Cuando Quiere Un Mexicano
The Wonderful World of Classic Mexican Cinema
by Donny Jacobs
Handsome and virile charros with smoking hot pistoles in both hands; snake-hipped México City temptresses wiggling to a frantic mambo beat; zany Spanish-speaking comedians whose rubbery facial expressions unfailingly provoke fits of laughter; hulking masked wrestlers rushing to the aid of busty Latin damsels in distress. A noisy arena for staging peleas de gallos. Young couples taking romantic gondola trips down the beautiful river canals of Xochimilco. A smoke-filled cantina jammed to the rafters with rowdy people throwing back shots of Tequila. Guitar-strumming mariachis serenading shy señoritas. Ancient Aztec mummies on the rampage! Fresh flowers laid at the feet of the Virgen of Guadalupe. ¡Qué viva la raza! Nothing but big sombreros, colorful serapes, white lace rebozos and bushy black bigotes as far as the eye can see. All this and more can be found in the fascinating films made in México during that country's Golden Age of Cinema, a twenty-year period that ran roughly from 1936 to 1956.
During the middle years of the 20th century, Mexican films were hailed across Latin America and the world for their style and quality. Before then, they were a pale shadow of their North-American counterparts. While the United States was producing many movies of high artistic value in the Silent Film era, México was still recovering from its bloody revolution of 1910-17. Under-funded and plagued by poor technical equipment, its film industry limped through the 1920s. Only after the first Mexican sound feature, Santa, was released in 1931 did fortunes begin to change. In 1936, millions flocked to Mexico City movie houses to see the first box office smash, Allá en el Rancho Grande. This film, directed by Fernando de Fuentes and starring Tito Guízar, established lighthearted rural stories filled with colorful folkloric references as a staple of Mexican cinema. The profits Rancho and other movies like it generated in the 1930s shifted México's nascent film colony into high gear. However, events following the outbreak of World War II in Europe would shift the colony into overdrive and officially usher in the Golden Age.
The administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt began promoting cultural exchange with Latin America as part of its wartime Good Neighbor Policy. For México, this meant not only an increase in foreign aid, but partial funding of its film industry. Hollywood sent shipments of prime film stock, new equipment and technical experts who stayed for extended visits. During this period, the Mexican government began subsidizing film production as well. Buenos Aires had been Latin America's film capital in the 1930s, but the flush of Yankee cash allowed México City to claim that title between the years 1941 and 1945. The construction of Estudios Churubusco, the de luxe soundstage facilty where most of the great Mexican movies of the '40s and '50s were made, was a joint venture between México's Banco Nacional Cinematográfico and Hollywood's famous RKO motion picture company.
For many years, these studios were considered state of the art when it came to producing Spanish-language films. The Churubusco era saw several gifted Mexican film directors come to prominence, among them Emilio Fernández, Raúl de Anda, Juan Bastillo Oro, Fernando Soler, Miguel Zacarías and Ismael Rodríguez. Leading the way, however, was Spanish emigré Luis Buñuel, who won international acclaim for incorporating elements of surrealism into his pictures. Cameraman Gabriel Figueroa and others elevated México's standard of cinematography. The first full-length Mexican film to be shot in color, Así Se Quiere en Jalisco, appeared in 1942 (unfortunately, the color print has been lost). However, México became famous for its soft-focus black-and-white and smoky sepia-toned movies. Their breathtaking images rolled elegantly across the screen like polished Rolls Royce touring cars.
As they grew in popularity, Mexican films split off into seven or eight different categories. There were películas de folklore, films with heavy folkloric trappings that might be comedies, dramas or pageants. There were películas religiosas based on Bible stories, and películas historicas based on important events in Mexican history. Películas de cabaretera were a uniquely Mexican genre focusing on the lives and loves of cabaret singers and showgirls. These stories turned on themes of prostitution and organized crime, and usually ended tragically. There were películas de melodrama, characterized by over-the-top acting, white knuckle angst and endless sobbing; these films are the direct ancestors of the telenovelas that have recently come to dominate Spanish-language TV.
Películas myteriosas were mystery and horror films, and their motley assortment of maniacal murderers, mummies, vampires, scorpions and giant tarantulas proved quite popular internationally. Películas de comedia featured madcap humor and sight gags tailored to Latin-American tastes. In later years, the popularity of stories about lucha libre masked wrestlers and Zorro-style costumed heroes established an action film category called películas de aventura. There was crossover, of course, but the categories remained fairly distinct, and each claimed its own roster of stars.
Tito Guízar, who soon left the country to make film and concert appearances in the United States, was the first true Mexican film star. However, most of the major superstars didn't appear until the 1940s. Regal María Félix was the epitome of the fiera, a woman of fiery temperament who challenged men at every opportunity. She was nothing less than a Mexican Bette Davis. Holding forth in such notable melodramas as Río Escondido (1947), Maclovia (1948) and El Rapto (1953), she reigned as Mexico's greatest female star. Jorge Negrete (who later married Félix) was the noble yet hot-tempered singing charro. Negrete represented the ultimate symbol of Mexican tradition and machismo in folkloric films like El Fanfarrón (1938), Tal para Cual (1952) and the Cinecolor remake of Allá en El Rancho Grande(1948).
His successor Pedro Infante added to this characterization a bare-chested sex appeal and a little boy petulance that female fans went wild for. Blockbusters like Los Tres García (1946) vaulted him to fame, and the dramatic trilogy Nosotros los Pobres(1947), Ustedes los Ricos (1948) and Pepe el Toro (1952) made him a superstar. In such comedy films as Hay Muertos que No Hacen Ruido (1946) and El Rey del Barrio (1949), Germán "Tin-Tán" Valdés was the homely-but-lovable urban thug, a half-androgynous, half-macho clown who sported zoot suits, loved American Jazz and, despite his perpetually leering demeanor, always managed to win the girl. However, his best showcases were satirical tour de forces like La Marca del Zorrillo and Simbad el Mareado (both from 1950), where he and his sidekick Marcelo used brilliant musical comedy schtick to twist popular legends beyond recognition.
Mario Moreno "Cantinflas" Reyes, who was hailed as México's Charlie Chaplin, played a bumbling country bumpkin and comic provocateur in a series of highly successful films. Adalberto "Resortes" Martínez brought formidable dancing skills to bear on roles in comedic films like Rumba Caliente (1952). Ninón Sevilla, the Cuban-born enfant terrible of Mexican cabaretera films, was the strawberry-blonde bad girl with a bratty pout on her face; starring in movies with titles like Coqueta (1949) and Perdida (1950), she played the "fallen woman" who usually ended up dead . . . but not before slipping into a sequined Carmen Miranda costume and shaking her nalgas in a big production number!
Arriving at the tail end of the Golden Age, legendary wrestling champion Santo (Rodolfo Gúzman Huerta) became the undisputed king of lucha libre adventure flicks. Other box office draws included romantic leading man Arturo de Córdova (who also starred in North-American films), Rosa Carmina, David Silva, Pedro Armendariz (whose flawless English made him a natural for roles in Hollywood westerns), Lilia Prado, singer/actor Luis Aguilar, Antonio Badú, Sara García (in feisty matron roles), Hollywood imports Dolores del Río and Ricardo Montalbán (who became bigger stars in México) and the comic sidekick of countless films, Fernando "Mantequilla" Soto.
With México serving as the Hollywood of Latin-America during the 1940s, actors from countries far and near traveled there to make Spanish-language films. Some, like Argentina's Libertad Lamarque, Czechoslovakia's Miroslava Stern and Spain's Lola Flores and Sarita Montiel became major stars. Others, like Spokane, Washington-born exotic dancer Yolanda "Tongolele" Montés, landed mostly featured roles in the films of established stars like Tin-Tán. However, the icon who appeared on Mexican movie screens more than any other wasn't from Latin America or Europe. The Virgin Mary hailed from the Middle East! Classic Mexican films nearly always had strong Catholic overtones, and scenes of characters praying to la Virgen abounded. Often, such pious scenes would be followed by a hot mambo number!
There was no such thing as a Mexican musical, per se. That's because every film had music in it! You wouldn't sit long in a México City movie theatre before mariachis, mambo bands, guitar trios and/or bolero singers appeared on screen. There were always plenty of opportunities for singing stars like Pedro Vargas, Lola Beltrán, Toña la Negra, Miguel Aceves Mejía or Trío Los Panchos to get movie exposure. Cuban expatriate Pérez Prado, later to be known as America's Mambo King, had cameos in dozens of Mexican films, and he served as music director for dozens more. More often, though, musical direction was handled by native-born maestros like Manuel Esperón, Raúl Lavista, Antonio Diaz Conde or Agustín Lara.
The first husband of María Félix, Lara was the most acclaimed composer in México during the Golden Age. His music featured prominently in 1931's groundbreaking Santa. By no means handsome, but earnest and compelling on screen, he was also an actor who co-starred in numerous cabaretera flicks. The music and dance scenes Lara and others scored for Mexican films were elaborate and exciting; 90% were shot in black-and-white, but they rivaled Technicolor musical numbers produced by Hollywood studios in nearly every respect. (Someone should seriously consider marketing a series of Mexican That's Entertainment-style documentaries.) Members of the highly respected Ballet Folklorico de México appeared in many of these productions, but foreign dance troupes like José Greco and His Spanish Ballet or North America's Katherine Dunham Dancers might also show up unexpectedly on screen.
Mexican films during the Golden Age were far more violent and had much franker sexual content than their North-American counterparts. Female nudity began appearing as early as 1955. Dancing was suggestive and sometimes (gasp!) interracial. Alcoholism and drug abuse, both major taboos in 1930s and '40s Hollywood films, were depicted regularly. Some examples: In the 1941 film ¡Ay, Jalisco! No Te Rajes, Jorge Negrete puts a bullet through a man's head at close range. In the 1955 film Amor y Pecado, a man kisses a woman's crotch right after she injects heroin into her bare thigh! In the 1951 blockbuster A Toda Maquina, Pedro Infante comes very close to fondling a woman's breasts through her blouse. 1949's La Mujer del Puerto (originally filmed in 1933) includes a scene where a pimp proposes three-way sex between himself, a "john" and cabaretera María Antonieta Pons.
The most (in) famous classic Mexican film is arguably Ninón Sevilla's Mulata, in which dozens of nude women gyrate across the screen and Pedro Armendariz exposes a woman's breasts. There's occasional homo-eroticism, too, sometimes beneath the surface (in charro pictures) and sometimes explicit (in prison melodramas). Children and elderly people are victimized, beaten and/or killed. In addition, countless suicides, incestuous rapes, steamy bedroom seductions and grisly auto accidents are on display. Sex, violence and sensationalism are not legitimate reasons to see these films, however. They should be seen, and appreciated, for their wonderful Latin ambiance, their idyllic scenery, their dazzling musical sequences, and the highly-charged emotional performances from the actors.
Mexican film posters (carteles) are also worth seeking out. Garish but beautiful, classic Mexican one-sheets are a riot of color and motion. Standard elements are cartoon graphics, exaggerated facial expressions, sexy, semi-clad women, dramatic use of light and shadow, ghostly images haunting the background, traditional Mexican costumes, of course, and frequently, smiling skeleton heads (no doubt borrowed from Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations)!
Lobby cards with similar aesthetic attributes were produced as well. These stunning pieces of art outstrip most of their US counterparts in visual appeal; original copies of posters for films like Cuando Quiere Un Méxicano (1944), Doña Diabla (1949) Las Interesadas (1952) and El Mariachi Desconocido (1953) sell for hundreds of dollars on the collector's market. The most important Mexican poster artists were Ernesto García Cabrál, Francisco Rivero Gil, Juanino Renau Berenguer and his brother Josep, Juan Antonio Vargas Briones, Arias Bernal and José G. Cruz. Many others produced their work anonymously for advertising agencies like Ars-Una and Vargas. Sad to say, their names are forever lost to history.
Once the War ended, US funds to México began to dry up, as did shipments of free film stock. It signaled the beginning of the end of the Golden Age. It didn't have to end so soon, but the Mexican film industry had failed to re-invest its profits wisely. As serious a problem as that was, a worse one was the greedy and selfish business practices that had developed. What funding remained was largely pocketed by a small and powerful clique of producers. Profit, not creativity, became the main concern of these men. Projects by newer, younger talents were passed over, and fresh ideas were stifled. As a result, the product became stagnant and ticket sales dropped off.
Other major setbacks occurred in the '50s. The peso was devalued. The industry's biggest box-office star, Pedro Infante, burned to death in a 1957 airplane crash. Then television and Rock 'n' Roll music captured the imagination of the Mexican public, and ticket sales went into a nose dive. The last great film of the '50s is widely agreed to be Tizoc, starring María Félix and Pedro Infante. Filmed in 1956 and released after Infante's tragic demise, this tale of doomed interracial love won a raft of Mexican Oscars (Arieles), a Hollywood Golden Globe and a Silver Bear award from the Berlin International Film Festival. However, instead of being symbols of triumph, those awards ended up symbolizing nails in the coffin lid of the Mexican film industry. By 1958, three of Mexico City's most successful movie companies had gone out of business. Not unlike that aforementioned Aztec mummy, Cine Mexicano did manage to rise from the dead. Every now and then it produced another great movie, but forty years passed before quality Mexican films appeared again with any degree of consistency.
The Golden Age of Mexican cinema is long-gone, but the advent of home video and DVD technology makes it accessible to today's film buffs. Companies like Laguna Films and Alterfilms distribute many classic Mexican movies inside the United States. Most public libraries maintain a collection of Spanish and Latin-American DVDs and, depending on what part of the country you live in, so do many video stores. You can also catch Golden Age flicks on Spanish-language cable TV networks like Telemundo and Univisión. Don't worry if you can't speak Spanish; the action in these films is often so broadly drawn, you can follow the storyline without having to understand what the actors are saying. In addition, video and DVD boxes sometimes contain story synopses in English.
Try either version of Allá en El Rancho Grande, if you can find copies. Sample classic Mexican melodrama with 1948's Angelitos Negros, a Pedro Infante film that deals with sensitive racial issues. Rent 1956's Adan y Eva, and you can enjoy an authentic Biblical story with daring nude scenes! You'll catch Tin-Tán at his farcical best in 1947's Músico, Poeta y Loco. See the whiplash hips of Yolanda Montés take a star turn in 1948's Han Matado a Tongolele. Ninón Sevilla's 1950 box office smash Aventurera is a must-see movie, as is the Arturo de Córdova murder mystery El Hombre sin Rostro from the same year. 1952's Huracán Ramírez is one of the most famous of the masked wrestler adventure films. México Lindo y Querido may be the closest you'll ever come to finding a true Mexican musical; this 1958 movie (like Así Se Quiere en Jalisco, originally distributed in color) overflows with patriotic pageantry and traditional music.
Also recommended is the book Cine Mexicano(Chronicle Books, 2001), a collection of classic film poster reproductions taken from the Harlingen, Texas-based Agrasánchez Film archive. A fabulous 2002 calendar of the same title features 24 poster reproductions from the book, and is worth tracking down as well. Ven allá, amigo . . . ¡no seas un baboso! Don't be a gringo snob! Free your mind and your nalgas will follow. Persuade yourself to step outside of your own culture long enough to try something totally fresh and different. If you do, you may find yourself falling in love with the rustic charm, romantic passions, intoxicating music and Latin razzle dazzle that is classic Mexican cinema.