Under the Boot of the American Dream
In West Europe in the 40s there was the American dream: capitalism channeled through Hollywood films, an immense make-belief. The remembrance of a child of 12 (now old man of 91) recollecting the Madrid of Famine years, with summer open-air cinema.
Under the Boot of the American Dream
Fernando García Izquierdo
For my dear Nicky
In the summer there was a big open-air cinema in our suburb which first began to operate in June 1941, unless it was in June 1942; I don’t quite remember, but it doesn’t matter either date, they were both famine years.
I quite remember that the day of the inauguration we ate at home that evening a single dish of lentils that Mother had cooked very well with chorizo and a big onion. “Plato único”, it was said. Just one dish.
The name and the idea were imposed by the Government. Everybody had to learn that times were hard. One way or another, we mostly ate lentils those days, a sort of staple food. Someone must have found out that lentils were a nourishing food and relatively easy to produce. Or maybe it was a decision by the government, and farmers were subsidised to invest on old pieces of land full of stones. For you should have seen the leguminous product on arrival: Mother spread the lentils on the oilcloth covering the table and we three brothers spent one hour cleaning it little by little, picking out stones and brambles. Anyhow, no good soil was needed, nor rain, manure or level-soil for dear lentils: only men and women ready to work many hours a day for a few pesetas. In a word, all Spaniards were eating them, and almost nothing else. Reason enough for my brother Miguel to hate them.
I mention this when I said I was going to write about an open-air cinema, because that night of the opening of the cinema, there was a stupid quarrel at home, which I want to mention.
My elder brother (one year my senior) was really a fussy squeamish fellow, and lentils didn’t form part of his favourite dishes. Standing up, Father said in a sing-song voice (he who never sang: “Lentejas, si quieres, las comes y si no las dejas”. It was a sentence heard at table in similar circumstances, for there are squeamish people even in famine years. Miguel was sentenced not to go out that evening, and as said before, it was “Inauguration Day”, that is, the first day of the open-air cinema, which promised to be grandiose.
This particularly comes to mind, though it is only one detail in an ordinary family quarrel in ordinary famelic society, because it was then that I learned another more relevant thing. When Mother tried to intervene (for Miguel was her favourite child, let me point out), pleading that the dear child should be allowed to enjoy, like everybody, the bounty of a new cheap cinema for the people, Father cut her off saying most furiously that she should not intervene, adding, petulantly: “Who is the boss here?” (‘el jefe de esta familia’), and to boot it all: nothing of what my father in all his majesty edicted served any purpose (and this often happened); for my mother, a naturally intelligent woman, many times indirectly won the quarrels.
In brief, we all went to the inauguration: our parents with Albertito, who was only seven, and the other two with our respective friends. I saw my elder brother entering the new cinema with his pals, talking animatedly, and was surprised to see he looked as if nothing had happened. He had gone off without his supper and would not have anything to take to his mouth the rest of that day, save the handful of salted sun-flower-seeds that he would be able to collect from his many friends; and he looked brilliant.
I went on with my own friends, Paquito and Sebastián, each of us trying to find a vacant seat, among the ten or twenty rows of metallic chairs tied up together with steel-wire, placed on a recently watered ground: chairs that were being occupied by a multitude of very happy men, women and children, made up of the same hispanic austere stuff as I was, my “compatriotas”.
‘How come?’, I might have been asking myself, how can it be that so famelic a people shows no sign of generalised depression? Or, am I not seeing, eternal observer that I am, “real life”? A nightmare? am I raving? It is very difficult to explain. This happened eight decades ago!
Now, today, recollecting in my mind the days when I was eleven or twelve, am I lying, inventing? I try to perceive from the past that feeling of olden times, that is all.
The famine years, the great expectations, those days…
I would swear that I hear, see… I am immersed in the crowd, the early forties, Argüelles, Madrid. I am glad to observe that nobody had completely lost hope.
My Madrid also was then to sit every night on a hard chair, visioning the most grandiose stellar panorama a human eye could have. Yes! I liked to look at the sky, a thousand colours in the night; and playing football with my pals during the day, kicking a rag-ball contemplating during the month of June the white-peaks of the Sierra de Guadarrama.
Or the constellations at night in the “Cine de las Flores”, that sense of infinitude, the infinite opened to my observation.
Leading, a few moments later, to the miracle of cinematography which caused all our people to enjoy life together, another life, seeing every night bits of distant worlds. Unreachable?
I cannot forget that healthy sky, the firmament, which God had made so blue, so pure and so varied. I began painting, making drawings which my nice Daddy sent to all our relatives in different points of Spain. A very religious boy going on for twelve.
The moon had not yet come out when we all entered our new cinema the day of the inauguration. Still early spring, when that immense firmament was only a pretty blue dusk, I saw Magdalena, a pretty girl, who lived upstairs, and was accompanied by the first girl I saw of foreign nationality, Ursula, she was called. My brother told me she was German. Her father and his friends were all giants. I often saw them coming out from the house opposite the road.
Soon the lights were switched off and the show commenced. Pandemonium, the roar of a lion was heard, and big on the square screen appeared the King of the Jungle himself (black-and-white) a dozen metres away from the first row of seats, about which we spectators became very excited, a sort of energy linking us, one to the other, the perspective of a couple of hours in paradise with magic characters; but for the time being, only ordinary men and women, Madrileños of the Argüelles suburb. Never before had I sensed around a collectivity of human hearts beating in unison as I did in this moment.
The first film shown was called “El solitario de la pradera”. Tom Mix, or some other cowboy, was in charge of clearing that dusty solitary prairie, of bandits: always on his white horse, with a high topped, broad-brimmed hat and an immaculate kerchief around his neck, a silver revolver in his right hand. “The Bad ones”, on the contrary, rode black mounts and shot in the air with Winchester rifles.
The main picture, which was entitled, ‘el pirata negro’, “The Black Pirate”, with Douglas Fairbanks (I learned all these names that very night), about an adventurer dressed in black, always dressed in black, was also very good. We boys loved to see said pirate handling his sword so well, wounding or killing his enemies or performing other marvels, as (when encircled by a dozen of dirty ugly men) keeping his enemies back by pointing his sword at them and, moreover, jumping simultaneously up upon chairs and tables and finally up into the loggia of a more than mysterious cathedral or monastery.
The next day, all the members of El Gorila’s gang, to which I belonged, and maybe all the members of other gangs, found ourselves performing, sword in hand, as the pirates of old: jumping backwards upon blocks of granite-stones, and getting wounded in the process, some of us.
Many films were shown from then on, which I saw with Paquito and Sebastián and other friends in the generalised society of the Barrio, all social distinctions temporarily banished.
In October we went to school, the gangs constituted during the summer were left dormant, and we the children, girls and boys together went every Thursday afternoon to another, immense cinema (this time with a roof on), situated near Glorieta San Bernardo, which was also called “Cine de la Flor” (in singular), which offered the same stuff, with two notable differences: that here there were only children; and secondly, it was as large as a bullring. The seats were made of hard-wood and the floor was made of very old planks of wood; and when the hundred or so young spectators saw their heroes riding on the square screen, cowboys, Tom Mix, Dick Turpin or other heroes chasing and killing bandits, we all began to stamp our feet, encouraging them, and clouds of dust rose from the floor, and for a long quarter of an hour we saw the gloriously sunny Prairies of the Far West, through dense clouds.
There is nothing more certain than the speed with which Time advances and events and experiences pass on and all goes away. Suddenly you discover that the earth goes around affording you other experiences, the eternal going round… eternally. But personally you are limited, finite. One day you’ll die.
Perhaps it was because of the “Cine de las Flores” that I began to think of the Supreme Being and of Death. Not when I was under the empire of nuns and priests much earlier. But now I had palpable evidence of the existence of God.
Maybe you can imagine, early June every year, our open-air cinema, the collective mind of a people again immersed, and for three months, in the lives and adventures of people entirely different, not real life, but fabricated by Capital in California.
Miguel and I might have been spending a great part of the afternoon sitting at the oilclothed kitchen-table cleaning the lentils or peeling potatoes “cuando venían las patatas”, but as sure as there is a firmament overhead, our minds were on the movies we were going to see that night, “Ana y el Rey de Siam”, “Vinieron las lluvias”…
… I remember that we spread the lentils level over the oilcloth with our palms, and then drew a map of the Peninsula.
… several regions were allotted among us (to Albertito we always left Portugal) and thus we three worked and played…
.... we began to extract the detritus; for the lentils were full of little pebbles, dust, microscopic bits of wood, dead insects and other little creatures…
… when we had fulfilled our obligations, Albertito lifted his arms laughing, and we three could see on the oilcloth two equal little heaps.
… two mountains, like in the movies, the good and the bad: on the one, little stones, pebbles and dead insects, dust and the other pure green lentils.
It was always as if I were making a sentimental journey to foreign lands, “el Mundo fuera de España”. During the civil war I had actually travelled a lot with my family: Barcelona, Zaragoza, Tordehumos, Valladolid. Since my arrival in the capital I saw no foreigners. During the war they had come to our country to fight for the Republic. But I was too little to comprehend.
An elegant, big, red-brick building in our street, which was called “La Casa de las Flores” was inhabited by Germans, all of a sudden. It was my brother Miguel who told me all about them. We were daily seeing a foreign girl of our age, and I heard the world “exiliados” for the first time, and we both liked gazing at the gracious girl.
Early one morning, I was playing in the street with my friends, when this extraordinarily pretty girl appeared in a short leather skirt and white satin blouse, dancing and skipping with a rope, and I thought she looked at me.
One night I saw her with our neighbour, Magdalena, queuing at the ticket office for the ‘Cine de las Flores’ on the Calle Hilarion Eslava. I talked to them and quite timidly I told Magdalena (the other one did not speak much of our language) that if they wanted I could take them in free of charge. Magdalena turned to the German girl, talking and making signs, and touching one another.
“How nice!” I heard the other girl said, clapping, and for a little moment her blue eyes were fixed on me.
An involuntary start on my part caused her (Ursula was her name) to lay her pretty hand upon my arm.
The title of the establishment was due to the fact it was full of flowers. Enclosed between four brick-walls, which were white¬¬¬¬-washed outside and with a multiplicity of creeping plants on the four walls inside, it was this that gave the name to the picture house. And I have to say that with the warm air of the summernights in the Moncloa, not so distant from the Sierra, the atmosphere was there, not simply very good, but even, occasionally, exquisite.
… with the aroma of the roses, the carnations claveliños, and other creeping flowers that covered the interior walls.
… red and mauve columbines or other not so favourite creepers, that were said to come from America.
And now let me tell you that if I have spent some time writing about the flowers of the “Cine de las Flores” it is because it was these flowers that gave me employent in such a good, favourite establishment of all of us.
The prudent businessmen from Barcelona who one day decided to make an open-air cinema in Madrid, must have been good gardeners. However, what I want to say, has nothing to do with Catalans or Aragonese or Castilians, we all are Spanish and my intention here is to write about Madrid and its people and how thanks to Paquito I came to be engaged every afternoon watering the flowers of the said ‘Cine de las Flores’.
For about six or seven years this “Cine de las Flores” constituted the soul and heart of our Argüelles suburb, which had been so devastated during the civil war. For it has to be remembered that between 1936 and 1939, that part of Madrid, called “la Moncloa”, had been defended from fascism by a concious Working Class that had sworn to keep Fascism away, “NO PASARÁN”, they said, and the whole world acclaimed them. But the truth is that Rampant Capitalism was acclaiming the rich, the generals and nobles that were opposing the democratic republic and with the help of the German aviation and the Italian ‘condittori’ Fascism did PASS and if I had known anything about politics then, I would have rejected Hollywood and the hundreds of movies I was starting to view: all make-belief and all thoroughly pernicious. Capitalism became our regime, and in Madrid the working class was abandoned, had nothing, “un plato de lentejas”. Nothing came from abroad, or nearly nothing: but Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Universal and Twentieth-Century-Fox, that we had every day.
I watered, with other boys, every afternoon the place that would receive up to two hundred spectators at night, each for the moderate price of one or two pesetas. Indeed the place was always full to bursting point and two films were shown every night. The first could be of cowboys or Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Chaplin and so on. Or else, of solitary cowboys on Prairies in the West, mounting young mares, chasing ‘Bad Ones’ on black horses.
It might be necessary now for me to tell the reader about a number of the films I saw in this open-air cinema. Surely there were many hundreds… and, how to do it? One of the first grandiose Hollywood-movies, seen the first year, which I liked very much, was entitled “Las Cruzadas”.
Even now I can see the black-and-white magnificence of the Mediterranean, the stately vessels of ages ago crossing the seas, the promise of the liberation of Palestine, “Tierra Santa”, the several Christian fleets. “The sails were filled and fair the light winds blew, so glad to waft him from his native home…” to liberate…
Jerusalem! “El Jefe de los Moros,” Saladino, has taken in his arms the girlfriend of the Christian King, Richard the Lion-heart. But Saladino is not a ruffian, and the film ends gloriously.
Indeed, el Moro Saladino looks like an English gentleman of the old times, the best Shakespearan actor of the time, and in such circumstances “no podía ser un moro malo”. No, he could not but return his adorable girl “a Corazón de León”.
With the words THE END, on the screen, you saw the two most beautiful woman-man-faces you saw in Hollywood those days. Robert Taylor and Loretta Young. It was customary that, in a love-story generally, before THE END two amorous faces occupied the whole screen, not quite kissing.
And I saw “Secretos”. If I remember this title it is because I once saw my mother and doña Paca (Paquito’s mother) lamenting themselves in the street.
“Have you heard, doña Felisa, Leslie Horward has died in a plane crash near Galicia?” As if they had been speaking Chinese (to me), but then I learned that the best film star had ceased to exist. And I ask you to let me say that now, in my old age I remember this person and many more who in the famine years, somehow, gave me hope.
Every afternoon at about a quarter past two (immediately after the main meal) sometimes with Paquito, other times
alone, you could see me entering through a small lateral door or gate the cinema of the flowers, in order, precisely, to water said flowers with Sebastián, Manolo and two more boys. In consideration of which they didn’t pay us anything, but I assure you that for us that watering summer-employment was a joyful reverie. But we could see the films free of charge.
I think I should explain that our cinema was “a block of houses without buildings”. Nobody had bothered, after the war to speculate on the real estate, and the entrepreneurs who opened the summer-cinema only had to make some simple changes.
I stopped short, for a minute, contemplating around me, under the torrid sun, the excellence of a chunk of real estate where in ten or eleven hours, a society of human beings would be living in unison, hoping without hope that a Supreme Being would appear on High and redeem them from all Evil.
We were members of the same gang and enjoyed ourselves fighting, watering the plants all around the brick-walls and watering one another. It was unpaid work and it was a racket, as happened almost everywhere in Spain. You have to live and “No complaint!” The benefits derived from that racket, and all its ramifications, were that I could see the films free-of-charge and, in addition, invite some friends. As the nation as a whole was nothing but a racket, I, and everybody else employed in the periphery of the “cinema de las flores”, had his finger in the pie. Paquito, Sebastián, myself, and many others, obtained this or that benefit from having fingers in one such pie. Personally, I used three little gipsy toddlers, who sold under my instructions cheaper tickets to people in the queues. Everybody profited from this, save the entrepreneurs who had built the cinema, and were themselves robbers. We applied the Castilian proverb: “el que roba a un ladrón tiene cien años de perdón.” Stealing from a thief is not a crime.
I was mostly an outside observer all the time, I don’t know why or when that qualification came to be… and why Miguel was different. Standing near the tall screen upon the advancing dusk, a screen where Hollywood was to appear in a few moments, and the excited multitude moving anarchically all around… Anyhow, I sensed in the air something that was mine. So much pleasure that (because I had watered that place) the heat wave was not sensed there. I could perceive the effect, the result of my efforts. I caught the exquisite “aroma de las flores”, due to me, due to me, MY WORK.
I saw the cinema-engineer and his assistant busily working in the high cabin at the other end of “the real estate”, now full of people. The lights went off, and a white thick line of another kind now traversed the sky parallel to the ground, illuminating the spectators’ heads, and we all heard the roar of a great lion.
And I heard two femenine voices: “¡Hola! ¡Hola!” And other many calls of delight!
To think that I was sitting among over a hundred Madrileños, and God had determined that Magdalena should be sitting only two chairs away, and still nearer, Ursula, the young German girl.
No, I cannot go on (thank you, kind reader for having read so far.) I had thought when I began writing last Sunday this “article”, that because I, the eternal migrant, like to write about Madrid, my ‘patria chica”, I would be able to write a good impression of that life, those places, my Madrid. I was wrong; “aquello fué”, the past cannot be repeated.
I wanted to disclose to the world (as I believed) something of the past that I have known well, which formed part of my own life most deeply.
… and which for decades and decades has formed part of my remembrances, during this long exile.
… that interest me, and because they interest me, they could as well interest you.
But I promised that I would write about an open-air cinema, where I saw strong men like Tyrone Power and for the first time very beautiful women like Mary Pickford, the “Goddess”, and Jean Harlow, “The Platinum Blonde”, who died so young and made me ask myself: what does to be incredibly beautiful signify? ‘The women whom all the men of my father’s generation adored? For I recall as a schoolboy of eleven or twelve, I heard my handsome father of thirty-five, discussing with his colleagues in the police station (where I went to get bread from the ‘economato’): “Oh! the Rubia Platino, she certainly is guapa!!” But beautiful or plain she quickly disappeared, gone with the wind, long long ago, and most tragically. What is the use? We are only matter, and all around, all we do is mere vainglory, nothing else.
Or should I tell you about the lads of the Argüelles suburb, the chats we organised in the Moncloa, among the Piedras de la Carcel Modelo, sitting around a tall guy, called Vitorero, who spoke to us “de mujeres”, of women: Myrna Loy, Jeannette MacDonald, Claudette Colbert, Virginia Mayo and others (he being great connaisseur, because his father was a publican, in whose establishment, weeklies and magazines with biographies and stories about Hollywood” were available?)
Or perhaps, thinking that I had a sense of humour I should talk to you of dubbing or censoring. For what will you think if I tell you that as much poison was injected in our constitution (the flesh and soul of everyone of us) by the Catholic Church as Californian Capital?
If you believe that the same Hollywood films were seen in the world as were seen in Madrid, you are wrong. If I have a marked sense, you will howl with laughter when I tell you how Church and Falange combined to transform a sort of work-of-art into another one more adapted to the canons of our traditionalism fascisto-religious. But we’ll leave it at that. Let me finish this writing with this anecdote:
Towards the end of this period of my life, I saw, in this same ‘cine de las Flores’ a good Spanish film. Oh, yes! that exists. Spain gives birth to some artists.
… onto an abandoned village of the interior the news arrives somehow that a North American General is distributing aid to West-Germany and other countries.
… the villagers are talking and asking themselves, and why doesn’t he come here, and help us as well? We are very poor. Anyone can see that we are very hungry.
… the very popular mayor decides to convene a people’s assembly, where it is decided to start a march “por esos mundos de Dios” and fetch said General and make him see it for himself.
… all the villagers are seen marching under the torrid sun upon the arid lands of central Spain, hoisting high a big banner on which is written the words “BIENVENIDO MISTER MARSHALL”.
… at length, they came across a rather large car with a cheerful French family in it. The villagers take the father, who is driving, for the famous American General.
… and the film ends with the very happy villagers returning to the village, along the dusty road, with the contented Spaniards escorting the still happier French family.