Film: Sarumba (1950)

February 9, 2018 | By

Film: Poor

Transfer:  n/a

Extras: n/a

Label:  n/a

Region: n/a

Released:  n/a

Genre:  Musical / Romance

Synopsis: Although duty-bound, Joe skips returning to a merchant ship and risks arrest to be with a pretty dancer in pre-Castro Cuba. Will their fusion of two Latin dances rekindle a weakening romance?

Special Features:  n/a




Originally called Samba, this low budget production by poverty row studio Eagle-Lion Films was completed in 1947 but remained unreleased for 3 years largely because it was an utterly forgettable attempt to film a musical in Cuba.

The main titles may exclaim ‘filmed entirely on location’ in the pre-Castro nation, but there’s shockingly little material that reveals any local colour. Co-produced by fallen-from-grace director Marion Gering, Sarumba may have been all along a lame attempt to feign a return to directing after a 10 gap – Gering was a prominent director at Paramount until 1937, when according to author Peter Roffman, he ‘drank his way our of Hollywood.’

If Sarumba was planned as a comeback, the script lacked anything beyond a threadbare tale of Joe Thomas (former Our Gang member / stage dancer Tommy Wonder), a merchant marine who becomes a wanted man after staying in Havana to be with local dancer Hildita (Doris Dowling). Shipping magnate Senor Valdez (Michael Whalen) supposedly has the police looking for the amateur hoofer, but there’s never any threat of arrest and extradition because like many story elements, they were never thought through and finalized in the shooting script, or Gering wasted so much time on multiple takes that whole scenes & sequences were cut from the shooting script, perhaps explaining the film’s very abrupt 57 minutes.

Fear of arrest only comes into play when Joe ‘risks it all’ to honor his debut duet with Hildita at an important club, and without any major kerfuffle, Valdez easily drops the charges because Hildita’s best friend Maria (Dee Taylor) put him in a swell state of mind to nab Valdez for herself.

The seeded and resolved conflicts are perfunctorily enacted, the dialogue stale as week-old toast, but what really kills the film is Gering’s almost amateurish direction that shows little interest or care in anything. If there’s any visual motif, it’s tracking shots, but many resemble a film student’s attempt to evoke a bit of Josef Von Sternbergian style by allowing fences, meshes, plants, and extras to dominate the foreground; the problem is the angles are bad, the real areas of interest obscured, and Gering often creates master shots that perambulate a bit to the left and a wee bit to the right, but are visually dull.

A perfect example is Hildita and Joe’s first performance at a club, which Gering covers in two shots: a slight tracking shot where their performance is often blocked by seated male observers who aren’t saying or doing anything interesting; and weird overhead shots that resemble hastily filmed newsreel footage than quality studio material. When the dancing pair make their big debut in a 3-part climactic sequence, Gering sticks the camera to the distant right, and with ‘natural lighting’ captures their important piece like a home movie shot from the cheap seats. The piece is underlit (maybe a bulb blew?), badly and boringly covered, and the music isn’t especially good.

The lack of a credited composer also infers the production either used stock music, or managed to record 3-4 cues by local musicians; the handful of cues are recycled throughout the film to fill in sound holes rather than propel or support any drama.

It’s a bizarre production that gets so much wrong – a Jai alai court similarly resembles hastily shot newsreel footage, and the same 4 second audience cheers are looped for the scene’s entire length – and yet the leading 3 actors aren’t terrible; they just can’t save the film. Dowling’s then-boyfriend Wonder is clearly an adept dancer and the pair perform several routines fluidly – but they’re either badly shot or compacted into a montage with quick wipes, under which plays the score’s most oft-used theme variation. Whalen sticks to playing Valdez as debonair, while Tatum teases her male co-stars a little, but they’ve little material to create even acceptable protagonists.

The production details of this forgotten dud stem from the letters co-producer Julian Roffman wrote home, and as son Peter Roffman opines in the fascinating book Dear Guelda: The Death and Life of Pioneering Canadian Filmmaker Julian Roffman, Sarumba was a learning experience on how to never make a movie, either at home or on location.

Years after Sarumba was released, Gering directed a documentary – Violated Paradise (1963) – and then vanished from filmmaking, as did sophomoric scribe Jay Victor and co-producer George P. Quigley, whose only other credits are Murder with Music (1941) and Junction 88 (1947). Cinematographer Don Malkames switched primarily to TV shows from B-movies and shorts, but Julian Roffman managed to learn from his first Hollywood gig and later produced & directed the CanCon classics The Bloody Brood (1959) and the 3D treat The Mask (1961).

Co-star Dowling didn’t fare too badly. The career boost from prior hits The Lost Weekend (1945) and The Blue Dahlia (1946) weren’t sullied by Sarumba, as the actress soon appeared in Orson Welles’ Othello, many TV series (Mike Hammer, Daktari, My Living Doll), and had a small role in the killer Lincoln sedan nonsense The Car (1977). Dee Tatum’s 3 other film credits are Fingerprints Don’t Lie, Inside Straight, and Mask of the Dragon (all 1951), after which she apparently retired and married “Pappy” Boyington, whose WWII career as a fighter pilot became the basis of Bruce Gamble’s biography and same-titled TV series Baa Baa Black Sheep (1976-1978).



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan



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