Mardi Gras takes place this year on February 16. Unfortunately, New Orleans (and the surrounding area) has had to cancel most of the Mardi Gras festivities for the 2021 celebration due to COVID-19. At $10.5 billion per year, tourism is a significant part of New Orleans’ economy, and without Mardi Gras, the city will undoubtedly suffer financially from the lack of visitors. So, without the ability to visit this year, I thought it would be fun for all of us to take a look at some films over the years that featured or at least occurred at the New Orleans’ Mardi Gras.
Personally, I enjoy New Orleans when I’m there for work but I likely wouldn’t vacation there. I’m not a party scene guy and prefer Bourbon Street much more in the daytime than at night. For those of you who like that sort of thing, more power to you and no offense meant to locals. I enjoy the tourist spots, the music, the architecture, the atmosphere (the “vibe”) of NOLA while I’m there. Oh, and of course the beignets from Cafe du Monde!
For those unfamiliar, Mardi Gras is more than just drunken debauchery and a loud parade as it’s stereotyped today. Mardi Gras translated into English equates to “Fat Tuesday.” The festival’s history dates back to 17th century medieval Europe with ties to Rome, Venice, France, and the (aptly called) House of the Bourbons. As the French expanded their colonies across the globe, the traditional annual festival of the “Boeuf Gras” or “Fatted Calf” followed.
In March of 1699, the French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived about 50 miles south of New Orleans and named it “Pointe du Mardi Gras” when he realized it was on the eve of the festive holiday. In 1702, he also founded Fort Louis de la Louisiane, which is now the city of Mobile, Alabama. A year later, in 1703, Fort Louis celebrated America’s very first Mardi Gras.
By the late 1830s, New Orleans held annual street processions with colorful masks and costumes (called “maskers”), carriages, and horseback riders celebrating Mardi Gras. Gaslit torches, called “flambeaux,” lit the way giving the event a mystical, romantic, and exciting atmosphere.
In 1875, Governor Warmoth signed the “Mardi Gras Act,” making Fat Tuesday a legal holiday in Louisiana.
Several films have been set in or around New Orleans over the years, showcasing the festival’s bright costumes, colors, and characters. Celebrate your own Mardi Gras this year by checking some of the following movies out!
In chronological order:
1. Flesh and Fantasy (1947) – This is a classic American film if you’re into older movies. The story is told in three acts, each making up its own story. It starts with two men discussing the occult and dark side of New Orleans’ culture. Act One features a homely girl who secretly loves a law student who pays her no attention. On Mardi Gras night, she meets a mysterious stranger who gives her a mask that transforms her into a beautiful woman. The catch? The mask must be back by midnight. In Act Two, a palm reader tells a skeptic that they will murder someone later that night. The skeptic becomes obsessed with the thought, leading to awful consequences. And the Third Act features a high wire artist who dreams of falling and loses his steel nerves. If you like old movies, check this one out.
2. Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953) – I know what you’re thinking, but the title is quite misleading. No one actually goes to Mars in this film, except at the end they do make it to Venus. In typical bumbling fashion, Abbott and Costello accidentally launch themselves in an experimental rocket bound for Mars but wind up in the Louisiana Bayou just in time for Mardi Gras. They stumble upon the festivities and conclude that they had landed on Mars after seeing the costumes and celebration.
3. Mardi Gras (1958) – “Mardi Gras” is a musical comedy starring Pat Boone and Christine Carère. Boone plays a military school cadet who wins a date with a French film actress and “Queen of Mardi Gras” (played by Carère). The two fall in love, but her movie studio wants to capitalize on the romance for publicity’s sake.
4. Easy Rider (1969) – What Mardi Gras list wouldn’t be complete without Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s counter-culture classic set during a tumultuous time in American history? The long road trip ends in a dark scene amidst the insanity of a Mardi Gras festival. Of course, the beautiful festival sequence is followed by the famous acid-trip scene among the massive above-ground crypts in New Orleans’ well-known St. Louis Cemetery. This cemetery scene has made St. Louis Cemetery a tourist-destination and, because of this, New Orleans has banned all filming in cemeteries since.
5. Tightrope (1984) – This mystery/detective film stars Clint Eastwood as a single father and New Orleans detective named Wes Block. Block searches for a serial rapist-murderer, but when he gets too close, the hunter becomes the hunted. There’s an exciting scene towards the end where Clint Eastwood’s character is being stalked at Mardi Gras by the killer, dressed for the festivities.
6. All Dogs Go To Heaven (1989) – Set in 1939 Louisiana, this 80s cartoon follows a dog named Charlie B. Barkin. Charlie runs afoul of his riverboat casino partner Carface, and through a series of events, Charlie dies. In Heaven (of all places), he steals a pocket watch and earns himself some “extra time” on Earth by winding the clock backward. This film has been called “nightmare fuel for children,” and I agree, but there are some great Mardi Gras and New Orleans scenes here. The gang hideout is even in a Mardi Gras float shaped like a creepy skeleton demon.
7. Princess and the Frog (2009) – Complete with a great soundtrack scored by the great Randy Newman, “Princess and the Frog” is one of the growing cadres of Disney’s Princess films. In this film, a Prince from a foreign country comes to visit America during Mardi Gras and seeks a rich American girl to marry. Tiana, the central character, and the Prince spend most of the film as frogs, having fallen victim to an evil witch doctor’s voodoo spells. This movie is full of Louisiana bayou and Mardi Gras magic.
8. Mardi Gras: Spring Break (2011) – This is your typical frat boy film, full of college-age hijinks that probably wouldn’t make it to theaters today in 2021. Think bad versions of American Pie or The Hangover mixed with every stereotype about Mardi Gras. It’s funny in a sophomoric way but if this isn’t your kind of humor, skip this one. I only mention it here because, well… Mardi Gras!
9. Stolen (2012) – Stolen stars Nicholas Cage in this revenge based action/thriller flick when his former bank-robbing partner-in-crime kidnaps his daughter and demands a $10 million ransom. While this is a relatively predictable and sometimes boring action movie, Mardi Gras creates some fun scenes making for a colorful backdrop.
10. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016) – Tom Cruise stars in the sequel to action thriller Jack Reacher as the vigilante on the run. Accused of espionage and treason, he uncovers some deep government conspiracies. This movie includes entertaining chase scenes through the streets, rooftops, and alleyways while the mob of revelers party all around them.