S is for Soledad

David Melville dishes up another letter from his alphabet soup of spicy Mexican melodrama ~

 CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

S is for Soledad

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What can I say? Soledad must be a popular name in Mexico – in films, at any rate. The ‘R’ entry El rebozo de Soledad (Soledad’s Shawl) was a quasi-melodrama that that sought to ennoble its soap operatics with spiritual and social uplift. The 1947 film Soledad, in contrast, is pure unadulterated soap. One of those relentlessly masochistic melodramas about the joys and sorrows of Mother Love (well, mainly the sorrows) it plays like Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce and Imitation of Life all rolled into one, with songs added. Small wonder it’s one of the classics of the genre, hailed by critics as “the most chemically pure melodrama in the history of Mexican film”. Quite a claim, I know, but Soledad more than lives up to the hype.

Directed by ace melodramatist Miguel Zacarías, it’s the film that established Libertad Lamarque as a top Latin American star. A tango singer from Buenos Aires, Lamarque was a big name in Argentine films of the 30s and early 40s – until an alleged feud with First Lady Eva Perón led her to flee the country and seek refuge further north. Her first Mexican vehicle, Gran Casino (1946), failed dismally, largely because its director was Luis Buñuel, a man spectacularly unsuited to the wallowing orgies of suffering and song that were Libertad’s stock-in-trade. A diva in the grand manner, Lamarque insisted that every detail of her films should be conceived and created in her own inimitable style. Zacarías, unlike Buñuel, was happy to oblige – and Soledad was a thunderous hit.

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In a role that scarcely requires her to act, Libertad plays an ill-treated Argentine refugee who becomes a huge singing star and earns the breathless adulation of all around her. The marquee outside the theatre even bills her as ‘La Novia de América’ (America’s Sweetheart – South, not North, you understand) which was Lamarque’s personal sobriquet in real life. She has a dark secret, of course. (What great star has not?) Her character was brought as an orphan to Mexico from Buenos Aires – that’s one way of explaining her accent – by a rich but cold-hearted family who forced her to work as their maid. The feckless son of the house (Rene Cardona) inveigles her into a secret marriage that turns out to be a sham. By the time she finds out the truth, poor Soledad is already pregnant by this rotter. He dumps her for a wealthy heiress – abandoning her to a life of ignominy as an unwed mother!

Our heroine, in floods of tears, runs away and joins a vaudeville troupe, whose leader looks and sounds like a Latino version of Ethel Merman. (A terrifying thought, I know.) But the evil matriarch of the family traces her to a seedy fleapit theatre and demands she relinquish her baby. The new bride, apparently, is unable to bear children and the family will lose control of her fortune if they fail to come up with an heir. (Invariably, wills in Mexican movies are written, not by lawyers but by some underpaid hack in the Script Department.) As Soledad and the old biddy fight it out in the dressing room, we see a nude stripper (in silhouette, through a thin partition wall) being beaten up by her savage drunken pimp. Clearly, this theatre is No Place To Bring Up A Child. Tearfully but inevitably, Soledad gives her baby away.

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Approximately twenty years later (and, incredibly, a mere 20 minutes into the film) Soledad returns to Mexico City in triumph. She is now Latin America’s most illustrious singing star. Sitting in the Dress Circle at her gala concert is her long-lost daughter (Marga López) who has grown up to be the spoiled-rotten princess of Mexican high society. López (who won an Ariel as Best Supporting Actress) bears an alarming resemblance to Ann Blyth as Veda, the bitchy daughter in Mildred Pierce. I do not think this is accidental. She is, in truth, a thoroughly unpleasant young lady who shouts at the servants and even kicks over a vacuum cleaner in one of her periodic fits of ill temper. Her grandmother and ‘mother’ are dead. Her father is a drunken slob who has already gambled away most of her fortune, but she, of course, doesn’t know that. Yet.

In the audience beside Marga is her young and handsome fiancé (Ruben Rojo), a wannabe songwriter who’s wildly besotted with Soledad. To modern eyes, this makes him the 40s Mexican equivalent of a young man who drags his girlfriend to Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand concerts…but Marga is an old-fashioned kind of a gal. She gets jealous because she thinks he’s about to cheat on her. (Maybe, dear, but not in the way you think.) So she takes a violent dislike to Libertad and dishes her silver lamé Grecian robe as “a bit over the top, vulgar almost”. Mind you, she does have a point– but then, a few scenes later, Marga wears a faux flamenco outfit of truly monumental hideousness, complete with a spangled black mantilla. Girls who live in glass houses…

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With both its leading ladies facing imminent Death by Wardrobe, Soledad has little time left for its very long to-do list. It must reunite its long-lost mother and child. It must also reunite its young lovers (whose mooted marriage looks none too promising, it must be said). There’s also a sleazy and lecherous fortune hunter who is after what’s left of Marga’s inheritance. In the finest Mildred Pierce tradition, Libertad grabs a gun and shoots him full of lead. But don’t worry, there’s still a happy ending. Mother and daughter embrace in triumphal close-up. The camera cuts to each of the other characters, turn by turn, as they burst obligingly into floods of tears. It’s a none-too-subtle hint, but audiences took it at the time.

Nowadays, of course, we’re too sophisticated for that. Or are we? My advice is to suspend judgement until you’ve seen Soledad.

David Melville

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5 Responses to “S is for Soledad”

  1. I think you underrate Bunuel. But then Bunuel underrates Bunuel. I find Gran Casino delightfully bonkers, and very much worthy of a surrealist.

  2. I’m a big Bunuel booster but David M is unconvinced (though I believe he likes a couple of them very much). I’d rate El as one of the finest and most serious (yet funny) Mexican melos.

    Gran Casino has the highland dance to recommend it, and also the stick/mud love scene which Bunuel himself felt was the best thing in the film.

  3. Oh he LOVED mud! See also Mexican Bus Ride and The Illusion Travels By Streetcar

  4. And Belle de Jour and L’Age D’Or.

    Mexican Bus Ride must rank as the most tragically un-evocative title in the whole Bunuel filmography, which features such great, strange titles (including that other public transport classic, Illusion Travels By Streetcar).

  5. david wingrove Says:

    In fact, I love GRAN CASINO. It’s probably my favourite Bunuel movie after BELLE DE JOUR. But it was a flop in its day – and neither Luis nor Libertad was happy with the result!

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