L is for Libertad Lamarque in La Loca

Delighted to bring you another installment of David Wingrove’s A-Z of Mexican Melodrama –

CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

L is for Libertad Lamarque in La Loca(The Madwoman)

In Hollywood in the late 40s, it was the fashion for soignée and glamorous leading ladies to go slowly but photogenically insane. Notable examples were Joan Crawford in Possessed, Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit and Gene Tierney in Whirlpool. The benefits to a star were obvious. She could indulge in the most florid overacting in the name of ‘realism’ and, all going well, be rewarded with a Best Actress nomination into the bargain. (Or even, if she were Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, the Oscar itself!) Clearly, it was a winning formula – and one that was all too ripe for export.

Once it hit Mexico, the Glamorous Star Loses Her Marbles movie got a makeover so torrid it made the gringo prototype look positively tame. La Loca (1951) stars the formidable Libertad Lamarque, an Argentine tango diva who had relocated to Mexico five years before. Driven partly by professional ambition – and partly by the undying enmity of Eva Perón (she had incurred the First Lady’s wrath on a film set in the 40s) – Libertad brought with her a brand of musical melodrama she had pioneered in her native land. One big problem haunts most, if not all, of her films. However overwrought and hysterical the plot and the acting may be, they still cannot match the sheer throbbing emotionalism of Libertad’s voice in song.

A touch of insanity, in that case, was just what the doctor ordered. If La Loca stands today as the ultimate Libertad Lamarque vehicle, that’s not because it’s better made than any of her other films. (Her pet director, Miguel Zacarías, seemed to point the camera at his star and take the rest of the day off.) Rather, it is one film where the operatically unhinged intensity of her performance is justified by a dramatic context. “Loca”, after all, was Libertad’s big hit solo in her first Mexican movie, Gran Casino. Watching the lady self-destruct so melodiously on camera, who would dare to argue with her diagnosis?

The movie opens with a documentary-style peek inside Mexico City’s municipal asylum. We cut, provocatively enough, from a violent schizophrenic throttling his cellmate to a judge passing the death sentence on some hapless offender. Next, from an epileptic in the throes of a fit to some beatniks contorting in a nightclub. (Epilepsy, of course, is a physical and not a mental condition – but at least we know early on that clinical accuracy will not be La Loca’s strong point.) Out on the streets, meanwhile, a disturbed Libertad is wandering with her pet parrot, Archibaldo, perched on her shoulder. She wears a Jazz Age gown that was the last word in chic, circa 1926.

Some idlers in the park hail her arrival, so she obligingly stops and sings her first solo. As a pretext for Libertad to sing, this is no more ludicrous than similar moments in her other movies – and her 20s wardrobe clashes eerily with the 50s ambience all around her. (In a later song-and-dance routine, she’s a dead ringer for Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot.) Sharp-eyed viewers may be reminded of Julieta Serrano, the deranged mother in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, sporting her 60s fashions in 80s Madrid. Fuel to my suspicion that most of the good ideas in most of Pedro Almodóvar’s films are, in fact, stolen.

No sooner has she finished her solo than the police arrest her for causing a public disturbance. She comes to the attention of a handsome young psychiatrist (Rubén Rojo) who identifies her – with a speed and efficiency that are truly remarkable – as a long-lost heiress from Buenos Aires. Disowned for marrying against her father’s will, she went mad in 1936 when her father and her husband both died – and her three-year-old daughter vanished, never to be seen again. Unwilling to commit her to the municipal asylum, the doctor reunites her with some rich but shady relatives, who just happen to live close by in Mexico City.

The family takes her in, but only so they can get their paws on her inheritance. The pater familias – her first cousin by marriage – wants to claim the money on her behalf and then shut her up in a private madhouse. (He’s a crooked psychiatrist, so he owns one.) It’s no surprise that he has a beautiful adopted niece (Alma Delia Fuentes) who feels a close bond with Libertad, and promptly falls in love with the young doctor. The family, meanwhile, wants to marry her off to their son – an oily pseudo-Parisian fop who has, we suspect, only a scant interest in women, but a great and consuming interest in vintage Scotch whisky. “If we win,” he says, “I can get drunk elegantly for the rest of my life.”

Naturally, it will take a few more plot-twists (not to mention some impassioned musical numbers) to bring mother and daughter to a final tear-stained clinch. The standout is a lavish soirée, thrown by the family to reintroduce Libertad to ‘high’ society. (“We have to invite some aristocrats,” the son quips. “That’s the only way her madness won’t show.”) For this one scene, la loca throws off her 20s garb and dons a sheer black evening dress with a shoulder-bow roughly the size of the Hindenburg. Led down the grand staircase by her daughter-who-doesn’t-know-it-yet, Libertad sings a heart-rending version of the Carlos Gardel classic “Volver”. This song, too, shows up in an Almodóvar film (alas, in a dubbed performance by the talent-free Penélope Cruz).

Like all the best melodramas from Mexico and beyond, La Loca has the courage of its own absurdity. Every detail of it is unbelievable and overblown, yet its power can move even hardened cynics to tears. It’s beyond even Almodóvar to copy that.

David Melville

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16 Responses to “L is for Libertad Lamarque in La Loca”

  1. You’re quite right about this sort of film being what Almodovar aspires to, but rarely gets within shouting distance of.

    Love Libertad in Gran Casino. Amaizingly its director, Luis Bunuel, didn’t care for it. He’s wrong. Easily one of the high points of his Mexican period.

    Libertad is in many ways remindful of Zarah Leander.

  2. I like Gran Casino, especially the kilt dance. And Bunuel did fondly remember the cutaway to the stick being thrust into an oily mud puddle during a love scene, an effect worthy of Guy Grand.

  3. Oily mud at 01:07:10, followed IMMEDIATELY by kilts!

  4. david wingrove Says:

    Yes, I agree that Libertad has qualities in common with Zarah Leander, but isn’t that largely down to the kind of films that both ladies appeared in? Libertad proved to be a far more durable star. She was also – quite unlike poor Zarah – a genuinely gifted singer and actress.

    Another interesting case for comparison is the great Spanish star of the 30s, Imperio Argentina. Her career, like Zarah’s, was tarnished by her political affiliations (she and her husband Florian Rey were staunch supporters of Franco) but she was still fondly remembered when she died in 2003 at the the age of 96.

    Is there a certain style of musical melodrama that tends to flourish under nasty right-wing dictatorships? It’s a tradition that certainly continued with the films of Sara Montiel in the 50s and 60s – which remain camp classics in Spain to this day!

  5. I was trying to think of examples from the US and UK, but it seems true that the musicals in English-speaking territories tended to be more lightweight, lest angst-ridden.

    Was there a musical melodrama tradition in Italy under Mussolini?

  6. david wingrove Says:

    Not really to the same extent, but they had film adaptations of operas that served more or less the same function.

    There was no great Italian musical diva of the 30s and 40s – although Isa Miranda does some fabulous musical numbers in the 1942 film ZAZA.

  7. - which I must watch!

  8. Brazil had more than a few, to balance out the chanchadas. Big ol’ musical melos. I’m trying to remember the one I’ve seen, I’m no expert on the stuff, but it involved a poor man winning a radio contest with his profoundly sad baritone, and being corrupted by it, having to leave and become a bum in a factory town, and dying of a wasting disease in his lover’s arms. I hope that counts.

  9. It sounds like it would. Although where’s the diva?

  10. If I remember correctly, this one was behind the camera. The woman who directed the film was a big starlet married to the world’s most depressing baritone.

  11. I found the film, O Ebrio, The Drunkard. Here’s a video of him in his decline.

  12. This being the song that wins him the radio contest.

  13. I like the guy with the glinting who strolls on and stares at him!

  14. That would be the evil radio host who exploits this golden throated citizen’s god-given talent and sullies his mind with avaricious thoughts.

  15. Oh yeah, he looks like the type.

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