“La Fiesta de Santa Barbara” is a very colorful, very wacky musical comedy short from MGM, featuring a collection of many of their greatest stars at the time. It ostensibly takes place at a Spanish/Mexican-themed festival in Santa Barbara (though it certainly appears to be a backlot production), and it’s narrated in the classic newsreel style so as to properly highlight all of these famous faces.
It’s a very goofy film, and seems to be mostly strung together to show off the MGM talent in vivid color photography–which, let’s be clear, is totally fine when you have people like Gary Cooper and Buster Keaton in your back pocket. Most of the actors (which also include Ida Lupino, Robert Taylor, and Harpo Marx, among others) appear for only a few moments to nod at the camera; a few stick around to do a short song, dance, or comedy bit. The narrator, Pete Smith (of the Pete Smith Specialties), deftly maneuvers the tongue-in-cheek Spanglish lines, welcoming viewers by asking them, “Cómo está usted, my little tamales?” and helpfully pointing out that the word “fiesta” comes from the Spanish word “fiesta,” which means… “fiesta.”
The film is a curious amalgamation of Latin culture, sadly characteristic of the time, and we see Spanish matadors accessorized with Mexican sombreros and serapes, and flamenco dancers dressed in wide hoop skirts. It could be a commentary on Americans’ tendency to deem similar foreign cultures as being one and the same… but I suspect it has more to do with raiding the costume and props departments with whatever Latin-ish materials were on hand. Of course, it was 1935, so I’ll try not to take it too personally.
The film was nominated for an Oscar, though it lost to Warner Brothers’ “Give Me Liberty” in the short film (color) category. Nowadays, its more lasting legacy comes from That’s Entertainment, where it’s featured in the form of a clip of the Gumm sisters–who’d recently started going by “Garland” by this time–singing “La Cucaracha.” Judy Garland is only about 13 years old here, and this was her final onscreen appearance alongside her sisters.
The event itself is still going on today, as it has been since 1924, though not quite in the same form as it was depicted in the film. It now goes by the name of “Old Spanish Days,” and the highlight is a parade processional, with a market, performances, and other events surrounding it. It’s worth noting that the real-life version does also combine Mexican and Spanish influences, but they’re not used quite as interchangeably as they are in the film. The festival intends to depict Santa Barbara’s early “rancho” period of 1830-1865, when the governance of California was in the process of transferring from Spain to Mexico and, ultimately, to the United States, and cultural traditions in the area were actively shifting and changing.
“La Fiesta de Santa Barbara” takes a great amount of liberties with both Latin culture and the actual Fiesta event itself, but it’s filmed in such a way that it can’t really be confused for reality, despite its documentary-like premise. From the heightened, vivid coloration to the cheesy breaking of the fourth wall, everything about this short screams HOLLYWOOD PRODUCTION, and it’s definitely a fun reel of film history.
This short can be tracked down on YouTube fairly easily, but it’s also available in more permanent form on the DVD of For Me and My Gal.