Kitsch Historiography: Barbara Stanwyck in the Jungle

Curator's Note

In my collection of 89 Stanwyck titles on DVD, A Message to Garcia (dir. George Marshall, 1936, Twentieth Century Fox) is the worst copy, and I have not been able to find a print. However, through the blurry shadows of image degradation, a beautiful, crazy, romantic adventure film, shot by Rudolph Maté, can be glimpsed. The setting is Cuba 1898. Lieutenant Rowan (John Boles) carries a message to the Cuban general Garcia from President McKinley stating that the Americans will side with the Cuban rebels against the Spanish, who have occupied the island. Stanwyck plays a Cuban woman who helps Rowan reach Garcia through the impenetrable jungle. In the early 20th century Rowan’s adventure became a model of tenacity, endurance, and dedication to a singular mission, and the pamphlet “A Message to Garcia” became a tool for employers and armies to stimulate initiative in the work place and the battlefield. In the 1936 film, Lieutenant Rowan is delayed in his mission, and comes close to abandoning it altogether because of his love for the senorita who eventually, heroically, saves him from captivity and helps him deliver his message. It is the first of Stanwyck’s many roles as a hero on horseback. From the perspective of the early 21st century, the Cuban jungle crawling with revolutionaries is an oddly familiar sight, evoking a later historical moment. After a half century of American-Cuban animosity, there is something deeply contradictory, but replete with unrealized possibility, about the film’s memory of a very different future. At the same time, there is nothing natural about this film, which takes us to the heart of Hollywood’s image-machine. This is photogenie for the 21st century. Stanwyck’s face, passing as a Latina, is so out of place in the jungle, and in the Hollywood archive, that it begs our attention. With archival media, we are able to reinvent, rework and rewrite the image bank with new heroes in new roles, and even with new faces. 1936 was also the year of Joseph Cornell’s remarkable film Rose Hobart, about another woman in a backlot studio jungle. This fragment of A Message to Garcia is indicative of how kitsch can become the access point to the dreamworld of the phantasmagoria. For Benjamin, the Surrealists recognized best how kitsch takes up where the aura dissipates. Kitsch, he says, “catches hold of objects at their most threadbare and timeworn point.”


Katie, this is a fascinating post. The way you frame A Message to Garcia and the politics of the film archive reminds me of some of the found footage work of Harun Farocki, and Godard's Histoire(s)--it is fitting, then, that you mention Cornell's early found footage film. The difference, of course, is that A Message to Garcia seems to carry some kind of political charge as a whole film, rather than as pieces incorporated into a montage. Or, maybe this is a different sort of montage: selecting a film from a collection to let it shine its phantasmagoric light on the present. I wonder how the physical condition of your copy, and the scarcity of the film, intersects with the way the narrative grates with the present. At the very least, it seems appropriate that this alternative American vision of Cuba has slipped through the cracks of distribution, as much as it has slipped out of the collective, popular image bank of the beleaguered island.

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