10 of the best flamenco performances from Classic Cinema
Updated: Aug 19, 2020
The flutter of the guitar begins to play, the sultry beauty with the flowing skirts stamps her feet and begins to dance for the baying crowd, her hips thrusting to the beat. She locks eyes with her leading man. His life will never be the same again…
The culture of Spain made an indelible impression on classic cinema; from Cecil B DeMille's Carmen to Hemingway's depictions of The Spanish Civil War in For Whom The Bell Tolls, to Charlton Heston's heroic turn in El Cid, audiences eagerly consumed stories about Spain and its people.
For a beautiful actress, a role in a Hispanic-themed film meant one thing; a suggestive flamenco dance. The flamenco performance was reserved for some of Hollywood’s most beguiling female stars; Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner and Sophia Loren to name a few.
For a deep dive into the culture of flamenco in classic Hollywood and its impact on the Spanish tourism industry, check out Becoming Carmen: A brief history of flamenco, Hollywood and the Spanish tourism industry.
What follows is a compendium of Travel Old Hollywood's favourite old Hollywood flamenco performances:
Blood & Sand 1941
Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, and Rita Hayworth star in this technicolour epic about the complex love life of a bullfighter. Power plays Juan Gallardo, a Spanish peasant who rises through the ranks of the bullfighting world to become a champion. But he’s torn between two women, his childhood sweet heart Carmen (Darnell) and a society temptress (Hayworth).
Film historian Jeanine Basinger describes Hayworth’s erotically charged flamenco dance with Anthony Quinn towards the end of the movie, engineered to emasculate Juan and to make him jealous, as “an acceptable form of public sex” on screen, at a time when sex could only ever be inferred.
The movie was not shot on location but the art department did a great job of evoking the look and feel of Spain in the movie, most of which was filmed on the lot at 20th Century Studios. Great works by Spanish artists Goya and El Greco were used as inspiration for the set dressing. Background shots and the bullfighting scenes were filmed on location in Mexico City.
The original Rudolph Valentino 1922 silent version of Blood & Sand is well worth a watch too (NB: there are no big dance scenes unfortunately). It’s an enjoyable romp that may well be one of Valentino’s best performances, thankfully devoid of the predatory vibe of his most famous incarnation; The Sheik.
Film lovers were treated to not one but two versions of Carmen in the autumn of 1915, both released on the same day. Raoul Walsh’s Carmen was played by Theda Bara, known as ‘the vamp’ and was more popular with audiences at the time. Unfortunately, Bara’s portrayal has been lost to the annals of time. Thankfully, Cecil B Demille’s Carmen fared better in the preservation process. DeMille took the somewhat unusual step of casting genuine opera star Geraldine Ferrarr in the role, in a SILENT film.
Kitty Kelly of the Chicago Tribune said in her review of the film “it is not a Sunday School play, this picture of the classic heart bandit. There’s a plentiful showing of emotions as they are, but it is done without the wearisome tediousness of directors less artistic than Cecil DeMille.” Was that a dig at Walsh perhaps? Ferrarr, despite her inexperience in front of the camera, is a very convincing Carmen, effortlessly infusing her with the allure and danger the character requires.
The Kissing Bandit 1948
Usually name-checked as one of the low points in Frank Sinatra’s career, The Kissing Bandit, featuring Kathryn Grayson and Ricardo Montalban, was a monumental flop upon release. It's one of those odd, technicolour itches that the studios were happy to scratch in the 1940's, as they continued to experiment with their most successful genre. Terrible dialogue and historic inaccuracies aside, the dancing in this film is great fun. The sexy Flamenco hybrid three-way between Ricardo Montalban, Ann Miller and Cyd Charisse is a great example of this, the two women begin a cat fight mid dance as they jostle for the attentions of the handsome Montalban. A feisty, flamenco seduction of Frank Sinatra by famous ballerina Sono Osato with the aid of a whip, will amuse, if only to witness Sinatra’s terrified, deer in head lights response.
Pandora & The Flying Dutchman 1951
A gorgeously over the top melodrama that combines ghostly folk tales and paranormal love. It was the first of Ava Gardner’s many movies set in Spain, contributing to her life-long love of the country. Gardner plays Pandora to James Mason’s tragic Flying Dutchman. Filmed on location in the quaint fishing village of Tossa del Mar, the movie features an authentic flamenco by native dancers as Gardner looks on, mesmerised, cigarette in hand.
This film is truly a masterpiece in cinematography, thanks to Jack Cardiff, the acclaimed cinematographer and key Powell and Pressburger collaborator. The LA Times review remarked; “whatever might be wanting of the illusory is amply supplied by the natural backgrounds so mystically photographed by Jack Cardiff.” A new 4k restoration was released in 2020.
The Captain’s Paradise 1953
Watch the Brits give it a go, in a movie that sees Alec Guinness as the unlikely lothario juggling two women, dutiful English wife Cecilia Johnson and ‘exotic’ femme Yvonne De Carlo (offensive description lifted from the movie trailer). Guinness’s two tangos with De Carlo (similar to the rumba flamenco) lack the fire of a Ricardo Montalban flamenco performance, but watching a young Obi Wan Kenobi attempt a seductive dance is not something you see every day. The film is a giggle too, if you perversely enjoy observing 1950's sexism in action, as all classic film lovers secretly do.
The Barefoot Contessa 1954
Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner star in this beautifully shot Hollywood star vehicle from Joseph L Mankiewicz. Gardner’s character Maria Vargas, a nightclub singer from Madrid (a character based on Ava's own life, according to Ava herself), is introduced off screen near the beginning of the film to the sounds of flamenco; the camera focuses on the audience’s nervy, horny reaction to her dance. Later in the film, as Maria tries to run away from fame and the troubles it has brought her, she dances a haunting flamenco with a local gypsy, while her impotent husband, Count Vincenzo, watches helplessly. Ava said of working with Bogie; “it wasn’t the happiest movie I ever worked on… (Bogart) was a bastard. He wasn’t happy that I got the part, a lot of better actresses than me were up for it. Bogie didn’t approve of me, he had no respect for me at all. He never tried to hide it.”
For even more ‘Ava in Spain’ shenanigans, see The Naked Maja where she dances a slow flamenco with 18th century painter Francisco Goya (played by Anthony Franciosa) and The Sun Also Rises, an adaptation of Hemingway’s novel, where she plays an aimless socialite lost in the quagmire of post WWI Europe. The film co-stars Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. Read more about Ava’s love for Spain in Travel Old Hollywood’s Ultimate Ava Gardner Travel Guide.
Around the World in 80 Days 1956
Mike Todd’s travelogue extravaganza starring everyone’s favourite English gent, David Niven, celebrates the culture of countries from Spain to Siam. The Spanish section of the movie features a flamenco performance by the most famous male flamenco dancer in the world at the time, Jose Greco. The original Variety review gushed, “this picture was made with showmanship in mind and the customers are guaranteed to eat it up.”
New York-based flamenco dancer Jose Greco popped up in several Hollywood movies in the 50's and 60's, where he was required to showcase his formidable dance skills. One of the best is Sombrero, a rather silly MGM romp filmed on location in Mexico that sees him give a typically powerful solo performance, the movie also features the reliable dancing talents of Ricardo Montalban, Cyd Charisse and Yvonne DeCarlo.
Greco also pops up again alongside Bond girl Jill St John in 1959’s utterly ridiculous but strangely enjoyable Holiday for Lovers.
The Pride & The Passion 1957
Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant drag a really big canon across Spain (there is a metaphor there, but it is probably best not to think about it), during the Napoleonic Wars, fighting over Sophia Loren as they go. This big budget historical epic has taken a pasting from critics over the years and, while it can be boring and tedious in places (and Frank’s wig is appalling but I’m very fond of his accent, which is also terrible, but charmingly so), fans of the central cast will not be disappointed, not least by Loren’s mesmerizing flamenco performance half way through the movie. She was criticized at the time for it not being particularly authentic but her commitment to the dance’s intensity on screen is beyond reproach.
La Femme et le Pantin 1959
Filmed on location in Andalusia (including at the legendry annual Seville Feria), this Brigitte Bardot fluff piece is a typical vehicle for the French bombshell, with a familiar theme: drop-dead gorgeous La Bardot taunts local menfolk with her brazen sexuality. The flamenco she performs in the movie is more authentic than many in Hollywood up to this point; Bardot had studied ballet at the Conservatoire de Paris and while training for this movie, she began to develop a life-long love of flamenco. Her passion and natural talent are evident in her assured performance. Check out her stunning flamenco performance on a French TV show in 1958 to promote the movie. There are also many photos of her dancing the flamenco throughout the 60’s and 70’s. Like Ava Gardner, flamenco captured Bardot off screen too.
The Pleasure Seekers 1964
The wafer thin story follows three American women looking for love in Spain and is a loose remake of Three Coins in the Fountain. Ann Margaret mixes flamenco with swing in a remarkable mash-up dance scene that sees revered flamenco dancer Antonio Gades treat the audience to a solo performance, before Margaret launches onto the screen for some flamenco flirting with her partner. She then discards him completely and launches into a swing number composed by Frank Sinatra’s old pal Jimmy Van Heusen. More fluff but what do you expect from early 1960's Ann Margaret? The romance and beauty of Madrid is captured marvellously, just sit back, suspend your disbelief at the faux feminism and enjoy the scenery and the silliness!