Flynn' and it's told in the first person as if it was. It has been suggested that it's Pahlen himself, who has the writing credit, though the accent is British with a Scots tinge, rather than Russian.
The footage in Cuban Story is valuable to historians of Cuba: Batista in his palace, rebels dead in the streets after the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks, Castro preparing for exile in Mexico, demonstrations, rebels hiding in the hills, Che Guevara liberating Santa Clara, former president Carlos Prío, Castro's first speech in Havana with a dove alighting on his shoulder, destruction of Batista landmarks, trials of officials, even a firing squad. The other film Flynn shot at this point is also Cuban but valuable far more to historians of Errol Flynn himself. It's Cuban Rebel Girls, which purports to be a dramatised documentary of rebel life with his girlfriend, Beverly Aadland, as the star. She was a budding actress and underage showgirl in Las Vegas when he met and seduced her on the set of the Gene Kelly movie, Marjorie Morningstar, in 1958. She was fifteen at the time, though she looked much older. He may or may not have believed she was eighteen.

Why Flynn made Cuban Rebel Girls is open to debate, possibly because it was for many different reasons all at once. He knew and loved Cuba and was caught up in the revolution unfolding there. He wanted to meet and report on those behind it, perhaps seeing Castro as a hero of the people. Being out of the country also meant that he was out of reach of the IRS, at least temporarily. He'd already spent the advance for his autobiography, which he hadn't delivered yet, as well as much of what he'd borrowed from backers for a film he planned to make but perhaps didn't even exist outside his sales pitches. As some of these backers may well have been 'less than reputable', it's hardly a stretch to see him connect the dots and decide that shooting a cheap quickie in Cuba would be the best thing all around. It would deliver the film he'd promised, neatly serving as a tax write-off in the process, unfold in exciting fashion amidst a real revolution and make his girlfriend a star.

While that sounds like a winner on paper, Cuban Rebel Girls is a loser on almost every front. How much money he had left to finance it is open to question, but it obviously wasn't a lot, given who he put to work on it. The only major name was his own and he didn't have to pay himself, so he's prominent, writing the script and providing narration, for real this time. He's obvious early on as 'The American Correspondent', flying into Havana where he's shuffled from contact to contact to get him closer to the rebels, then vanishing from sight for long periods at a time, resurfacing in the hills where he visibly struggles in the terrain. To direct, he hired Barry Mahon, a fighter pilot and POW camp escapee whose experience in movies was restricted to co-producing a couple of Flynn's indie pictures in the early fifties. More importantly, he had been Flynn's personal pilot for years and had more recently become his manager. Success was clearly in his interest too.

And of course there's Beverly Aadland. Her mother Florence was a dancer who had lost her leg in a car accident, so lived vicariously through her daughter. Beverly was posing for adverts at six months, eventually becoming the Ivory Soap baby. Dance classes followed as soon as she could walk and she was doing bit parts in movies at three. Some reports suggest she was doing a good sight more than just acting, as she'd bloomed quickly to a 34-18-34 figure at the age of twelve and was allegedly willing to use it for a hundred bucks. Flynn's exploits with the ladies were not far removed from those of the characters he played, leading to the phrase, 'in like Flynn'. He also clearly liked the young stuff, though when he was brought to trial in 1943 by two underage girls for statutory rape, he was cleared of all charges. However, reading what she's written between the lines, it may well have been Aadland who seduced him rather than the other way around.
The catch is that however much experience Aadland had on stage and film, this one makes it very obvious that she wasn't a good actress. Amidst all the true and supposedly true material conjured up for Flynn's script, there's a hokey fictional subplot to provide her with a part and the film with a dynamic title. She's Beverly Woods, an American girl whose boyfriend is Cuban and fighting in the hills with Castro. Her friend is Jacqueline Dominguez, Cuban herself, and about to mount an arms run to the rebels, so she goes along for the ride. Flynn immediately plays them up. 'Some people can put idealism ahead of their own personal losses,' he tells us, as they fly to Miami with $50k in their handbags, drive to Key West and hire shifty looking Capt Alvarez to sail them to Cuba. Some of this is interesting. Boxes are gradually sneaked into the hold and regular fishing trips disguise the odd run across the Straits of Florida under the eyes of the coastguard. Mostly it's ham fisted.

The action is poorly staged and poorly written: one bunch of inept rebels literally walk outside to be arrested when the polizia arrive, except for Maria who climbs out of the window and escapes slowly over the rooftops. The direction is what you'd expect from a man new to the director's seat and whose career would lead him to the heights of International Smorgas-Broad, Fanny Hill Meets the Red Baron and Prostitutes Protective Society. Worst of all, the acting is poor to begin with and gets worse, especially from Aadland, who doesn't seem to realise what tone is appropriate in a rebel camp. Life is jolly, it seems: natives sing songs, the girls take baths in inlets and they all talk about military equipment. 'Sounds like fun,' says Beverly. 'Maybe I'll get to shoot somebody.' She pouts a lot, she blinks a lot and she always sticks her breasts out to pose while she talks. Most of her dialogue is about getting to see her Johnny. She clearly doesn't care about the revolution.

Her performance makes the poor drama even more tortuous. There are slight hints at suspense, strategy and action, but mostly there's only Beverly and Johnny mooning over each other. 'Now I'm a rebel girl, I think I'll think about war too,' she proclaims. She's like a transplant from a teen drama to a war movie, like The Steel Helmet with Hannah Montana. Of course, the only common ground between The Steel Helmet and Cuban Rebel Girls is that they both have three word titles and they both contain shooting. The continuity is terrible, making it easy to lose track of who and what and why. Everyone's a terrible shot too, making this somewhat like Imperial stormtroopers battling Imperial stormtroopers except that occasionally people die. Flynn reappears on occasion to say something chipper while looking like Walt Disney. Beverly gets radio duty on a radio that never talks back to her; she talks, frogs croak and birds tweet and it's otherwise silent and surreal.

One scene literally stops so Beverly can sew up a hole in Flynn's trousers because he scraped his knee on the way up to the camp. Bizarrely, it's the most believable scene in the film, the truest to reality in this supposed dramatisation of real revolution life. With Flynn in bad shape, he needed a lot of care and Aadland tirelessly gave him that, nursing him through recurring bouts of malaria. It was Aadland who found him unconscious in Vancouver, attempted mouth to mouth rescuscitation and called for medical assistance. Flynn had suggested to Stanley Kubrick, casting for Lolita, that he and Aadland play the roles on film that they were living at the time as a surprising but devoted couple. That didn't happen. Neither did her inheritance, as the will which Flynn wrote before going to meet Castro that left her a third of his estate in Jamaica was declared invalid. In the end, what she got was the leading role in her lover's last film. It was a quickie in every way.

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