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  • Writer's pictureClaire Butler

Becoming Carmen: Hollywood, flamenco, and the birth of tourism in Spain

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

Spain, I miss of course, and dancing to flamenco music late at night. Those days are over, baby

- Ava Gardner speaking in 1988

A tourism poster for Spain painted by French expressionist artist Georges Mathieu circa 1953

Ava Gardner, principal love goddess of 1950’s cinema, was bewitched by the flamenco, a fiery dance attributed to the Roma gypsies of Southern Spain.“I really love Spain," she said, "the pace of the place, the climate. I thought I could put down roots there, at least for a year or two.”

Spanish flamenco fever peaked in Hollywood in the late 1950’s as a result of the campaign by the fascist Franco regime to bring tourists to Spain; the Spanish government’s strategy included making the country a mecca for British and American filmmakers, and their plan was paying off. Movies like El Cid, Around the World in 80 Days and The Pride and the Passion were in cinemas around the world showcasing the rich heritage and dazzling landscapes of Spain.

Ava pictured at a bullfight in the October 1957 edition of Photoplay

In the pages of Photoplay, fans devoured salacious gossip about Ava Gardner’s scandalous affairs with handsome Spanish bullfighters, and imagined her dancing the flamenco with local gypsies until dawn. The beautiful actress became so deeply attached to Spain that she moved there mid-decade to live a bohemian lifestyle that rivalled Carmen herself. It was a move and an association that would enrich, and ultimately mythologize, her reputation as an untameable love goddess.

Ava strongly identified with the female gypsy character which permeated hungrily through Western literature and film of the 19th and early 20th century. She was the sizzling, often tragic beauty that cannot be tamed. Sound familiar? Classic film examples of this character include Ava as Maria Vargas in The Barefoot Contessa, or Rita Hayworth as Dona Sol in Blood & Sand.

This persistent female prototype most memorably defined by Georges Bizet’s operatic masterpiece; Carmen (1875), and regurgitated in countless guises ever since, captured imaginations for more than a century. Ava said of her character in the film, in which she starred opposite Humphry Bogart; “I understood Maria Vargas, the Contessa of the title. She was a lot like me.”

A poster advertising Bizet's legendary opera, Carmen.

The female gypsy character and her flamenco dances were a powerful storytelling device. The popularity of this character helped sell countries, movies, and careers in Hollywood. Ava Gardner’s screen persona was strengthened by her kinship with Spain and her willingness to play the Carmen character in real life.

Behind the façade of the star machine’s carefully coiffed odes to Hispanic culture in the 1950's, there was a successful formula that spoke to travellers and movie fans who flocked to experience Spain as they saw it on the big screen; a formula that helped to save a nation on the brink of collapse and encouraged a rebellious movie goddess to embrace her true self.

The birth of flamenco

The sexually and emotionally charged flamenco dance is an art form derived from the folklore and musical traditions of Andalusia, Spain. Its roots go back many centuries and are most closely entwined with Arabic, Greek and Caribbean culture.

A gravelly voiced singer and the sounds of spine-tingling Spanish guitar, compel the female dancer to move her body with passion and abandon, clapping her hands and stomping her feet. Voyeurs in the audience watch the sweat drip from her brow, as they imagine what she might be like off her feet.

Flamenco as we know it today, was officially documented for the first time in the towns of Cadiz, Jerez, and Seville at the end of the 18th century.

Flamenco gained in popularity at a time when the great powers of Europe were busy carving up the world in a fierce empire building frenzy. Young European and (later) American men of noble families were following in the footsteps of Lord Byron and ‘grand touring’ their way across Europe and the Middle East, in search of new pleasures and experiences. Popular western literature of the time was full of titillating descriptions of exotic brown skinned women and lusty foreign men.

Romantic writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visiting the Colosseum in Rome circa 1790. Painting by Jacob Philipp Hackert

Spain was a far-flung destination in those days; a limited travel network made travelling the country a challenge for foreigners, and stories of sparse lodgings and endless banditry meant the Riviera crowd stayed away. Spain’s reputation was firmly as a destination for intrepid travellers only.

“Carmen will always be free”

One of the most enduring caricatures to appear in literature during this period of exploration and domination by the great powers of Europe was the fiery and superstitious gypsy, a beautiful and mysterious woman who danced a seductive flamenco. 19th century novelist Prosper Mérimée romanticised and objectified his female gypsy protagonist, Carmen, so successfully that she became a standard ‘type’ in the literary lexicon. The female gypsy, immortalized in fiction, was a promiscuous, naturally rhythmic, and superstitious distortion of a woman that served to fulfil male sexual fantasies of the time.

The original poster for Bizet's Carmen which was first performed by the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 3 March 1875, where its breaking of conventions shocked and scandalised the audience.

Georges Bizet’s wildly successful opera, based on Mérimée’s novella, continued to captivate audiences from London to New York at the turn of the century. Carmen is not only one of the all-time favourites of operagoers but one of the cinematic institution’s highly preferred subjects for production, re-production, rewrites, and remakes. The story of a fiery gypsy girl that leads a naïve soldier astray was so popular, it was adapted for the big screen no less than fourteen times between 1915 and 1954 (there are more than fifty film versions of the story in total). Charlie Chaplin even made a parody film that spoofed DeMille’s version, called A Burlesque on Carmen.

Spain’s national character was entwined with Carmen’s, and the association would grow deeper over time with the help of Western writers, historians, and journalists.

The Black Legend

By 1898, the once mighty Spanish Empire was falling apart. Cuba and their territories in the Philippines were lost after their defeat in the Spanish American War. In the wake of this devastating loss, Spanish nobles were keen to distance themselves from the image painted by non-Spanish, protestant writers and historians of the time, who described an empire in tatters, over run by bandits and wallowing in past glories. This persistent Spaniard-bashing propaganda in popular literature and in the press at the time was given a name by Spanish historian Julián Juderías; Leyenda Negra, or ‘Black Legend.’

Anti-Hispanic attitudes were common in Northern European writing. That great champion of reason and morality, 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, wrote rather bitchily:

"the Spaniard's bad side is that he does not learn from foreigners; that he does not travel in order to get acquainted with other nations; that he is centuries behind in the sciences. He resists any reform; he is proud of not having to work; he is of a romantic quality of spirit, as the bullfight shows; he is cruel, as the former auto-da-fé shows; and he displays in his taste an origin that is partly non-European.”

The Carmen stereotype, with her loose morals and brazen sexual appetite, played a significant role in tarnishing the reputation of Spain in the minds of the Victorian (i.e. puritanical) European landed gentry. Spanish feelings about flamenco and its deep association with gypsy/Carmen culture began to sour at the beginning of the 20th century. The dance was labelled vulgar and pornographic and openly lambasted by the Catholic Church. Flamenco and the Carmen character came to encapsulate the Spanish elites’ feelings of shame about the country’s declining status as a great power in the modern era.

Capturing flamenco on film and stage

As flamenco was being openly lambasted by the Spanish, the rest of the world could not get enough of this furiously erotic and emotive dance. Flamenco was captured on film for the first time by Thomas Edison, when he recorded the famous Spanish dancer Carmencita, with his Vitascope projector in 1894.

Carmencita (1868 – 1910) was a Spanish dancer who, according to film historian Charles Musser, was the first woman to appear in a commercial motion picture and may have been the first woman to appear in a motion picture within the United States

Carmencita and her beguiling contemporary, La Argentinita, toured theatres all over America and Europe, cashing in on U.S. audiences’ growing fascination with Spain and, more specifically, Romany culture.

In 1915, Cecil B DeMille and Raoul Walsh began shooting rival adaptations of Carmen for the big screen. Geraldine Farrar (a genuine opera star) was DeMille’s muse, while Walsh opted for Hollywood’s first sex goddess, Theda Bara, to play the role of the seductive gypsy girl.

The 1920s saw the birth of Hollywood’s first Latin superstars, Rudolph Valentino and Dolores Del Rio, who starred in Hispanic-themed classics films such as Blood & Sand and The Loves of Carmen, again directed by Raoul Walsh, who clearly had a thing for the Carmen character.

While experimenting with technicolour, Pioneer Pictures used the Carmen story to flesh out their film short, La Cucaracha, which went on to win an Academy Award in 1934. The Carmen stereotype was so established in the minds of audiences by this point that little time is dedicated to fleshing out her character; they already knew what type of person she is; she is lusty and lacks morality, she is Carmen.

Flamenco performances formed part of the bill in 1930’s cabaret clubs from Paris to New York and even popped up on the BBC’s fledgling Cabaret programme in 1937. Carmen Amaya, one of flamenco’s most extraordinary personalities, gave sold out performances in New York that led one critic to poeticise in his review; “this human Vesuvius smouldered, flamed and exploded her way through the most exciting evening of dance that this city has seen.”

‘Spain is different’ – Spanish tourism in the 1950s

The popularity of flamenco and the Spanish mystique peaked in the 1950s, just as the Spanish tourism industry began to take flight. Prior to that time, Spain’s popularity as a tourist destination was dwarfed by its French, Swiss and Italian neighbours.

In the 1870s, travel agent Thomas Cook added Spain to his growing list of European itineraries more than 11 years after he started running tours to Switzerland and Italy, a clear sign that Spain was not yet the tourism powerhouse she was to become. As the Romantic movement reached its peak across the continent, and more grand tour itineraries started to include the Iberian Peninsula, Spain’s popularity started to rise. Tales of bullfights, folk music and flamenco were like catnip to fans of Lord Byron, Goethe, and Mark Twain.

But then came the Spanish American War (1898), WWI (1914-18), the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and WWII (1939-45) in relatively quick succession, contributing to the total obliteration of Spain’s wealth and power. By the end of the 1940’s, Spain was in trouble and money was in short supply.

It is essential that the tourist who visits us not only returns here, but that he is converted into the most active propagandist for our nation, increasing in this manner our prestiege in the world."- Extract taken from Preliminary National Tourism Plan Ministry of Information and Tourism, 1952

Amongst the rubble of a crumbling empire and an emerging dictatorship, the burgeoning global tourist industry, spurred on by the advent of mass air travel, became a beacon of hope for the faltering Franco regime. Not only could tourism bring much needed wealth to the country, but General Franco saw it as a way of gaining acceptance from a global community that disapproved of his violent ascent to power. Franco, at this time, was the only Fascist in the room.

So, the Government set out on a conscious campaign to promote Spain as a leading tourist destination. They sought out lucrative partnerships with TWA and Hilton hotels, they continually hosted travel writers and journalists and funded global marketing campaigns. ‘Spain is different’ became their slogan in the 1950s and the administration began to embrace Spain’s black legends, including that of Carmen, to help sell holidays. In true Hollywood entertainment style, they gave the people what they wanted.

An unlikely Hollywood patron

Beleaguered by television and the slow decline of the studio system in the 1950s, Hollywood studios relied on shaving production costs by working outside the US. Spain was an attractive option, and Franco welcomed Hollywood with open arms.

A particularly fruitful relationship between the regime and producer Samuel Bronston produced classics such as El Cid, 55 Days at Peking, and King of Kings. Franco insisted that the government exercised editorial oversight of foreign filmmaking enterprises operating in Spain, and for the most past, foreign film makers abided by this rule. As a result, the dramatic landscapes and colourful culture of Spain were showcased vividly on screen in the 1950s and 60s.

El Cid was the 4th top grossing film of 1961, making nearly $27 million at the box office. Variety commented in their review, "the Spanish scenery is magnificent, the costumes are vivid, the chain mail and Toledo steel gear impressive."

Romantic melodramas like Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, The Barefoot Contessa and The Pride & The Passion were filmed on location in Spain, and exploited the familiar tropes of Carmen, infusing their stories with passion and desire, while maintaining the standards of the Motion Picture Production Code. The Hays Code, as it came to be known after its creator Will Hays, limited filmmakers’ ability to explore taboo subjects like sex and violence in any real depth on screen. So, producers and screenwriters improvised by borrowing from other cultures, giving their films a level of impunity because they claimed to be faithfully portraying the customs and traditions of that place. Spain, Mexico, and Italy were familiar backdrops to tell these types of stories.

A certain type of woman

Borrowing from other cultures also bled over into the star making process. The Carmen character was a contemporary of the celluloid nightclub singer and sexy spy, helping to define the brand and elevate the careers of some of celluloid’s most beautiful women by allowing them to be openly sexual onscreen.

The seductive flamenco routine seems to have been reserved for actresses described by fan magazines as ‘love goddesses’ or ‘sex kittens;’ Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner and Brigitte Bardot. Their larger than life public personas required them to play characters much larger than the moral limitations put on the all-American female ideal of the time.

Brigitte Bardot learns how to flamenco for her 1959 film La Femme et le Pantin. This fired her lifelong passion for the dance.

These actresses had more in common than just their beauty; they also all had tumultuous private lives, involving passionate love affairs with movie stars, princes, and bullfighters. In casting them in these dancing Latina roles, the studios played with their ‘bad girl’ reputations; adding fuel to the fantasy that these women could not be tamed on screen or off.

Take Rita Hayworth as Carmen in 1948’s The Loves of Carmen. She was at the height of her career when the film was released, having played the career-defining role of nightclub singer Gilda only two years before. Her marriage to Orson Welles had recently fallen apart and an impending romance with Prince Aly Khan was on the horizon. Her fans knew her as ‘the Love Goddess,’ and her colourful love life was rarely absent from the gossip magazines.

Fans flocked to watch Rita play the promiscuous Carmen opposite on-screen beau Glenn Ford, because this was who they thought she was. Film historian Jeanine Basinger argues that “every successful movie star became a specific type that the audience endorsed… it needed to seem natural to the star, that it seemed not to be a role at all but a secret peek into what that actor was really like.”

Hayworth is perhaps the most convincing dancer of all the Hollywood actresses who danced flamenco on screen; probably because she belonged to a famous family of Romany dancers from Seville. At the age of 14, she was forced to dance with her father in a cabaret act called ‘the dancing Cansinos,’ whereby all accounts she nailed the seductive aspects of the performance. Which is ironic because her true personality could not have been further from the dancing Latina stereotype; Hayworth was shy and insecure, probably as a result of suffering abuse at the hands of the man that was supposed to protect her; her own father and self-appointed dancing partner.

Ex flamenco dancer and 1940's love goddess Rita Hayworth in 1948's The Loves of Carmen

Now would be a good time to reflect on the words of British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, who argues that most of what we call ‘Classic Hollywood Cinema’ can be attributed to men. She argues that seeing the world through the male experience “denied women human identity on film, relegating them to the status of objects to be admired for their appearance or to be the catalyst for the male protagonist to take action.” It did not really matter if the Carmen label did not match the real person, as was the case with Miss Hayworth.

Life Imitates Art - Ava

Arguably no one took on the romantic gypsy persona in real life with more passion, authenticity, or gusto than Ava Gardner.

Ava Gardner dressed in a traditional flamenco dress during the 1953 Seville Feria

Ava Gardner’s love affair with Spain and her much publicised romantic affairs and drunken shenanigans have left an indelible imprint on her legacy and on Hollywood history in general. The stunning actress from North Carolina was cast as ravishing Spaniard Maria Vargas in 1954’s The Barefoot Contessa, a star vehicle designed to cement Gardner’s reputation as ‘the world’s most beautiful animal’ – the shocking (by today’s standards) tagline for the film. By this time, she had gained a reputation as a homewrecker and collector of husbands, child star Mickey Rooney, big band leader Artie Shaw and old blue-eyed lover boy Frank Sinatra.

The sultry Latina label complimented Ava Gardner’s real-life personality perfectly, at a time when labels could make or break movies and movie stars. More than 30 years later, Ava said:

that role fitted me like a goddamn glove. I understood Maria Vargas… I knew that lady inside out, in bed and out of bed. Especially in bed. Why the hell wouldn’t I? The son of a bitch (Joe Mankiewicz) based the dame on me.”

Her flamenco performance in the film seems to mirror her own life at the time, that of a beautiful woman trapped in a gilded cage, yearning to break free and have fun on her own terms. This was a part she would play in various guises on screen throughout her career, confirming Historian Jeanine Basinger’s observation; “if an audience responded to the actor or actress as a type -and they liked that type – they’d pay money to see it many times.”

When asked if Mankiewicz based Vargas on her, Ava replied:

down to the souls of my feet, honey… Later he said she was based on Rita Hayworth, that was crap, there was too much shit in the script about my affair with Howard (Hughes). Joe (Mankiewicz) even included the scene in which I nearly whacked the bastard… it could have been called ‘Howard and Ava,’ it was so fucking obvious. But Joe swore till he was blue in the face that it was based on Rita’s life. Howard was a friend of his, most of those guys stuck together like shit.”

By the mid-1950’s, Ava’s media persona, through the characters she played and the press she received, morphed from husband-stealer to modern playgirl, fan magazines categorized her as liberated woman who used men as they had once used her. She started to take on the Carmen persona in her private life and clearly connected very deeply with the music and dance of Romany culture.

Ava pictured in the drawing room of her chic Madrid apartment. The actress was often spotted at local flea markets and antique shops, looking for pieces to decorate her Spanish bolthole.

Ava moved to Madrid in 1955, less than a year after the release of The Barefoot Contessa. She yearned to get away from the falsity of Hollywood and the suffocation she felt towards the end of her rocky marriage to Sinatra. During this time, her fascination with the Flamenco grew almost obsessive; she became an aficionado, haunting the flamenco clubs wherever she went, famously being thrown out and sometimes banned, for lewd behaviour.

Ava became a patron of gypsy bands and danced the Paso Doble until dawn. According to a friend of Gardner’s at the time, the Flamenco scene:

was not touristy like it is today, but very authentic and gritty, and you could have these fantastic nights. Madrid’s narrow old streets were lined with bars on both sides and we went from one to the next, throughout the night filling our wine glass at each one… when it got very late at night and people were starting to leave, Ava would invite them to her place for some wine or some pesetas and they would come and play and dance until morning.”

Ava Gardner became a 1950’s version of Carmen, and as she embraced the romantic side of the black legend, she created a romantic Spanish fantasy for a whole new generation of men and women to consume and desire.

The Hollywood Effect

Between 1959 and 1963 the number of tourists visiting Spain went up from 4 million to 14 million, bolstered in no small part by its striking depictions in Hollywood. Flamenco tablaos, theatres and festivals began popping up all over the country to cater for tourist demand. The popularity of flamenco led to public performances being criticized by purists for watering down and sanitising the artform for the tourist hordes, although nowadays there are many schools and museums dedicated to preserving flamenco’s authentic heritage.

Today in Almeria, the home of the spaghetti western, there are dozens of tours taking visitors to see old movie sets. You can take a jaunt to Oasys Mini Hollywood, a Disneyland-style Western theme park in Europe’s only desert that offers cowboy shows, old Sergio Leone film sets and even a zoo.

Ava's statue overlooks the bay of Tossa del Mar on Spain's Costa Blanca.

The sleepy spot where Ava lost her heart to Spain, Tossa del Mar on the Costa Brava, has awoken from its former status as a quiet fishing village and become a thriving tourist town. Locals have embraced her legend and a statue of Ava in the main square overlooks the rest of the town, while local panaderías still bake 'besos de Ava Gardner' (translation: Ava Gardner's kisses) for fans who still flock here to experience the landscapes showcased in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.

According to 2020 world tourism rankings, Spain is the second most visited country in the world after France. Tourism contributes 15% to GDP and the World Tourism Organization chose Madrid to base its headquarters.

From a mystical, far off land that frightened the average traveller, to a global tourism powerhouse in one generation; Spain’s transformation in the mid-20th century was a truly remarkable achievement.

The legend of Carmen and the dancing gypsy was a story that proved irresistible to tourists desperate for a whisper of the excitement promised by Spain’s black legends. Carmen was an enticing escape, a fantasy and a promise that encouraged millions of people (and one Hollywood love goddess) to hop on a TWA jet and experience Spain for themselves.

Sources used for this post and further reading:


A Spanish Dance on American Shores’, New York Times Article - Alastair Macaulay

Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Essay – Laura Mulvey


Ava Gardner, Biography – Lee Server

Ava Gardner The Secret Conversations – Peter Evans & Ava Gardner

If This Were Happiness, the Biography of Rita Hayworth – Barbara Leaming

Dance and the Hollywood Latina: Race, Sex & Stardom - Priscilla Peña Ovalle

The Star Machine - Jeanine Basinger

Franco Sells Spain to America: Hollywood, Tourism and Public Relations as Post-war Spanish Soft Power – Neal M Rosendorf

Exploring the History of Leisure and Tourism in Spain – Michael Barker

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Jul 10, 2023

wow..... a really wonderful article here, thanks!!


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