PORTO RICO: El Jefe
By Benny Moss
Sunday, June. 9, 1940
The most fabulous dwelling place in the USA is the ranch of former President Hearst. Midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, it surveys the Pacific along a 50-mile crest of hills. Five times the size of the District of Columbia, its 240,000 acres give lordly privacy to its little capital. The monarch's castle rears cathedral towers to the sky. On the hill's slope, lesser castles serve humbly as "guest houses" Casa del Mar, Casa del Monte, Casa del Sol. Hard by these are enchanted gardens, marble swimming pools, a zoo complete with lion, leopard, bear, elephant, chimpanzee. On the hillside roam bison, zebra, kangaroo, giraffe, llama, antelope, the emu and the gnu. Within the palace portals is a treasury of Art : a Great Hall, where 150 trenchermen may dine on 16th Century refectory boards beneath the festal banners of Siena; a lavish theatre, where each night is shown the latest talking picture film, very likely flown that day all the way from Longwood FL; and 150 men and women menials to tend the comfort of their lord.
The parties thrown at the Hearst Castle are legendary, but last week, the occasion was altogether more intimate. Just three men dined together in the Great Hall; President Hearst himself, the producer Irving Thalberg, and the great European kinema director, Francisco Franco. The next day, the results of the dinner were made apparent. Señor Franco emerged triumphant, having been given the go-ahead to direct the most expensive picture ever made; a romantic epic set against the backdrop of the American intervention in the Mexican Civil War.
Señor Franco, who has been well-known in Spanish and Italian kinema since the late 1920s, first came to international prominence with his 1935 interpretation of the classic novel Don Quijote, and cemented his popularity in the Latin world the following year with his biopic of the great Cuban hero José Martí. Baraka, his humorous, semi-autobiographical retelling of life in the Spanish Navy, was one of the most popular films of 1939.
I meet him on the quayside in San Juan harbor on the Spanish island of Porto Rico, the sparkling Caribbean lapping at the flanks of his yacht Leni, named for his wife, "my other pride and joy". She is currently in Washington, working on President Roosevelt's Election campaign; a celebrated choreographer, her dramatic staging of the Republican National Convention won widespread acclaim.
Señor Franco is dressed immaculately in a white shirt and slacks. For all his friendly demeanour, the military bearing with which he carries himself immediately makes it obvious why his nickname amongst the picture crews is "El Jefe", or "The Chief"
We board the yacht. "Would you like a Molotov Cocktail?" he asks, busying himself at the bar. When I indicate my unfamiliarity with the drink, he tuts in mock-disapproval.
"And you a San Franciscan, Mr Moss! The Molotov is quite the thing in the Longwood social scene; perhaps it has not reached the West Coast yet. It was invented for my good friend Michael Skriabin's 50th Birthday in the spring it's a pun in his native Russian apparently. Two of them and you're hammered!"
I decline. Franco shrugs, chuckles and pours the drink, which looks like a pink gin, and then stirs a spoonful of powder into the concoction. "I replace the liqour with lemonade, as does everyone else of course we wouldn't want to break the Sheppard Act. Ha! But seriously, I keep the secret ingredient, which is Methyldioxmethamphetamine. They use it to cure stutters apparently, but it makes the grumpiest soul the life of the party."
He takes a sip and smacks his lips. "Ah, ecstasy! Now, what would you like to ask me?"
I ask him why he chose to come to Longwood from the European studios. Surely film-making is less inhibited on the other side of the Atlantic?
"I would give you a different answer than many," he replies, sipping his cocktail. "The American kinema-maker is far more restricted in what he can show than his counterpart in Babelsburg or Cinecittà. No nudity, swearing, drinking, realistic violence... I know many of my colleagues see the Palmer Code as an abomination. But I see nothing wrong in promoting public decency. In fact, it is good for an artist to have restrictions posed upon him. A real director draws crowds for the quality of his art, not because of bare breasts."
So he has come to America for the challenge? Franco frowns. "Partly yes, but there are other reasons. In Europe, nobody seems to want to make simple, romantic, films any more. Everything has to be dark, complex, and gritty. Babelsburg sneers at naivety or simple moral messages. I think people want escape from their daily lives as well. And this is why my new project is a bright, simple romance with proper heroes and villains."
"The Chinese understand this I would dearly love to collaborate with Zheng Zhengqiu one day. I have always found it ironic that the Cowboy film is a purely European phenomenon the 'Goulash Western'. I want to bring that sensibility back to America and reclaim the genre from the Bongo film. American audiences must be sick of the Congo and what is more different than the Mexican desert?"
He takes another swig of his drink and pats the deck rail lovingly. "There was also Leni's work, too." he says. "I am so proud of what she has achieved!"
The Francos met when jointly producing a film in support of the Director's brother Ramón, who leads the Spanish Integralist Party. Given the political views of the people close to him, I ask Franco if he is an Integralist himself. He shakes his head warily.
"I am no Integralist I feel that they are basically socialists who reject Marx. I am an old-fashioned conservative. But I admire their faith, and their iconography. When d'Annunzio took over the Integralists, they had nothing to distinguish them from a hundred other minor radical parties. The Fascisti, Carradinists, and all the rest. He gave them style, and look where they are now!"
"Leni's talent is to take the form and style of Integralism the glamour, clothes, lights, drama and apply that to other arenas. Putting Quentin Roosevelt in that black uniform was a stroke of genius! You see, it is easy for me- I am a director and I can yell 'cut' and try another take. For Leni, the first take is the only one. It humbles me but listen to me, I am just an old love-struck fool."
He smiles at the thought and drains his cocktail before leaping up to fix himself a second. As he does so, I ask him what he sees as the future of kinema. He glances over his shoulder.
"The future of kinema is the future of everywhere else China! Have you ever been to Nanking? I have not yet had the chance but it is clear to me that the studios of the city are beginning to rival Longwood and Babelsburg in their output. And why would they not they have a market of 470 million people to satisfy! Everyone talks about 'Hua Mulan', but that really is only the tip of the iceberg."
It is time for a final question; why did Señor Franco leave a successful naval career for the uncertain world of the Kinema?
My question is greeted with an incredulous snort. "I love Porto Rico", the director says, "I really do, but if I stayed in the Armada I would have spent my entire life living in a cruiser at this dock. After you Americans liberated Cuba and the Philippines in '98 there wasn't really an Empire left for us to defend. In kinema, I found a higher calling. You sink our fleet, I give you my films. What a deal!"
"You see, what my wife and I both strive to do is to supply people with dreams and happiness. My wife does this through politics and marketing, and I achieve the same goal through kinema. People need their heroes and myths. I provide them in the kinematic world, while Leni provides the same in real life. We exist to shape the folk-legends of the entire world! And that," Señor Franco declares, finishing the rest of his cocktail with relish, his eyes shining, "is an opportunity for which I wake up every morning, and thank God. Who would not want to do my job?"
As I leave him there on his yacht, pouring another cocktail and grinning at the Caribbean sunset, I have to concede that he may have a point.